Taking Out Trash

by Kevin O’Brien

A friend of mine from Idaho just said to me, “you know, it’s good to have a job that lets you make piles.” I smiled immediately because I totally agree with him. He said, “There’s nothing like stepping outside in the morning with your cup of coffee and just gazing at your pile.” He brought it up in the context of chopping wood, in Idaho, but I feel that the concept is particularly apt for marine debris removal.

I’ve found myself “gazing at the pile” repeatedly over the last week as our team of staff volunteers and I unloaded the debris that was shipped here from Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. All too often in the field of resource management, your daily impact is hard to visualize or quantify. Not so with something like this:

Marine Debris pile

100,000 pounds of marine debris removed from Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Kevin O’Brien).

This giant pile of marine debris13 shipping containers holding approximately 100,000 poundsrecently traveled back to Honolulu from Midway aboard the charter vessel Kahana. This debris was collected from the reefs and beaches of Midway and Kure Atoll Wildlife Sanctuary over the last six years. Some of the debris was brought back opportunistically by NOAA ships, but much of the debris had to be stored on the tarmac at Midway until it could be shipped to Honolulu.

Debris at Midway Atoll

Fishing buoys, derelict nets, and plastic debris stored on the seaplane tarmac at Midway Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Dillon).

Thanks to support from the State of Hawai‘i, personnel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were able to jam-pack containers full of marine debris, crane it onto the Kahana, and ship it here to be sorted, recycled, and repurposed. You just can’t ignore the size of this pile, both as a measure of job satisfaction, but also as an indelible visual reminder of the huge challenge that we all face in combating the pervasive problem of plastics in our oceans. A problem that isn’t going away.

For the past ten years, I’ve assisted in coordinating the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program’s marine debris removal project and have seen first hand the dramatic impacts that marine debris has on our marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Since 1996, our team’s annual efforts in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, have successfully removed more than 1.9 million pounds of marine debris, mostly derelict fishing gear, from the most remote reefs and shorelines of this incredible, wild, archipelago.

Hauling nets

Kevin O’Brien and Frances Lichowski remove derelict fishing nets from the coral reefs and haul them away by small boat (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

Some of the debris in “the pile” is a result of our efforts at Midway Atoll where we worked to develop more efficient methods for large-scale shoreline plastics removal, enabling us to tackle this difficult aspect of marine debris for the first time. Removing debris from the sensitive environment of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is critically important in many ways. Whether it’s preventing a derelict fishing net from further smothering and fragmenting a vibrant bed of porites coral, disentangling an endangered Hawaiian monk seal, or preventatively cleaning all plastics from a mile of shoreline filled with hungry albatross chicks, these actions are one of the most immediate and tangible steps we can take to ensure the continued health of this fragile ecosystem. In addition to gazing at large satisfying piles, and the thought of lots of coffee, what continues to get me up every morning is the opportunity to continue this important hands-on work.

Albatross 2013

Kevin O’Brien carefully frees a Laysan Albatross chick that was entangled in fishing net on Eastern Island, Midway Atoll in 2013 (Photo: NOAA Fisheries)

Imagine what would happen if the trash collector stopped showing up at your home. First the can would fill up, then a few trash bags would pile up, and after a week, you’d find it spilling over into the yard and the driveway. After a few weeks, you wouldn’t be able to back your car out of the garage, and after a couple of months, the dog in your yard would be trying to lay claim to the last scrap of grassy green real estate amidst heaps of trash bags. The same analogy applies to Midway Atoll, Kure Atoll, and every island within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monumentonly on a scale that is daunting and with the added element of sensitive protected species instead of your family dog.

Laysan albatross P&H

Laysan albatross chick surrounded by marine debris on the remote Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

A 2006 NOAA study estimated that 52 metric tons of derelict fishing gear alone accumulates in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands every year. That doesn’t even account for the unknown tons of plastics accumulating on the shorelines. The islands and atolls of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are very remote. For example, Kure Atoll at the end of the chain is 1,368 miles from Honolulu. Conducting work of any kind here is difficult and costly due to the immense distances and tricky access to these islands.

The debris you see in this giant “pile” represents the collective cleanup efforts of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge Staff, the State of Hawai‘i Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and NOAA, at both Midway and Kure Atolls. It also represents a significant investment by the State to transport this marine debris back to Honolulu via charter vessel- the final missing link. It was these agencies’ willingness to collaborate, pitch in resources, and think outside the box that enabled this effort to happen.

Highlighting this marine debris removal effort is, among other things, an effort to bring together the people and organizations who are actively involved in doing management work in Hawaii’s protected areasto keep the issue of marine debris in the forefront of our collective consciousness. It is my hope, that, using this successful collaborative mission as a model, we can find creative ways to continue this important work, together. Whether that’s through forging new partnerships, fostering existing ones, pooling resources to enable larger scale efforts such as this, thinking outside the box to close the loop on the open ended flow of plastics into the ocean, or tackling prevention through education and outreach, it is clear that we are stronger and more effective when we work together.

I’d like all of us who read this and find ourselves concerned with the issue of marine debris to see ourselves as a community. A community of stewards who are responsible for protecting an important natural resource. Let’s meet each other. Let’s get to know each other better. Let’s continue this dialogue in order to maintain momentum going forward. Because, despite the satisfaction we all get from looking at a big pile like this, the ultimate goal is to someday not even have one.

Midway derelict fishing nets

A black-footed albatross surveys a beach cleared of debris piles (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/David Slater).


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