Expedition to Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Yields 50 Tons of Marine Debris

From May 28 to July 14, 2012, PIFSC researchers from the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) and Protected Species Division (PSD) collected and removed nearly 50 tons of marine debris from waters and shorelines around the northernmost islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). Marine debris threatens monk seals, sea turtles and other marine life in the coral reef ecosystem. NOAA has conducted annual missions to remove marine debris in the NWHI since 1996 as part of a coral reef restoration effort.

CRED staff led a 27-day land-based marine debris mission at Midway Atoll and then joined PSD monk seal scientists on a 21-day cruise aboard the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette. Debris was collected at Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Lisianski Island, and Laysan Island. About half of the debris consisted of derelict fishing gear and plastic objects collected from Midway Atoll's shallow coral reef environments.

As part of this year's mission, the PIFSC team looked for debris originating from the massive 2011 tsunami in Japan; however, no debris with an explicit connection to this tsunami was found. As a precautionary measure and to gather baseline data for the NWHI, scientists monitored marine debris for radiation in partnership with the Hawaii Department of Health. The marine debris removed during the mission was transported on the Sette to Honolulu, where it will be used to create electricity for Oahu through the state's Nets to Energy Program, a public-private partnership. Since 2002, more than 730 metric tons of derelict nets have been used to create electricity—enough to power nearly 350 Hawaii homes for a year.

Funding and logistics support for the mission was provided by CRED, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.