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Nearly 100,000 pounds of marine debris removed from reefs, beaches at Papahānaumokuākea

Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project northwestern hawaiian islands July 2022
James Morioka/PMDP
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Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project
Kevin OʻBrien, Nāmele Naipo-Arsiga, Gabriela Echeverry, Kaʻehukai Goin, Derek LeVault and Charlotte Frank work to remove a large derelict fishing net at Kamokuokamohoaliʻi / Maro Reef.

A team of 16 freedivers recovered a staggering amount of marine debris last month off reefs and beaches in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

During a 27-day expedition, the nonprofit Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project found 97,295 pounds of ghost nets and plastics. The team returned to Honolulu on Saturday aboard the 185-foot ship M/V Imua.

This is the fourth time the group has gone out to remove trash from the islands since 2020. The amount of trash picked up has been steady.

“It is just shocking how much of it is up there," said Kevin O’Brien, the president of PMDP. "In 2007, NOAA published a research paper that estimated 52 metric tons, or 115,000 pounds, of just fishing nets wash up on the reefs of the National Monument every year.

"A 30-day cleanup project like the one we just completed will only barely keep up with that influx," he said.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project
James Morioka/PMDP
/
Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project
Over 97,000 pounds of marine debris, primarily derelict fishing gear, removed from the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

The nonprofit started three years ago with the goal of ramping up cleanup efforts in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It works with the federal and state government to protect the remote area.

On this latest trip, 86,000 pounds of ghost nets were cleaned up from a single reef — Kamokuokamohoaliʻi, or Maro Reef. It's about 850 miles northwest of Honolulu.

“Every time we head out on the ship, we have three shipping containers on the back deck that we've cut the tops off to make big, essentially trash bins. And so that amount of net looks like about three shipping containers filled up with ghost nets," O'Brien said.

PMDP plans to spend at least 60 days at sea for cleanup every year. The regular cleanups will remove tons of marine debris, helping to protect the coral reef and animals that call Papahānaumokuākea home.

“Long story short, there's just tons of it out there and every time we go up, it's a little bit sobering, but by the end of the 30-day mission, and we come back with 100,000 pounds — we know we've made a really good dent," O'Brien told HPR. "I think, you know, with this level of effort, I'm really confident we'll be able to catch up with the backlog and keep up with new influx of debris every year."

Large trawl net found at Kamokuokamohoaliʻi, or Maro Reef. Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project
James Morioka/PMDP
/
Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project
Large trawl net found at Kamokuokamohoaliʻi, or Maro Reef.

Jason Ubay is a news editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Send your story ideas to him at jubay@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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