Midway Atoll: Paradise and the Garbage Patch

Laysan albatross on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. David Patte / USFWS


Midway Atoll is the remote, unincorporated U.S. territory where the Battle of Midway occurred in 1942. This ring of volcanic islands and reefs is now home to millions of birds (including the world's largest Laysan albatross colony) as well as seals, turtles, dolphins, and myriad fish species. Unfortunately, it is also a focal point for ecological damage wrought by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

"Midway is a multi-layered kaleidoscope of natural wonder and human history, and it also serves as a powerful lens into a shocking environmental tragedy." - Chris Jordan, Midway Film Project.




Midway Atoll is located in the North Pacific Ocean, near the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago (1,250 miles west-northwest of Honolulu), approximately halfway between North America and Asia.




Midway Atoll measures approximately five miles in diameter and is comprised of 3 main islands that total 1,540 acres of land.

Acreage of islands in the atoll:

  • Sand Island: 1,200 acres
  • Eastern Island: 334 acres
  • Spit Island: 6 acres

Acreage of the Midway lagoon: 14,800

Acreage of surrounding coral reef: 55,105 acres


Habitat Characteristics:


Midway is made up of a circular barrier reef and several low-lying sand and coral islets that emerge no more than ten feet above sea level at their highest points.

In their native state, Midway's islands were basically large sand dunes with a meager variety of plant life. Human settlement, initiated in the late 1800s, introduced many non-native plants to the islands, and the majority of Midway's vegetation became dominated by exotic and invasive vegetation.

According to NOAA's Coral Reef Information System (CoRIS), "Approximately 249 plant species have been reported on Midway from the time it was first discovered through 1992.

Of these, 119 were known only from cultivation, 104 were intentional or accidental alien species, and 24 were indigenous."

While not as diverse in coral species as places with more tropical climates, a deep and intricate reef system provides habitat for many types of fish and other marine creatures.


Species of Concern:


  • Laysan Albatross (nearly 70 percent of the world's population)
  • Black-footed Albatross (nearly 40 percent of the world's population)
  • Short-tailed Albatross
  • Laysan Duck (recently re-introduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
  • Christmas Shearwater
  • Hawaiian monk seals
  • Green sea turtles
  • Spinner dolphins
  • Hawaiian reef coral


Primary Ecological Concern:


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating mass of refuse spread out over hundreds of miles of the North Pacific Ocean. Most of the trash comes from land sources, and 90 percent of it is plastic. Small pieces are mistaken as food by albatross, shearwaters, and other birds that feed at sea. They return to Midway's shores and regurgitate plastic items to feed their chicks, which often results in death due to injury, starvation, or exposure to toxic contaminants. Most Laysan albatross on Midway are known to have plastic in their digestive systems, and about a third of their chicks die each year from plastic ingestion.


Conservation Strategies:


Midway became a national wildlife refuge in 1988 while still occupied by the U.S. Navy. It officially transferred to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1996, and the last Navy personnel left the following year after completing an intensive environmental cleanup.

In 2006, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, including the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, were declared a national monument. Known as Papahanaumokuakea, the monument is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the State of Hawaii.



Targeted conservation efforts include:

  • All commercial fishing within protected waters was eliminated in 2010.
  • All extractive activities are restricted.
  • Access to the islands is allowed only by permit or notification.
  • No mining, drilling or exploring for oil or gas is permitted.
  • No anchoring on coral is allowed.
  • Tourism is limited.
  • No use of explosives, poisons, or electrical charges is allowed.
  • Protective measures prevent introduction of non-indigenous species.
  • Quarantine protocols exist for moving between islands to limit disease transmission.
  • A rigorous permit review system exists for approval of all activities.
  • Refuge is designated as an International Maritime Organization Particularly Sensitive Seas Area 404
  • Specific laws protect endangered species, cultural and historic resources.
  • Hull inspections and rat-free certification are required for all vessels permitted to enter protected waters.

Source: Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

How You Can Help:

1. Support the Midway Film Project.

2. Volunteer for Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

3. Volunteer at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (volunteers participate in monitoring studies of seabirds and other wildlife, and assist in the control of noxious plants and the restoration of habitat).

4. Become a member of Friends of Midway Atoll NWR.

5. Reduce your purchases of plastic products and packaging, and recycle whenever possible.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bove, Jennifer. "Midway Atoll: Paradise and the Garbage Patch." ThoughtCo, Mar. 20, 2016, thoughtco.com/overview-of-the-midway-atoll-1181974. Bove, Jennifer. (2016, March 20). Midway Atoll: Paradise and the Garbage Patch. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/overview-of-the-midway-atoll-1181974 Bove, Jennifer. "Midway Atoll: Paradise and the Garbage Patch." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/overview-of-the-midway-atoll-1181974 (accessed November 20, 2017).