The final count: team removes 14 metric tons of marine debris from Midway Atoll

By Kevin O’Brien
James Morioka, Kerrie Krosky, Kristen Kelly, Tomoko Acoba, Kevin O’Brien, Kerry Reardon, Edmund Coccagna, Joao Garriques, and Russell Reardon (clockwise from upper right) pose on April 18 atop the large, 13,795-kg pile of derelict fishing gear and plastic debris collected during their 21-day mission at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by Edmund Coccagna

James Morioka, Kerrie Krosky, Kristen Kelly, Tomoko Acoba, Kevin O’Brien, Kerry Reardon, Edmund Coccagna, Joao Garriques, and Russell Reardon (clockwise from upper right) pose on April 18 atop the large, 13,795-kg pile of derelict fishing gear and plastic debris collected during their 21-day mission at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by Edmund Coccagna

Members of the marine debris team of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) returned to Honolulu on April 19 from a 21-day marine debris survey and removal effort at Midway Atoll. Since the last blog update on April 15, the 9-member team conducted an additional 6 days of operations, bringing the grand total for the entire mission to nearly 14 metric tons (13,795 kg) of derelict fishing gear and plastic debris removed from the reefs and shorelines of this remote atoll in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and World Heritage Site.

Russell Reardon on March 31 removes a large derelict fishing net from the reef at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by James Morioka

Russell Reardon on March 31 removes a large derelict fishing net from the reef at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by James Morioka

In addition to the removal of debris, the team also conducted a pilot study of accumulation rates of marine debris in nearshore waters and along shorelines at Midway Atoll, continued to test protocols for assessment of benthic injuries related to marine debris, and surveyed for debris items potentially related to the Japan tsunami event of March 2011. Results from these secondary projects are not yet available at this early date.

Tomoko Acoba, Russell Reardon, Kerrie Krosky, and Joao Garriques remove a large, buried derelict fishing net from the shoreline of Eastern Island on April 6. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

Tomoko Acoba, Russell Reardon, Kerrie Krosky, and Joao Garriques remove a large, buried derelict fishing net from the beach at Eastern Island on April 6. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

What can be reported is the success of the main mission to survey and remove marine debris. In total, the team surveyed 43% of the shallow-reef areas of Midway Atoll that historically have been shown to contain high densities of marine debris. All derelict fishing gear found during in-water surveys was removed to mitigate entanglement of the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) and green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), which are listed as endangered and threatened, respectively, under the Endangered Species Act.

Although the marine debris removed from shallow-water reefs was composed entirely of derelict fishing gear, the shorelines of Midway Atoll yielded a diverse range of debris types and items. Derelict fishing gear and plastics ≥10 cm in size were removed from the totality of the shoreline areas of Eastern Island and Spit Island and from portions of Sand Island. Debris was then transported by boat to the seaplane tarmac on Sand Island. Once there, shoreline debris was sorted and tallied by category. This tally of debris makes for an interesting look at the breakdown of the types of debris that accumulate at Midway. The table below shows the top 20 debris types, by quantity, that were removed from the shorelines of Midway Atoll during this mission.

Midway_table copy

In addition to the debris listed in the table at right, many random oddities were collected during shoreline work: toilet seats, golf clubs, plastic swords, umbrella handles, soccer balls, truck tires, a snowboard boot, a bowling ball, a fireman’s helmet, a 15-m plastic pipe, a traffic barrier, and, of course, the 23.5-ft fishing boat that was confirmed as lost in the 2011 Japan tsunami event, among other things.

“Just about anything you can imagine that humans use in their day-to-day lives, you can find it washed up on the beaches,” says Joao Garriques, a member of the CRED marine debris team, in reference to shoreline surveys at Midway Atoll. “You just can’t predict what you might find up there, 1200 miles from the nearest city.”

Kevin O’Brien disentangles a Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) chick from a piece of derelict fishing net on April 10 on Eastern Island. NOAA photo

Kevin O’Brien disentangles a Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) chick from a piece of derelict fishing net on April 10 on Eastern Island. NOAA photo

Management of all the small plastics during removal operations can be a challenge. This season, the team used large “bulk bags” that were 1.2 by 1.2 m and could be lifted easily by crane—the kind of bags used for transportation of gravel and sand—to facilitate the movement of small plastic debris between islands via inflatable boat. The bags worked well for management of the thousands of small debris items collected during shoreline surveys. The importance of the removal of these smaller plastic items is evident at Midway Atoll, because Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) chicks frequently can be seen chewing curiously on debris or becoming entangled in small net pieces.

Edmund Coccagna on April 18 holds up a slipper and stands behind the other 885 slippers and rubber-soled shoes collected from the shorelines of Midway Atoll during this marine debris mission. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

Edmund Coccagna on April 18 holds up a slipper and stands behind the other 885 slippers and rubber-soled shoes collected from the shorelines of Midway Atoll during this marine debris mission. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

“The amount of plastics in the environment up here is pretty alarming,” says James Morioka, a member of the CRED marine debris team, after witnessing the amount of debris present on the shoreline of Eastern Island after only 9 months of accumulation since the last marine debris mission at Midway Atoll ended in July 2012. “Just trying to keep up with it is kind of overwhelming.”

Now back in Honolulu, the marine debris team is demobilizing and processing data. The success of this mission was due in great part to the assistance of the partners of the PIFSC-CRED Marine Debris Project: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office’s Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program, NOAA Marine Debris Program, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

This photo, taken at the end of this mission on April 18, shows some of the 4781 bottle caps collected from Midway Atoll shorelines by a 9-member team from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

This photo, taken at the end of this mission on April 18, shows some of the 4781 bottle caps collected from Midway Atoll shorelines by a 9-member team from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

The contents of this plastic crate make up just a portion of the 1249 cigarette lighters found on the shorelines of Midway Atoll during this mission. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

The contents of the plastic crate in this photo make up just a portion of the 1249 cigarette lighters found on the shorelines of Midway Atoll during this mission. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

Update from Midway Atoll: team removes Japan tsunami boat, 9 metric tons of marine debris

By Kevin O’Brien
Kerrie Krosky, Kristen Kelly, Edmund Coccagna, Tomoko Acoba, Joao Garriques, Kerry Reardon, and Russell Reardon (from left) of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division on April 8 haul a tangled mass of derelict fishing gear into a 17-ft Avon inflatable boat during a 21-day mission to survey and remove marine debris at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by James Morioka

Kerrie Krosky, Kristen Kelly, Edmund Coccagna, Tomoko Acoba, Joao Garriques, Kerry Reardon, and Russell Reardon (from left) of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division on April 8 haul a tangled mass of derelict fishing gear into a 17-ft Avon inflatable boat during a 21-day mission to survey and remove marine debris at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by James Morioka

Staff members of the marine debris team of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) are near the end of a 21-day mission to survey and remove marine debris at Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As of April 12, after 13 days of operations, a 9-person team had removed nearly 9 metric tons (8991 kg) of derelict fishing gear, plastics, and other debris items, including a fishing boat, from the reefs and shorelines of Midway Atoll, one of several atolls and islands of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and World Heritage Site.

The team is well on its way to completion of the required towed-diver surveys, despite some challenging wind and swell conditions. During in-water operations, towed divers visually surveyed reefs for derelict fishing gear. When derelict fishing gear was spotted on a reef, the divers carefully cut the debris free of the reef bottom and hauled it up over the side of one of the 17-ft Avon inflatable boats used to tow divers and transport debris. Over the course of the last few weeks, the team has conducted towed-diver surveys on the northern, northeastern, and southwestern fringing reefs of Midway Atoll. A pilot study of debris accumulation rates is also part of the operations this year: preselected regions of this atoll’s fringing reef are being surveyed for derelict fishing gear.

Kevin O'Brien, the leader of this marine debris mission for the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem, on April 8 works to remove a large fishing net found during towed-diver surveys at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by James Morioka

Kevin O’Brien, the leader of this marine debris mission for the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem, on April 8 works to remove a large fishing net found during towed-diver surveys at Midway Atoll. NOAA photo by James Morioka

In addition to in-water activities, shoreline survey and removal operations have been conducted on all 3 of Midway’s islands: Sand Island, Spit Island, and Eastern Island. All debris items >10 cm in size were cleaned from the shoreline areas of these islands and transported back to the team’s headquarters on Sand Island. There, the debris was weighed, sorted, and tallied by debris type. For a side project, one marine debris standing-stock survey was conducted on each of the 3 islands of Midway Atoll. During these surveys, researchers recorded all debris items ≥2.5 cm in size observed within randomly selected transects on a beach. These data will be added to the national marine debris database maintained by the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

On April 7, the team successfully removed a 23.5-ft fishing boat from an area above the shoreline on the remote southeastern corner of Eastern Island. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel, this fishing boat was first noticed stranded on the beach in November 2012. At that time, the boat was cleared of any biofouling organisms and moved up into the vegetation above the high tide line. The writing on the bow of this fishing boat was relayed by the NOAA Marine Debris Program to the Consulate-General of Japan in Honolulu, and staff members there, working with their colleagues in the Government of Japan, confirmed the boat as lost during the March 2011 tsunami event in Japan. This boat is the third marine debris item found in Hawai`i that has been confirmed from the tsunami in Japan.

Together, the 9 members of the CRED team were able to muscle the 770-kg boat from the vegetation line down to the water’s edge, using logs and old pipes as rollers under the hull. Next, a tow line was connected to the bow, and one of the team’s Avon boats towed the fishing vessel off the shoreline into deeper water and then the nearly 5 km across the channel to Sand Island. The vessel was brought alongside the seawall in the inner harbor of Sand Island and lifted from the water onto the concrete of the old seaplane tarmac at the eastern end of this island. This boat now is staged on the tarmac with the rest of the collected marine debris and awaits shipment to Honolulu.

On April 7, a 9-member team from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division successfully removed from the shoreline of Eastern Island, Midway Atoll, a 23.5-ft fishing vessel that has been confirmed as lost during the March 2011 Japan tsunami event. Upper left: Team members siphon out water from the boat’s hull space before moving it down the beach. Above: Team members shove the fishing vessel off the shoreline and hook up a tow line between it and a 17-ft Avon inflatable boat for towing to Midway’s Sand Island. Upper right: James Morioka (left) and Joao Garriques tend lines as they lift the fishing boat out of the harbor at Sand Island. NOAA photos by Kevin O’Brien, Kristen Kelly, and Edmund Coccagna

On April 7, a 9-member team from the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division successfully removed from the shoreline of Eastern Island, Midway Atoll, a 23.5-ft fishing vessel that has been confirmed as lost during the March 2011 Japan tsunami event. Upper left: Team members siphon out water from the boat’s hull space before moving it down the beach. Above: Team members shove the fishing vessel off the shoreline and hook up a tow line between it and a 17-ft Avon inflatable boat for towing to Midway’s Sand Island. Upper right: James Morioka (left) and Joao Garriques tend lines as they lift the fishing boat out of the harbor at Sand Island. NOAA photos by Kevin O’Brien, Edmund Coccagna, and Kristen Kelly 

The team found another notable item potentially related to the Japan tsunami on the southwestern corner of Sand Island on April 6during shoreline surveys. The item was a large pallet tub made of blue plastic similar to bins used in seafood shipping. Tomoko Acoba, a member of the marine debris team, was able to translate the writing on this tub. It read “Yamanaga Suisan,” the name of a fisheries company located in Ishinomaki City, Japan, a town hard-hit by the 2011 tsunami. This information was sent to the regional coordinator of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, who is working with the Consulate-General of Japan in Honolulu and waiting for confirmation on whether or not this item is indeed related to the tsunami.

With only a few more days left that are slated for marine debris operations before they return to Honolulu, the team members are working harder than ever to ensure they leave Midway Atoll a cleaner place than it was when they arrived!

During shoreline surveys on April 6, the team found this blue plastic tub on the southwestern corner of Sand Island, Midway Atoll. It has not yet been confirmed if this tub came from Japan as a result of the March 2011 tsunami event. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly

During shoreline surveys on April 6, the team found this blue plastic tub on the southwestern corner of Sand Island, Midway Atoll. It has not yet been confirmed if this tub came from Japan as a result of the March 2011 tsunami event. NOAA photo by Kristen Kelly