Progress made to remove
debris from ocean


Scientists have been involved in a project using satellites and sophisticated imaging technology to locate ocean debris posing a danger to marine life.

AN alarming amount of debris has accumulated on Hawaiian Archipelago coral reefs and shorelines over the years. Endangered Hawaiian monk seals and threatened Hawaiian green sea turtles, along with whales, dolphins, seabirds and other marine life, are caught up in and put at risk by discarded fishing nets. Ambitious and highly commendable efforts are being made not only to find and collect the nets and trash but to keep the clutter from piling up in the first place.

In the past eight years, an effort led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and including other federal, state and local agencies, private companies and environmental groups has removed 320 tons of debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This summer alone, divers are reported to have cut free and collected more than 120 tons of nets that had been snagged on coral reefs.

Jean-Michael Cousteau, the son of famed marine explorer Jacques Cousteau, filmed a documentary in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in July for public television and reported being "startled and shocked by the amount of debris that systematically litters the coastlines and reefs." The documentary is scheduled to be shown next year and should increase public awareness of the problem.

The nets are made of translucent, synthetic materials that can drift for years before decaying, snaring trash and marine life along the way, being virtually invisible to animals. Plastics -- illegally dumped into oceans -- are caught in the nets and ingested by birds. Once the nets are snagged in reefs, divers must engage in the painstaking and dangerous task of cutting them loose, so the goal is to locate and retrieve the nets before they reach the reefs.

While Cousteau was surveying the litter in the island waters, scientists worked over the summer to combine satellites, thermal imaging and airborne searches to locate accumulations of junk discarded from industrial fishing, logging and dumping.

"This is really the first time an effort involving satellite technology and an airborne search has been done," said James Churnside, the lead scientist in the joint venture of NOAA and NASA. "This really helped us narrow down our search so we didn't have to scan the entire Pacific."

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources plans public hearings on proposed regulations to control certain nets that are laid in the water and left for several hours while, by design, catching fish by their gills. Current rules prohibit leaving those nets unattended for more than two hours or leaving any net in the water for more than four hours in any 24-hour period.

Mary Donohue of the National Marine Fisheries Service has said that foreign and domestic trawl fisheries are chiefly to blame for the discarded nets and that Hawaiian fishermen are not responsible for most of the derelict conduct. International solutions are needed to remove the debris from the ocean and then keeping it safe and productive.



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