ISLE REEFS AND SHORES
COURTESY OF UH SEA GRANT PROGRAM
Volunteer Kathy Frost picks up marine debris along the Big Island's Waiohinu-Ka Lae coastline during a marine debris cleanup spearheaded by the Hawaii Wildlife Fund and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Cleanup efforts on the Big Island and Northwestern Hawaiian Isles mark progress against stray nets and plastic that threaten ocean life
International law prohibits dumping plastics in the ocean. But you couldn't tell that from the items volunteer Kathy Frost found during a marine debris cleanup Nov. 19 on the Big Island: laundry baskets, dish soap bottles, pieces of plastic buoys, nets, ropes, fish traps from California, packing crates from Japan.
Frost and 23 others hauled all this and more off the rocky coast between Kaalualu Bay and the green-sand beach. It was the first of four scheduled cleanups for the area that continue one day a month through February.
"It really makes you think about how casually we use plastic and how we dispose of it," Frost said, a semiretired marine mammal researcher.
Whether washing up on the main islands or snaring the endangered monk seals of the Northwestern Islands, marine debris is a major concern for all of the Hawaiian archipelago. In recent years the uninhabited Northwestern Islands, which stretch northwest 1,200 miles beyond Kauai, have been the site of intense cleanup efforts -- and it is starting to pay off.
Thomas O'Brien, a boatswain's mate for the Coast Guard, spent three weeks in August and September as a recovery diver in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Every net he and co-workers cut from a reef and loaded onto the Coast Guard cutter Walnut was a net that would not trap and kill an endangered Hawaiian monk seal or a threatened green sea turtle.
"I know we did good. We took a whole lot of net off the reefs," O'Brien said. "And I saw a whole lot of turtles and monk seals."
There has been a lot of progress in removing marine debris from the ocean around Hawaii during the past decade, said Rusty Brainard, chief of the coral reef ecosystem division of the Pacific Islands Fishery Science Center.
More than 540 tons of derelict nets and rope have been removed from the coral reefs and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a remote area that is protected as a NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, as well as by state and U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges.
Getting marine debris out of the Northwestern Islands began as a cooperative project among the Coast Guard, the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program and Brainard's employer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service.
A key issue was helping the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, of which there are fewer than 1,300 remaining in the world.
COURTESY OF UH SEA GRANT PROGRAM
A crane unloads marine debris collected in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at Honolulu Harbor. The nets will be burned at Honolulu's HPOWER waste-to-energy plant.
Bud Antonelis, chief of the NOAA Fisheries' Pacific Islands Fishery Science Center protected-species division, recalls that in 1996 workers in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands noticed two instances of monk seals entangled in debris stuck on coral reefs.
His division looked underwater, "and we were astounded at the amount of marine debris" they found, Antonelis said.
"We came back and started talking about it," Antonelis said. "Everybody realized that this (marine debris removal) was the right thing to do."
In 1996 and 1997, using existing budgets and available staff from the three lead agencies, with help from 14 other government and nongovernment conservation agencies, nearly five tons of debris were removed from the Northwestern Islands. In 1998 more than eight tons were removed.
Then the effort took off.
With increasing interest in protecting coral reefs nationally and internationally, NOAA earmarked $3 million a year for 2001-2003, Brainard said. Hiring charter boats increased the amount of time committed to marine debris removal, and numbers climbed past 100 tons per year for 2002-2004.
Honolulu's HPOWER waste-to-energy plant was enlisted to burn the net and ropes to produce electricity.
Things have gone so well that Brainard expects annual trips to the Northwestern Islands to slow to a "maintenance" level starting next year, even though the grounding of a charter vessel did cause a setback.
"We feel like we have removed the bulk of the debris that had accumulated over the last 40 years," Brainard said, "but we know it's continuing to accumulate."
The charter ship Casitas was grounded July 2 at Pearl and Hermes Atoll when it had barely begun removing marine debris for NOAA and had to be scuttled at sea a month later, after fuel and equipment were removed. A Coast Guard investigation into the cause of the grounding is ongoing.
A replacement charter vessel, the Freebird, and Coast Guard cutters Kukui and Walnut were able to collect almost 60 tons of material, Brainard said.
Even if people worldwide stopped throwing debris in the ocean today, it still would take years for what is already out there to come to shore, Brainard said.
It is estimated that 45 to 60 tons a year of marine debris lands on the Northwestern Islands alone, he said.
So, there are no plans to stop the Northwestern Islands program, Brainard said. In addition:
» NOAA is funding the four land-based cleanups on the Big Island this winter, which are being coordinated by the Hawaii Wildlife Fund.
» NOAA is providing $300,000 for aerial surveys of the coastlines of the Big Island and Kauai, which should cover some boat-based cleanups of areas with problems.
» The Hawaii sea grant program and the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council expect to designate a trash bin at Honolulu Harbor for marine debris brought to shore by fishermen.
There are more high-tech ideas for ridding the oceans of debris, Brainard said, including the possible use of unmanned aerial vehicles to search out floating masses of net and report them back to a ship that could pick them up before they snag in coral.
Antonelis noted that in 1999 there were 25 reports of monk seals entangled in nets. Since then, annual reports have gone as low as five a year and never higher than 16 a year, he said.
"It's just a huge success," Antonelis said. "I'm real proud of what we've done."
Marine debris removal from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands:
Source: Pacific Islands Fishery Science Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration