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Photograph by Myra Finkelstein
DIDN'T ASK FOR THIS: UCSC researcher Myra Finkelstein has found that lead poisoning from abandoned Navy buildings on the Midway Islands is killing Laysan albatross chicks.

Trouble on Albatross Island

A UCSC researcher discovers tragedy in the middle of the Pacific

By Curtis Cartier

IN THE VIDEO, a mottled Laysan albatross chick waddles slowly in a circle, clacking its beak angrily in the camera's direction. Its scruffy brown wings hang limply at each side, occasionally fluttering and dragging in the soil as the young bird struggles to defend itself from the perceived threat. Around its gray webbed feet, tiny white flecks dot the ground.

"Paint chips," says UC–Santa Cruz assistant researcher Myra Finkelstein, the woman behind the camera, who's now watching the video on her home PC. "Lead-based paint chips cover the ground in a lot of places. It's real easy for the young birds to ingest them."

Soon the chick will be dead. The debilitating neurological disease "droopwing" has already left its wings paralyzed. If the disease itself doesn't kill the chick, infected wounds from its dragging wings or starvation once its parents migrate almost certainly will.

For Finkelstein, the bird's plight is distressingly common on the Midway Islands. In a 2003 research paper, she showed that paint chips from an abandoned U.S. Navy base there are directly responsible for an outbreak of droopwing. Her latest study, published in the science journal Animal Conservation, shows the disease is causing a substantive drop in the Laysan population worldwide. Her research prompted a Feb. 1 announcement by the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity that it intends to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its failure to protect the threatened seabird.

"Myra's research showed that up to 10,000 chicks are dying on Midway every year," says Shaye Wolf, staff biologist with the CBD, adding that the group also plans to sue the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources. "That's not acceptable. We're filing suit to start an immediate cleanup of the contamination on Midway so that thousands more birds don't die from lead poisoning. USFWS has stood by while there is an immediate solution to the problem: clean up the paint."

Located about 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu and best known as the site of the decisive 1942 victory by the U.S. Navy over the Japanese, the islands that make up the Midway Atoll have a total area of only 2.5 square miles. Neverthleless, they serve as breeding grounds for roughly 500,000 pairs of Laysan albatrosses—71 percent of the worldwide population.

The birds are known for their gregarious personalities, brilliant white and charcoal feathers and dark "eye-shadow" markings. They were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900s and are now listed as "vulnerable to extinction" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In all, 19 protected bird species totaling 2 million animals make their nests on Midway.

The main land mass, Sand Island, was an important refueling stop for ships coming to and from Japan but was largely abandoned after World War II and officially closed in 1993. With the closure of the base, the U.S. Navy turned over control of Midway to the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, part of FWS—effectively passing the buck on cleaning up the toxic mess left behind.

"We only receive so much funding to clean up the buildings. And it's very expensive work," says John Klavitter, co-author of Finkelstein's latest paper and a deputy refuge manager currently stationed at Midway. "The good news is that in 2004 [after Finkelstein's initial research] we started to receive funding to remove paint from the buildings. We haven't cleaned up the contaminated soil yet, though."

Time is of the essence. "Right now the eggs are just starting to hatch," he says. "As the chicks grow they will start to pick up the lead paint and we'll start seeing the first signs of droopwing in April. They'll be dead by June or July."

Currently, 24 of the 95 offending buildings on Sand Island have been stripped and cleaned. Ten more are slated for cleanup this year. The cleanup plan, however, does not extend beyond 2010. Finkelstein says she hopes the CDB lawsuit will help change that.

"These birds need help now," she says. "It's a fixable problem, just not an easy one."

To see video of Laysan albatross chicks on Midway, visit and click 'News.'/

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