Cleanup Nets 50 Tons of Ocean Trash Near Hawaii

Marine debris being loaded into cargo containers at Midway Atoll. (Holly Richards/USFWS)

HONOLULU (CN) – Federal agencies and the state of Hawaii removed 50 tons of garbage from the newly expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument this month during an annual multi-agency cleanup.

Twelve shipping containers holding an estimated 100,000 pounds of derelict fishing gear, bottles, lighters and plastics were loaded onto the charter vessel Kahana and shipped to Honolulu. The garbage will be cut up and incinerated for electricity at the Covanta Honolulu/H-POWER plant.

The annual cleanup of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands is headed by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Island Marine Debris Program in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawaii’s Division of Land and Natural Resources-Forestry and Wildlife division, and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

Since the program began in 1996, some 985 tons of debris have been removed from the monument. At Midway and Kure atolls, plastic debris is found in albatross nests along the beach and often consumed by the chicks. Endangered green sea turtles also mistake plastic for their main food source, jellyfish. And marine mammals die after becoming entangled in discarded fishing gear.

According to regional coordinator Mark Manuel, removal efforts are accomplished “with two hands and lots of backs.” Barges carrying heavy machinery cannot be brought in because their drafts are too deep in the shallows, so 17-19 foot inflatables are used and abandoned fishing nets – often twined around coral heads – are hauled up by hand.

Purse-seine nets found in Papahanaumokuakea do not appear to be local, Manuel said, nor does much of the trash cleared. Weather events associated with El Nino tend to push the North Pacific gyre – an area formed by four prevailing ocean currents in which garbage from across the Pacific collects – south. The gyre then deposits debris along the 1,500-mile Northwest Hawaiian Island chain which, virtually pristine otherwise, acts to comb detritus out of the ocean.

Researcher Capt. Charles Moore first discovered the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in 1999, when he sailed his catamaran through the rarely traveled gyre.

“As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic,” Moore wrote in an essay for Natural History. “It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot.”

Plastic takes centuries to biodegrade, breaking down into smaller pieces along the way. These fragments easily find their way into the food chain, Moore said, “adding to the increasing amount of synthetic chemicals unknown before 1950 that we now carry in our bodies.”

Research also implicates plastic in mammalian endocrine disruption. The resulting “feminization” of animal species threatens population collapse.

Complicating the picture, according to Moore – whose Algalita Organization is a pioneer in the study of ocean plastic – is the discovery of pre-manufacture microscopic plastic beads called “nurdles” in the water, suggesting that the problem is not just a post-consumption phenomenon.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has led efforts to research, prevent and reduce the impacts of marine debris. Authorized by Congress through the Marine Debris Act in 2006, its staff supports projects “in partnership with state and local agencies, tribes, non-governmental organizations, academia, and industry. The program also spearheads national research efforts and works to change behavior in the public through outreach and education initiatives.”

The Hawaii Nets to Energy Program is one example of that partnership.

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