The 57 tons of marine debris that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration divers removed from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands during a 33-day mission this month is just a fraction of all that's out there. The Star-Advertiser story ran in the paper Oct. 29.
For the Green Leaf, the images are a reminder of just how much work remains to be done out in the isles, also known as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, as well as of the impact of all the plastic that ends up in the ocean ecosystem. For the team of 17 divers sailing aboard the Oscar Elton Sette, it was rewarding to at least have made a dent in the amount of derelict fishing nets and plastic litter in and around the tiny islands, atolls and sensitive coral reefs.
"The amount of marine debris we find in this remote, untouched place is shocking," said Mark Manuel, chief scientist for the mission. "Every day, we pulled up nets weighing hundreds of pounds from the corals. We filled the dumpster on the Sette to the top with nets, and then we filled the decks. There's a point when you can handle no more, but there's still a lot out there."
Divers encountered – and rescued — three sea turtles tangled in different nets at Pearl and Hermes Atoll.
They were also able to remove a "super net" measuring 28-by-7-feet, which took several days. The net weighed 11-and-a-half tons and had to be cut into three pieces and towed back to the Sette separately. Luckily, it will no longer be out there, posing an entanglement risk for marine wildlife like the sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals and seabirds, or damaging corals.
On the shorelines of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the team surveyed and removed nearly 6 and a quarter tons of plastic trash, paying special attention to the bottle caps and cigarette lighters that are commonly consumed by birds. They removed and counted thousands of pieces of plastic, including (take note):
>> 7,436 hard plastic fragments
>> 3,758 bottle caps
>> 1,469 plastic beverage bottles
>> 477 cigarette lighters
NOAA has led the mission every since 1996, removing a total of 904 tons of marine debris, to date, including this year's haul. The nets are transported back to Hawaii and converted to energy through the Nets to Energy partnership with Covanta Energy and Schnitzer Steel.
"This mission is critical to keeping marine debris from building up in the monument," said Kyle Koyanagi, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for NOAA's Marine Debris program. "Hopefully we can find ways to prevent nets from entering this special place, but until then, removing them is the only way to keep them from harming this fragile ecosystem."
Marine debris is a global, everyday problem that affects everyone. Anything manmade, including litter and fishing gear, can become marine debris once lost or thrown into the marine environment, but the most common are plastics. "There is no part of the world left untouched by debris and its impacts." Visit marinedebris.noaa.gov to learn more.