Protecting Midway’s Seabirds

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has released the final Environmental Assessment for the Midway Seabird Protection Project.

Warning: Graphic photographs. Viewer Discretion is Advised.

In 2015, volunteers at Midway Atoll made a gruesome discovery. In the midst of the largest albatross colony in the world, birds were being eaten alive by mice as they sat on their nests. Over the course of a few years, mice attacks have increased from just a few incidents to hundreds of widespread attacks on albatross that result in injury, nest abandonment and death.

In order to protect this globally important colony of seabirds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized the Midway Seabird Protection Plan to remove the predatory invasive house mouse from Midway Atoll. The Final Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact associated with the project are available to the public.

As a part of the planning process, the Service consulted with the public, other federal and conservation agencies, and non-governmental and private organizations. All public comments and information received during the public comment period were considered in the development of the environmental assessment. The environmental assessment, associated documents and permits, and project details are available at:

Within Papahānaumokuākea Marine National MonumentMidway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial supports over three million birds from 30 different species. Nearly 40 percent of all Black-footed albatross and 70 percent of all Laysan albatross in the world rely on the approximately 1500 acres of islands that comprise the remote atoll. Seabirds face a myriad of threats – from fishery interactions and marine debris to invasive species and shrinking habitat. Safe places like Midway Atoll, where seabirds can rest and raise their young, are critical for their ability to survive into the future.

Graphic summary: Midway Atoll is home to the largest albatross colony in the world and is the most important and successful breeding ground for Black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) and Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis). The albatross and 30 different species found on Midway Atoll’s three islands are susceptible to predation by mice.

Non-native, invasive house mice and black rats became established on Midway Atoll’s Sand Island more than 75 years ago, before it was a refuge and memorial. House mice persisted after black rats were eradicated in 1996 and are now the sole rodent and non-native mammal present in the Monument.

The majority of seabird extinctions around the world have been caused by invasive mammals, in particular non-native rodents. For most of the island’s history, there were no rodents on Midway Atoll. Pacific seabirds like the albatross evolved without any fear or defense mechanisms against mammalian predators like mice, rats, cats, dogs, or humans.

Biologists do not yet know what triggered the mice to begin preying on the albatross. Mice are omnivores – meaning that they will eat any source of food they can find in their quest to survive – and although they had been present on Midway Atoll for decades, there had never been a documented case of predation on adult albatross by mice before the 2015 hatching season.

Part of the danger to the colony is that mice reproduce very quickly compared to albatrosses, which have a very slow reproductive cycle. Albatross pairs only have one egg every one to two years, and both parents invest a lot of energy into hatching and raising that chick. The incredible amount of time and work necessary for albatrosses to survive to adulthood, find a mate, and become a successful parent means that each adult bird is incredibly important to the overall survival of the colony.

Their lack of defense mechanisms and complete dedication to their eggs has left albatrosses vulnerable to predation. Their slow reproductive cycle means that losses to the colony from being preyed on by mice will continue to impact the population for decades to come.

Mice are omnivores, meaning they will eat any readily available food source. It is undetermined what caused the mice to start preying on albatross as a food source. Video by USFWS

To date, there have been more than 500 successful projects to remove invasive rodents from islands, and the project on Midway Atoll models similar, successful projects elsewhere. Similar invasive rodent removal campaigns successfully resulted in long-term benefits to native species and outweighed any limited, short-lived negative impacts.

The Service has coordinated with the Monument co-managers and worked with Island Conservation, American Bird Conservancy, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, and other members of the conservation community in the synthesis and development of the science that contributed to the development of Final Environmental Assessment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to work with partners and continually evaluate all aspects of the project as it progresses to ensure that the expectations outlined in the project plan are being met.

A video of the millions of seabirds that call Midway Atoll home. The Service proposes to eradicate all mice from Midway Atoll and protect the future of the atoll’s seabird population. A pair of Laysan Albatross perform a courtship dance in the lower left corner.  Video by Holly Richards / USFWS

Located on the far northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, Midway Atoll Refuge and Memorial is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and located within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It is one the oldest Atoll formations in the world, it provides nesting habitat for millions of seabirds, and it is a touchstone for one of the most significant naval battles of World War II, and in history, the Battle of Midway. To learn more about the Midway Atoll:

Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working to restore the habitat seabirds need at Midway Atoll and remove threats like invasive predators – because protecting the future for seabirds mean protecting the places they call home.

Featured photo: Protecting Midway’s Seabirds: Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial is home to over three million seabirds, including the largest colony of albatross in the world. Photo by Dan Clark / USFWS

About Island Conservation

Island Conservation prevents extinctions by removing invasive species from islands. To date, we have successfully restored 64 islands worldwide, benefiting 1195 populations of 487 species and subspecies. Working together with local communities, government management agencies, and conservation organizations, we select islands that have the greatest potential for preventing the extinction of globally threatened species.

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