'Great Pacific garbage patch' sprawling with far more debris than thought

The patch of detritus is more than twice the size of France and is up to 16 times larger than previously estimated.

 The Ocean Cleanup at work. It is estimated there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by the year 2050. Photograph: The Ocean Cleanup

The Ocean Cleanup at work. It is estimated there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by the year 2050. Photograph: The Ocean Cleanup

An enormous area of rubbish floating in the Pacific Ocean is teeming with far more debris than previously thought, heightening alarm that the world’s oceans are being increasingly choked by trillions of pieces of plastic.

The sprawling patch of detritus – spanning 1.6m sq km, (617,763 sq miles) more than twice the size of France – contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic, new research published in Scientific Reports has found. This mass of waste is up to 16 times larger than previous estimates and provides a sobering challenge to a team that will start an ambitious attempt to clean up the vast swath of the Pacific this summer.

The analysis, conducted by boat and air surveys taken over two years, found that pollution in the so-called Great Pacific garbage patch is almost exclusively plastic and is “increasing exponentially”. Microplastics, measuring less than 0.5cm (0.2in), make up the bulk of the estimated 1.8tn pieces floating in the garbage patch, which is kept in rough formation by a swirling ocean gyre.

While tiny fragments of plastic are the most numerous, nearly half of the weight of rubbish is composed of discarded fishing nets. Other items spotted in the stew of plastic include bottles, plates, buoys, ropes and even a toilet seat.

“I’ve been doing this research for a while, but it was depressing to see,” said Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer and lead author of the study. Lebreton works for the Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch-based non-profit that is aiming to tackle the garbage patch.

“There were things you just wondered how they made it into the ocean. There’s clearly an increasing influx of plastic into the garbage patch.

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Destruction of nature as dangerous as climate change, scientists warn

Unsustainable exploitation of the natural world threatens food and water security of billions of people, major UN-backed biodiversity study reveals.

  A dead Bodó fish in front of stranded floating houses on the bed of Negro River, a major tributary of the Amazon River, during a drought in 2015. Photograph: Raphael Alves/AFP/Getty Images

 A dead Bodó fish in front of stranded floating houses on the bed of Negro River, a major tributary of the Amazon River, during a drought in 2015. Photograph: Raphael Alves/AFP/Getty Images

Human destruction of nature is rapidly eroding the world’s capacity to provide food, water and security to billions of people, according to the most comprehensive biodiversity study in more than a decade.

Such is the rate of decline that the risks posed by biodiversity loss should be considered on the same scale as those of climate change, noted the authors of the UN-backed report, which was released in Medellin, Colombia on Friday.

Among the standout findings are that exploitable fisheries in the world’s most populous region – the Asia-Pacific – are on course to decline to zero by 2048; that freshwater availability in the Americas has halved since the 1950s and that 42% of land species in Europe have declined in the past decade.

Underscoring the grim trends, this report was released in the week that the decimation of French bird populations was revealed, as well as the death of the last male northern white rhinoceros, leaving the species only two females from extinction.

“The time for action was yesterday or the day before,” said Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) which compiled the research. “Governments recognise we have a problem. Now we need action, but unfortunately the action we have now is not at the level we need.”

“We must act to halt and reverse the unsustainable use of nature or risk not only the future we want but even the lives we currently lead,” he added.

Divided into four regional reports, the study of studies has been written by more than 550 experts from over 100 countries and taken three years to complete. Approved by the governments of 129 members nations, the IPBES reports aim to provide a knowledge base for global action on biodiversity in much the same way that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is used by policymakers to set carbon emission targets.

 Protecting biodiversity is “as important as fighting climate change,’ said Robert Watson, chair of IPBES speaking in Medellin, Colombia on 22 March Photograph: Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

Protecting biodiversity is “as important as fighting climate change,’ said Robert Watson, chair of IPBES speaking in Medellin, Colombia on 22 March Photograph: Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

Although poaching often grabs the headlines for the demise of the rhino and other animals, worldwide the biggest threats to nature are from habitat loss, invasive species, chemicals and climate change.

Conversion of forests to croplands and wetlands to shrimp farms has fed a human population that has more than doubled since the 1960s, but at a devastating cost to other species – such as pollinating insects and oxygen-producing plants – on which our climate, economy and well-being depend.

In the Americas, more than 95% of high-grass prairies have been transformed into farms, along with 72% of dry forests and 88% of the Atlantic forests, notes the report. The Amazon rainforest is still mostly intact, but it is rapidly diminishing and degrading along with an even faster disappearing cerrado (tropical savannah). Between 2003 to 2013, the area under cultivation in Brazil’s northeast agricultural frontier more than doubled to 2.5m hectares, according to the report.

“The world has lost over 130m hectares of rainforests since 1990 and we lose dozens of species every day, pushing the Earth’s ecological system to its limit,” said Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN Development Programme. “Biodiversity and the ecosystem services it supports are not only the foundation for our life on Earth, but critical to the livelihoods and well-being of people everywhere.”

The rate of decline is moreover accelerating. In the Americas – which has about 40% of the world’s remaining biodiversity – the regional population is gobbling up resources at twice the rate of the global average. Despite having 13% of the people on the planet, it is using a quarter of the resources, said Jake Rice, a co-chair of the Americas assessment.

Since the start of colonisation by Europeans 500 years ago, he said 30% of biodiversity has been lost in the region. This will rise to 40% in the next 10 years unless policies and behaviours are transformed.

“It will take fundamental change in how we live as individuals, communities and corporations,” he said. “We keep making choices to borrow from the future to live well today. We need a different way of thinking about economics with a higher accountability of the costs in the future to the benefits we take today,” Rice said.

“It’s because of us,” added Mark Rounsevell, co-chair of the European assessment. “We are responsible for all of the declines of biodiversity. We need to decouple economic growth from degradation of nature. We need to measure wealth beyond economic indicators. GDP only goes so far.”

The authors stressed the close connection between climate change and biodiversity loss, which are adversely affecting each other. By 2050, they believe climate change could replace land-conversion as the main driver of extinction.

In many regions, the report says current biodiversity trends are jeopardising UN global development goals to provide food, water, clothing and housing. They also weaken natural defences against extreme weather events, which will become more common due to climate change.

Although the number of conservation areas has increased, most governments are failing to achieve the biodiversity targets set at the 2010 UN conference in Aichi, Japan. In the Americas, only 20% of key biodiversity areas are protected.

The authors urged an end to subsidies for agriculture and energy that are encouraging unsustainable production. The European Union’s support for fishing was among those cited for criticism. Watson also urged people to switch to a more sustainable diet (less beef, more chicken and vegetables) and to waste less food, water and energy.

There are glimmers of hope. In northern Asia, forest cover has increased by more than 22% as a result of tree-planting programs, mostly in China. But this was from a very low base and with far fewer species than in the past. In Africa, there has been a partial recovery of some species, though there is still a long way to go.

Watson – a former chair of the IPCC and a leading figure in the largely successful campaign to reduce the gases that were causing a hole in the ozone layer – said the biodiversity report was the most comprehensive since 2005 and the first of its type that involved not just scientists, but governments and other stakeholders.

Despite the grim outlook, he said there was cause for hope. The report outlines several different future paths, depending on the policies adopted by governments and the choices made by consumers. None completely halt biodiversity loss, but the worst-case scenarios can be avoided with greater conservation efforts. The missing link is to involve policymakers across government and to accept that biodiversity affects every area of the economy. Currently, these concerns are widely accepted by foreign and environment ministries; the challenge is to move the debate to incorporate this in other areas of government, such as agriculture, energy and water. Businesses and individual consumers also need to play a more responsible role, said Watson.

“We don’t make recommendations because governments don’t like being told what to do. So, instead, we give them options,” he said.

The IPBES report will be used to inform decision-makers at a major UN conference later this year. Signatories to the Convention for Biodiversity will meet in Sharm El-Sheikh in November to discuss ways to raise targets and strengthen compliance. But there have been more than 140 scientific reports since 1977, almost all of which have warned of deterioration of the climate or natural world. Without more pressure from civil society, media and voters, governments have been reluctant to sacrifice short-term economic goals to meet the longer-term environmental challenge to human wellbeing.

“Biodiversity is under serious threat in many regions of the world and it is time for policymakers to take action at national, regional and global levels,” said José Graziano da Silva, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Others have put the crisis in starker terms. Biologist Paul Ehrlich, has warned that civilisational collapse is a “near certainty” in the next few decades due to the destruction of the natural world.

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By Jonathan Watts

Empty half the Earth of its humans. It's the only way to save the planet.

There are now twice as many people as 50 years ago. But, as EO Wilson has argued, they can all survive – in cities.

  ‘We are mongrel creatures on a mongrel planet, and we have to be flexible to survive’ … Wind river, Yukon, Canada. Photograph: Peter Mather

 ‘We are mongrel creatures on a mongrel planet, and we have to be flexible to survive’ … Wind river, Yukon, Canada. Photograph: Peter Mather

Discussing cities is like talking about the knots in a net: they’re crucial, but they’re only one part of the larger story of the net and what it’s supposed to do. It makes little sense to talk about knots in isolation when it’s the net that matters.

Cities are part of the system we’ve invented to keep people alive on Earth. People tend to like cities, and have been congregating in them ever since the invention of agriculture, 10,000 or so years ago. That’s why we call it civilisation. This origin story underlines how agriculture made cities possible, by providing enough food to feed a settled crowd on a regular basis. Cities can’t work without farms, nor without watersheds that provide their water. So as central as cities are to modern civilisation, they are only one aspect of a system.

There are nearly eight billion humans alive on the planet now, and that’s a big number: more than twice as many as were alive 50 years ago. It’s an accidental experiment with enormous stakes, as it isn’t clear that the Earth’s biosphere can supply that many people’s needs – or absorb that many wastes and poisons – on a renewable and sustainable basis over the long haul. We’ll only find out by trying it.

 ‘Right now we are not succeeding’ … an aerial view of houses in Florida. Photograph: Alamy

‘Right now we are not succeeding’ … an aerial view of houses in Florida. Photograph: Alamy

Right now we are not succeeding. The Global Footprint Network estimates that we use up our annual supply of renewable resources by August every year, after which we are cutting into non-renewable supplies – in effect stealing from future generations. Eating the seed corn, they used to call it. At the same time we’re pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate that is changing the climate in dangerous ways and will certainly damage agriculture.

This situation can’t endure for long – years, perhaps, but not decades. The future is radically unknowable: it could hold anything from an age of peaceful prosperity to a horrific mass-extinction event. The sheer breadth of possibility is disorienting and even stunning. But one thing can be said for sure: what can’t happen won’t happen. Since the current situation is unsustainable, things are certain to change.

Cities emerge from the confusion of possibilities as beacons of hope. By definition they house a lot of people on small patches of land, which makes them hugely better than suburbia. In ecological terms, suburbs are disastrous, while cities can perhaps work.

The tendency of people to move to cities, either out of desire or perceived necessity, creates a great opportunity. If we managed urbanisation properly, we could nearly remove ourselves from a considerable percentage of the the planet’s surface. That would be good for many of the threatened species we share this planet with, which in turn would be good for us, because we are completely enmeshed in Earth’s web of life.

 A farmer at work near the village of Lok Ma Chau, outside Shenzhen, Hong Kong. Photograph: Jerome Favre/EPA

A farmer at work near the village of Lok Ma Chau, outside Shenzhen, Hong Kong. Photograph: Jerome Favre/EPA

Here I’m referring to the plan EO Wilson has named Half Earth. His book of the same title is provocative in all the best ways, and I think it has been under-discussed because the central idea seems so extreme. But since people are leaving the land anyway and streaming into cities, the Half Earth concept can help us to orient that process, and dodge the sixth great mass extinction event that we are now starting, and which will hammer humans too.

The idea is right there in the name: leave about half the Earth’s surface mostly free of humans, so wild plants and animals can live there unimpeded as they did for so long before humans arrived. Same with the oceans, by the way; about a third of our food comes from the sea, so the seas have to be healthy too.

At a time when there are far more people alive than ever before, this plan might sound strange, even impossible. But it isn’t. With people already leaving countrysides all over the world to move to the cities, big regions are emptier of humans than they were a century ago, and getting emptier still. Many villages now have populations of under a thousand, and continue to shrink as most of the young people leave. If these places were redefined (and repriced) as becoming usefully empty, there would be caretaker work for some, gamekeeper work for others, and the rest could go to the cities and get into the main swing of things.

 ‘The seas have to be healthy too’ … vessels set sail after a four-month fishing ban on China’s Yellow Sea and Bohai Sea. Photograph: Fang Yi/China News Service/VCG

‘The seas have to be healthy too’ … vessels set sail after a four-month fishing ban on China’s Yellow Sea and Bohai Sea. Photograph: Fang Yi/China News Service/VCG

So emptying half the Earth of its humans wouldn’t have to be imposed: it’s happening anyway. It would be more a matter of managing how we made the move, and what kind of arrangement we left behind. One important factor here would be to avoid extremes and absolutes of definition and practice, and any sense of idealistic purity. We are mongrel creatures on a mongrel planet, and we have to be flexible to survive. So these emptied landscapes should not be called wilderness. Wilderness is a good idea in certain contexts, but these emptied lands would be working landscapes, commons perhaps, where pasturage and agriculture might still have a place. All those people in cities still need to eat, and food production requires land. Even if we start growing food in vats, the feedstocks for those vats will come from the land. These mostly depopulated landscapes would be given over to new kinds of agriculture and pasturage, kinds that include habitat corridors where our fellow creatures can get around without being stopped by fences or killed by trains.

This vision is one possible format for our survival on this planet. They will have to be green cities, sure. We will have to have decarbonised transport and energy production, white roofs, gardens in every empty lot, full-capture recycling, and all the rest of the technologies of sustainability we are already developing. That includes technologies we call law and justice – the system software, so to speak. Yes, justice: robust women’s rights stabilise families and population. Income adequacy and progressive taxation keep the poorest and richest from damaging the biosphere in the ways that extreme poverty or wealth do. Peace, justice, equality and the rule of law are all necessary survival strategies.

 Homes in Palm Springs, where the average daily water usage per person is 201 gallons – more than double the California average. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Homes in Palm Springs, where the average daily water usage per person is 201 gallons – more than double the California average. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Meanwhile, cities will always rely on landscapes much vaster than their own footprints. Agriculture will have to be made carbon neutral; indeed, it will be important to create some carbon-negative flows, drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and fixing it into the land, either permanently or temporarily; we can’t afford to be too picky about that now, because we will be safest if we can get the CO2 level in the atmosphere back down to 350 parts per million. All these working landscapes should exist alongside that so-called empty land (though really it’s only almost empty – empty of people – most of the time). Those areas will be working for us in their own way, as part of the health-giving context of any sustainable civilisation. And all the land has to be surrounded by oceans that, similarly, are left partly unfished

All this can be done. All this needs to be done if we are to make it through the emergency centuries we face and create a civilised permaculture, something we can pass along to the future generations as a good home. There is no alternative way; there is no planet B. We have only this planet, and have to fit our species into the energy flows of its biosphere. That’s our project now. That’s the meaning of life, in case you were looking for a meaning.

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by Kim Stanley Robinson

Ocean plastic could treble in decade

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The amount of plastic in the ocean is set to treble in a decade unless litter is curbed, a major report has warned.

Plastics is just one issue facing the world's seas, along with rising sea levels, warming oceans, and pollution, it says.

But the Foresight Future of the Sea Report for the UK government said there are also opportunities to cash in on the "ocean economy".

They say this is predicted to double to $3 trillion (£2 trillion) by 2030.

The report says much more knowledge is needed about the ocean. The authors say the world needs a Mission to "Planet Ocean" to mirror the excitement of voyaging to the moon and Mars.

The Foresight reports are written by experts to brief ministers on medium and long-term issues of significance. This one has been signed off by ministers from four different departments as the authors emphasise the need for a joined-up oceans policy.

One of the authors, Prof Edward Hill from the UK National Oceanography Centre told BBC News: "The ocean is critical to our economic future. Nine billion people will be looking to the ocean for more food. Yet we know so little of what's down there.

"We invest a lot of money and enthusiasm for missions to space - but there's nothing living out there. The sea bed is teeming with life. We really need a mission to planet ocean - it's the last frontier."

 The report projects an increase in the industrial capture of fish

The report projects an increase in the industrial capture of fish

Another of the authors, the chief scientist for the UK government's environment department Ian Boyd, agreed: "The ocean is out of sight, out of mind," he said.

He told BBC News: "There's a continuous process of exploring for new things to exploit in the oceans, and that's happening faster than we scientists can keep up with. My suspicion is legislation is also struggling to keep up - and obviously there are risks in that."

He said offshore wind farms, oil industries and mining firms were spreading into unexplored areas. "Scientists need to get in there faster than the commercial people or at least at the same time - to put proper regulation in place to govern those industries."

The report highlights many concerns, including the current worry about ocean plastic litter, which it forecasts will treble between 2015 and 2025.

But it stresses that the ocean is being assailed from many different types of pollution - including run-off pesticides and fertilisers from farms, industrial toxins like PCBs, and pharmaceuticals.

The authors say if governments can identify ways of protecting biodiversity in the seas, there are riches to be harvested - including nodules of metals and possibly even cures for cancer.

They predict that the biggest industrial growth in the seas will come from offshore wind, followed by marine aquaculture and fish processing. The report also projects an increase in industrial capture of wild fish.

This latter suggestion alarmed Rachel Jones, a marine expert from London Zoo, ZSL. She told BBC News: "Given that 90% of global fisheries are either at or in excess of sustainable catch levels, I can't really see how they are going to expand capture fisheries."

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By Roger Harrabin | BBC environment analyst

Platypus milk: unlikely weapon in fight against superbugs

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Australian biologists solve the puzzle of why monotreme’s milk is so potent against bacteria.

They are duck-billed, egg-laying, semi-aquatic mammals with poisonous spurs on their webbed feet: the Australian platypus is so weird that early European zoologists thought it must be an elaborate hoax.

But now a team of Australian scientists have found something else unique to the strange little animals: their milk has a novel chemical structure that could be used to fight superbugs.

Molecular biologists from Australia’s national science agency CSIRO have isolated the monotreme lactation protein structure for the first time, identifying a novel three-dimensional fold that the researchers say could lead to the creation of a new type of antibiotics.

“Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry,” said Janet Newman, CSIRO scientist and lead author on the research, which also involved scientists from Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria.

In 2010 scientists from Deakin discovered platypus milk contains a lactation protein with potent antibacterial properties.

“This special component has antibacterial properties against some of the nastier bugs you find in the environment but not against some bacteria found in the guts of the young,” Newman said.

Platypus and echidnas are monotremes, the only mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young. They don’t have teats, so the mothers express their milk onto their bellies for their young to feed.

The scientists hypothesise that the antibacterial properties are related to this milk delivery system, evolving in order to protect the young from the possibility of infection. When mammals evolved teats, a sterile delivery system for milk, the protein was no longer as important in an evolutionary sense.

The Deakin researchers approached specialists at CSIRO’s collaborative crystallisation centre to replicate the protein and decode its shape in the laboratory, to seek clues to understanding its potency.

The scientists dubbed it the Shirley Temple protein because of its ringlet-like formation. Most intriguingly, the protein has a novel fold in its structure that has not been identified in any of the more than 100,000 known protein structures, Dr Newman said.

“That’s interesting, because it’s the shape of proteins which dictate their function,” she explained.

“So the hope is that the novel structure, in the best possible world, would eventually lead to a therapeutic that is based on a completely different way of dealing with microbial infections than our current antibiotics,” she said.

The research identifying the new protein fold, which was published on Thursday in the journal Structural Biology Communications, will inform ongoing drug discovery work, Dr Newman said.

Since 2014 the World Health Organisation has warned of a potential “post-antibiotic era” where antibiotics are no longer effective against common infections and minor injuries.

Superbugs are bacteria that were once responsive to antibiotics but have built up resistance to them, leading to ineffective treatments and more persistent infections and sometimes to fatalities.

Saving the albatross: 'The war is against plastic and they are casualties on the frontline'

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by Anna Turns

  Albatross ... ‘They are loving, sensitive and graceful,’ says Jordan. Photograph: Chris Jordan

 Albatross ... ‘They are loving, sensitive and graceful,’ says Jordan. Photograph: Chris Jordan

Following his shocking photographs of dead albatross chicks and the diet of plastic that killed them, Chris Jordan’s new film is a call to action to repair our broken relationship with planet Earth.

We are living in a plastic age and the solutions may seem glaringly obvious, so why aren’t all 7.6 billion of us already doing things differently? Shocking statistics don’t guarantee effective change. So what’s the alternative? American photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan believes the focus should be on forcing people to have a stronger emotional engagement with the problems plastic causes. His famous photographs of dead albatross chicks and the colourful plastic they have ingested serve as a blunt reminder that the planet is in a state of emergency.

While making his feature-length film Albatross, Jordan considered Picasso’s approach: “The role of the artist is to respect you, help you connect more deeply, and then leave it up to you to decide how to behave.”

Most nature documentaries devote their final few minutes to hopeful solutions, but Jordan avoids this. He simply shines a light on the crisis facing the huge colonies of Laysan albatrosses on the remote Pacific island of Midway. “There’s something so archetypal about these legendary birds and seeing bright colours of ocean plastic against dead sterility is a powerful symbol for our human culture right now. We’re in a state of emotional bankruptcy,” says Jordan.

 Jordan inspects the plastic ingested by a chick in Albatross. Photograph: Chris Jordan

Jordan inspects the plastic ingested by a chick in Albatross. Photograph: Chris Jordan

“This material lasts forever, yet we throw it away after a single use. But it’s not as simple as inspiring individuals to make small changes. We have to acknowledge that individuals cannot make a difference,” Jordan says. “When 100 million people decide to do something differently, THAT is when real change happens.”

Jordan first visited Midway in September 2009, when the albatrosses were soaring above the waves, far out to sea – all he saw for two weeks were tens of thousands of dead chicks. “It was devastating and depressing and I questioned how to get to a place of hope from there.” When he acknowledged that this eerily silent scene was part of a much bigger story, he resolved to return to Midway and was greeted by “a deafening cacophony of a million creatures singing and dancing all day and all night”.

Jordan is fascinated with these majestic birds. With no natural predators on Midway, Laysan albatrosses show no fear of humans, so his footage provides an authentic bird’s-eye view: “Albatrosses are so mysterious because they haven’t been on our radar. They live in places humans just don’t go – yet when we look closely, they are unbelievably magnificent,” he says.

 ‘It’s unbelievable what these birds can fit in their gullets’ ... Photograph: Chris Jordan

‘It’s unbelievable what these birds can fit in their gullets’ ... Photograph: Chris Jordan

Albatross is slow-paced, poignant and poetic. Lying somewhere between arthouse film and narrative documentary, it was eight years in the making; Jordan spent 94 days on Midway over the course of eight visits. His lens lingers on moments of natural beauty, tuning into their behaviour and losing track of time. Midway is a tiny outpost in the middle of the world’s largest ocean, 2,000 miles from the nearest continent and halfway between North America and Asia. “Midway’s name also describes the place that humanity finds itself, midway to its own destruction. But at the halfway point, everything can change – at half-time, a football coach tells his team that the game is not over yet.”

Jordan muses that albatrosses – with a brain the size of a walnut – experience the passage of time more slowly than we do. He films their bonding ritual in slow motion, focusing on the dedication between males and females. These bonds last a lifetime, sometimes more than 60 years. Wisdom, the world’s oldest tagged bird, is 67 and still successfully breeding: an amazing feat, considering that so many chicks die of dehydration and malnourishment, overheating or storm exposure.

“They are loving, sensitive and graceful – when you look at any creature this closely, it becomes amazing,” says Jordan, who believes we would fall in love with any animal if we only stopped to look at them with a similar childlike sense of awe. After five months, the fluffball chicks develop into comic, goofy-footed fledglings ready to take flight and begin their first 10,000 mile-long feeding frenzy over the open ocean. But some fail to take to the skies and the resulting deaths are often slow and painful.

 Jordan focuses on the bonds that last a lifetime ... a scene from Albatross.  Photograph: Chris Jordan

Jordan focuses on the bonds that last a lifetime ... a scene from Albatross. 
Photograph: Chris Jordan

The odds are clearly stacked against the birds but it’s difficult to assess the exact impacts of such widespread plastic pollution. According to Beth Flint, a biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the biggest threats to Midway’s albatrosses are rising sea levels, increased storms and temperature changes. Yet plastic is found in every single albatross bolus or regurgitated mass of squid beaks that chicks produce. Scientists working across the north-western Hawaiian islands also found that more than 97% of dead Laysan albatross chicks – and more than 89% dead adult birds – contained plastic in their stomachs, so high incidence is undeniable.

Although his film highlights the ubiquity of plastic, Jordan insists Albatross isn’t purely about plastic pollution; it’s about our broken relationship with planet Earth. “This is a grief ritual. My intent is to help viewers reconnect on a universal level with living beings,” says Jordan, whose mother died of pancreatic cancer while he was making the film. “Grief happens when we are losing love and it liberates us to feel it fully and therefore we can arrive home back to our core state of wisdom. Here, nothing stands in our way.”

Twelve years ago, ex-BBC wildlife camerawoman Rebecca Hosking filmed the pioneering Message in the Waves, a conservation documentary about surfers and scientists trying to protect Hawaii’s wildlife. In 2007, she campaigned to make Modbury in Devon the UK’s first ever plastic bag-free town after she returned from filming these same albatrosses. The anti-plastics movement has made progress since then but Hosking says there is still a long way to go: “Some might argue that traditional natural history films made since the 1970s haven’t worked – they haven’t triggered a revolution or dramatic change. Perhaps we need something more emotive to shock us into action.”

Hosking remembers walking through the albatross colonies, seeing dead chicks on the ground: “Midway was a US naval air station and now it feels like a postwar battlefield, with dead albatrosses juxtaposed against old military buildings. Now, the war is against plastic and albatrosses are the casualties on the frontline.”

  ‘Albatrosses go to great lengths to feed their young’ ... a scene from Albatross. Photograph: Chris Jordan

 ‘Albatrosses go to great lengths to feed their young’ ... a scene from Albatross. Photograph: Chris Jordan

Hosking doesn’t have a problem with Jordan’s rather anthropomorphic depiction of the birds: “You can’t say these animals aren’t sentient, and Jordan builds up the loving relationship of the mating birds quite beautifully – he refers to couples rather than pairs, and babies not chicks, but it’s not overly sentimental.” She continues: “Any parent wants to provide for their baby, and albatross go to such great lengths to feed their young. But they’re feeding them sharp, toxic plastic because they have mistaken it for multicoloured squid or cuttlefish near the surface of the ocean; it’s horrendous.”

Hosking remembers scientists collecting toothbrushes, lighters, toys, bottletops, biros, even the fish-shaped soy sauce bottles that come with takeaway sushi: “It’s all stuff we use every day and it’s unbelievable what these birds can fit in their gullets – one had swallowed a whole inkjet cartridge.”

Jordan’s call to action is to love the albatross more: “I want people to watch this film and feel sadness and rage and realise that comes from a place of love. Don’t pull the plug out of the bathtub just yet; don’t let all that raw emotion drain away. Once you feel love, you can be more courageous and make more radical choices.”

Albatross is released nationwide on 22 April, albatrossthefilm.com