2011 Annual Report

Midway Atoll

For millions of years, black-footed and Laysan albatross flocked to Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean to breed. During World War II, when the atoll’s location between North America and Asia made it strategically important to the U.S. Navy, tons of topsoil for development were shipped in. With those shipments likely came the first seeds of an invasive plant that quickly crowded out the native vegetation. Today, golden crownbeard covers more than 60 percent of the three Midway islands, and the effect on albatross has been devastating.

“Golden crownbeard grows in dense and expansive stands, in contrast to one of the principle native plants, bunch grass,” explained John Klavitter of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.“It’s a nearly impenetrable shrubland that albatross have great difficulty navigating through, and it grows so densely that it shades out native plants and keeps them from growing.” The extensive overgrowth limits the number of albatross that the land can support, and also hinders nesting success.

Because the continued invasion impacts albatross and other seabird popu­la­tions, biodiversity, and even the function of the ecosystem at Midway, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed a five-year plan to eradicate golden crown­beard from the atoll’s 336-acre Eastern Island. “We fine‑tuned control techniques on portions of the refuge over the last decade to develop our plan. Obtaining funding for the project was the final, critical link,” Klavitter noted. NFWF had already identified Midway as a key site for albatross recovery as part of its Seabird Keystone Initiative and, through a private contribution, was able to supply the necessary support. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners wasted no time in contracting a team to apply safe, effective herbicides for golden crownbeard removal and begin native plantings.

With about 60 percent of the world’s population of black-footed and Laysan albatross using the islands as a breeding area, Midway Atoll presents a unique opportunity to make unprecedented gains for the seabirds on a grand scale. “Eradicating golden crownbeard and restoring native vegetation on the island will have a positive population-level effect for both species,” said Klavitter. “Albatross spend most of their lives traveling the Pacific, but they need to return to land to breed, and Midway Atoll is a critical location.”