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On the Hunt for Aliens at Midway Atoll

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By: Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator

Midway Atoll is a tiny paradise near the center of the North Pacific Ocean,  roughly mid-way between North America and Asia. This unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United States sits at the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago and is a National Wildlife Refuge, as well as part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. For me, Midway is simply one of the most amazing places I’ve had the privilege of visiting.

While there I assisted my colleague, Scott Godwin, resource protection specialist with the Monument, on cataloging alien species found both in the nearshore area and on marine debris, particularly potential Japan tsunami marine debris. We were on the hunt for marine invertebrate alien species, such as tunicates, crabs, and tubeworms.

An alien tunicate (Herdmania pallida) found nearshore.

An alien tunicate (Herdmania pallida) found nearshore.

Floating marine debris is an excellent raft for marine alien species, and it can easily transport species from one place to another, far from their home range. One impact of marine debris is the potential introduction of new alien species to an area. This can devastate sensitive or pristine marine ecosystems, such as those found within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

For Japan tsunami marine debris, items of particular interest are those that originated in the nearshore areas of Japan, such as a boat or floating pier. These items floated in nearshore waters long enough to have accumulated communities of marine organisms native to Japan. These organisms would be alien species, some potentially invasive, to our islands. Floating debris can also serve as a raft for pelagic (open ocean) species, such as the gooseneck barnacle. This species, and other common pelagic species, are not of great concern here in Hawaii because they are specifically adapted to the open ocean environment and would not survive in our nearshore areas (and thus not likely to become invasive).

While on the hunt, we found a couple of marine debris items that appeared to have alien species on them. We collected samples of each of the organisms, and Scott will work with his colleagues in the academic community on species identification. While this information will not tell us if the debris item was indeed lost with the March 2011 tsunami in Japan, it may reveal more information about its original location.


Polystyrene marine debris found with common gooseneck barnacles on the bottom as well as a couple of likely alien species: A) acorn barnacles and 2) calcareous tubeworm.

For more information on alien species on Japan tsunami marine debris, please visit

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

One thought on “On the Hunt for Aliens at Midway Atoll

  1. I’ve been finding sand dollars on my local beach in San Francisco with those acorn barnacles on them I have a photo i wish I could post here!

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