What do a plastic toy, a mismatched pair of slippers, and hagfish trap have in common? They all wash up in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands!


A beach at Laysan Island littered with a vast variety of marine debris. (NMFS Photo)

Even these extremely remote, uninhabited, and protected islands are littered with marine debris.  In fact, islands in the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago can be particularly inundated with debris due to their proximity to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a current that can carry and concentrate debris that enters the ocean from points throughout the Pacific.

But does marine debris still make a beach ugly if no sunbathers are there to see it?  Yes!  Marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands poses a serious threat to sea birds that can mistakenly eat plastic materials or feed it to their young, and to endangered Hawaiian monk seals that can become dangerously entangled in debris.

During the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s Assessment and Recovery Camps, biologists don’t just study the seals, they also work to safeguard the environment for monk seals and other wildlife.  During the 2016 field season, monk seal field teams have been collecting marine debris as part of an archipelago-wide beach clean-up.  They also removed debris from established plots to assess the rate of debris accumulation. One team spent 6 hours to remove all the debris from just a 20m plot! And, of course, they removed entanglement hazards as they arose.  This marks the second year that the monk seal team has been collaborating with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program’s marine debris team to make the NWHI a better place for wildlife.


Monk seals easily become entangled in nets, line, or other debris as they rest or investigate foreign material. (NMFS Photo)

As part of the on-going research cruise on the Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette, our crews have been removing the season’s worth of debris from the islands.  Teams removed 4 debris super sacks (large bags weighing 100-500 lb each!) from Laysan Island and 5 super sacks from Lisianski Island.  So far, over 3,300 lb of debris have been hoisted onto the Sette.  And more is waiting at other camps!  And it’s just a drop in the bucket!  Every field biologist in the camps expressed satisfaction in removing so much debris, but frustration at the amount that still remains and continues to accumulate.


Camp and cruise personnel heft large super sacks of debris from Lisianski Island into a small boat that will transport the debris to the Sette. (NMFS Photo)

But on the bright side – excess debris does lead to creativity.  Some campers get pretty crafty with marine debris!


Team Lisianski made a nice camp sign out of a washed up plastic lid. (NMFS Photo)


Field biologist Ilana Nimz used derelict fishing line and floats to weave a dream catcher – dreaming of a debris free beach! (NMFS Photo)

All monk seal work was conducted under NOAA ESA/MMPA permits 16632-01 and/or 18786.

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