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Monday Reads: The Midway Atoll Tsunami Edition

Several hours after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck northern Japan, towering waves raced west across the Pacific, engulfing the three tiny islands of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

A mere three days earlier, Midway Atoll had been heralding the latest wildlife celebrity to woo human audiences: Wisdom. Not only was she the oldest known wild bird in the United States (“a coyly conservative 60”, who was banded as a breeding adult in 1956), Wisdom was—yet again—a proud albatross mum, having raised at least thirty youngsters throughout her lifetime.

By the early hours of March 12, four successive waves had overrun the low lying refuge, a famed nesting ground for nearly the entire world’s population of Laysan albatrosses, as well as important habitat for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and the Hawaiian green turtle. In the aftermath, biologists and volunteers dug out more than 300 birds who were trapped in the debris. Thousands more are thought to have been buried alive in their underground nests. Officials estimate that more than 20 percent of this year’s albatross population have been killed—including 110,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks and 2,000 adults—as a result of the tsunami and two severe winter storms that had preceded it.

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In a time when the scope of tragedy and suffering in northern Japan is both heartbreaking and unfathomable, small stories of survival and perseverance have brought some measure of hope and comfort. And here, Wisdom stepped in again.

Missing since the tsunami left Midway Atoll strewn with waterlogged chicks and widespread debris, Wisdom finally resurfaced yesterday, tending to her young, as she has done for decades—and as her chick may also do, for decades after her.

Barry Stieglitz, Project Leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, remarked, "Although wildlife biologists generally manage at the level of populations, we, too, become entwined in the fates of individual animals. Wisdom is one such special creature.”

Wisdom returns on March 21, 2011 to feed her chick. (Pete Leary / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Although the losses at Midway Atoll were heavy—on one island, only 4 chicks remained where there originally were more than 1,500—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reminded us that even after natural disasters pass, the ecosystem will continue to face ongoing challenges:

Biologists are confident that, absent any other stressors, the albatross population could rebound from this event, Stieglitz said, but “we remain concerned about the compounding effect of this tsunami on the existing stresses of invasive species, global climate change, incidental mortality from longline fishing, and other threats to albatross and other wildlife populations.”

Learn more about Earthjustice’s work to protect habitat for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, and to protect sea turtles and false killer whales from the perils of the longline fishing industry. And to help relief efforts in Japan or to simply send a message of condolence, visit the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.’s website.

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