HONOLULU — A crew returned from the northernmost islands in the Hawaiian archipelago this week with a boatload of marine plastic and abandoned fishing nets threatening to entangle endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other animals on the uninhabited beaches stretching more than 1,300 miles north of Honolulu. The cleanup effort in Papahanaumokuakea.
Marine National Monument lasted three weeks. The crew picked up more than 47 tons (43 metric tons) of “ghost nets” and other marine plastics such as buoys, crates, bottle caps, and cigarette lighters from the shores of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The monument, the largest protected marine reserve in the U.S. and one of the largest globally, is in the northern Pacific Ocean and surrounded by what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
A giant gyre of floating plastic and other debris circulates in ocean currents. The islands act like a comb that gathers debris on its otherwise pristine beaches. The ecosystem in the monument is diverse, unique and one of the most intact marine habitats on Earth. But the beaches are littered with plastic and nets that ensnare endangered Hawaiian monk seals — of which there are only about 1,400 left in the world — and green turtles, among other wildlife.
The crew removed the line from a monk seal on the expedition’s first day.
With virtually no predators, the islands are a haven for many species of seabirds, and Midway Atoll is home to the largest colony of albatross in the world. There, the land is littered with carcasses of birds that have ingested plastics and died.
The cleanup was organized by the nonprofit Papahanaumokuakea Marine Debris Project, which partners with federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Kevin O’Brien, president of the new organization and a former NOAA employee, said the work is expensive but essential. “Talking to some of these folks that are up there for the monk seal camps every summer, they’ll talk about specific nets that have been there for several years,” O’Brien said. “So a trip like this where we’re able to yank pretty much everything we see can have an impact. The latest expedition focused on the shorelines of the various atolls, and a trip later this year will remove nets from the reefs that surround the islands.