NOAA Collects 50 Metric Tons of Marine Debris from Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette arrived back in its homeport of Honolulu after a month in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The team of 17 scientists collected nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris, which threatens monk seals, sea turtles and other marine life in the coral reef ecosystem, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). NOAA has conducted annual removal missions of marine debris in the NWHI since 1996 as part of a coral restoration effort.

“What surprises us is that after many years of marine debris removal in Papahānaumokuākea and more than 700 metric tons of debris later, we are still collecting a significant amount of derelict fishing gear from the shallow coral reefs and shorelines,” said Kyle Koyanagi, marine debris operations manager at NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and chief scientist for the mission. “The ship was at maximum capacity and we did not have any space for more debris.”

This year, marine debris was collected from waters and shorelines around northern most islands and atolls: Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Lisianski Island and Laysan Island. Approximately half of the debris was comprised of derelict fishing gear and plastics from Midway Atoll’s shallow coral reef environments, where the team also completed a 27-day land-based mission prior to loading debris on the 224-ft. NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette.

As part of this year’s mission, the NOAA team did look for debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan, however, no debris with an explicit connection to the tsunami was found. Scientists monitored marine debris for radiation in partnership with the Hawaii Department of Health out of abundance of caution and to gather baseline data from the NWHI.

“While we did not find debris with an obvious connection to last year’s tsunami, this mission was a great opportunity to leverage activities that had already been planned and see what we might find,” said Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. “It’s also an important reminder that marine debris is an everyday problem, especially here in the Pacific.”

A portion of the funding for this year’s marine debris removal activities was provided as part of the legal settlement collected by NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program from a July 2005 ship grounding at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Monument. Additional support was provided by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, as well as other partners including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Hawaii, U.S. Coast Guard, Schnitzer Steel, and Covanta Energy.

Marine debris removed during this project will be used to create electricity through Hawaii’s Nets to Energy Program, a public-private partnership. Since 2002, more than 730 metric tons of derelict nets have been used to create electricity — enough to power nearly 350 Hawai‘i homes for a year.