PIFSC/JIMAR Divers and Crew of the Chartered Marine Debris Cleanup Vessel Casitas Safe after Grounding at Pearl and Hermes Atoll

July 5, 2005

We are very happy that our 16 marine debris divers and the crew of the grounded ship M/V Casitas are safe and sound on Midway Island. They are expected back in Honolulu later today (Tuesday).

Here's a brief synopsis of what started as a harrowing night on Friday and was followed by substantial relief on Monday.

Around midnight on Friday, July 1st, the Casitas, on a mission to remove marine debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, ran hard aground near North Island at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. The vessel was steaming from Midway Island to Maro Reef for further marine debris clean-up activity when it ran onto the reef. The reason for the accident is unknown, and the Coast Guard is expected to conduct its usual thorough investigation for this type of incident. The vessel had 16 NOAA/Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR) divers from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) and a crew of 8 on board.

The vessel was chartered by NOAA to conduct an important marine debris clean-up project at various locations in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands during the summer. Most of the marine debris consists of fishing nets lost or discarded at sea by non-Hawaiian fishing vessels operating in waters far away from Hawaii. After being carried in the ocean currents for months or years, the derelict nets become entangled in reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where they pose a significant threat to highly endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other marine life. The project was designed to census, document, and remove marine debris in shallow water coral reef environments using small, inflatable boats launched from the Casitas and teams of NOAA-trained divers. The Casitas had departed from Honolulu on June 8th and was expected to be at sea for 120 days. This was the second year the Casitas was contracted by NOAA, and the ninth year that NOAA has conducted marine debris clean-ups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Over 100 metric tons of debris have been collected and removed annually during these clean-up missions.

Evacuation from the grounded vessel was initiated by our own divers and the crew of the Casitas before daybreak on Saturday using the same NOAA small boats (called Avons) used for the marine debris clean-up. The scientists and crew shuttled to North Island (roughly 4 miles from the grounding location) throughout the day on Saturday. They then made contact with the PIFSC monk seal field camp at the southeast end of Pearl and Hermes Atoll, where they were picked up by the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette just before sunset on Sunday and transported by the Sette to Midway Island to await a flight back to Honolulu.

No injuries were reported from the grounding or the subsequent rescue. There are many people to thank, and we will do so when we get a chance to catch our breath.

For more information, please contact Wende Goo of NOAA Fisheries Service public affairs.