Coastal cleanup at Papahānaumokuākea | WORLD
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Coastal cleanup

Project clears trash from remote Hawaiian atolls

Coastal cleanup

A team from a nature conservancy group sailed into a Honolulu port on April 21 with cargo holds full of garbage. Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project (PMDP) deployed a crew to clear more than 47 tons of plastic debris off the shorelines of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, helping to make the coastlines safe for the animals that call them home.

Every year, about 57 tons of plastic trash wash up on the shores of the islands within Papahānaumokuākea. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands fall in the middle of what conservationists call the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where currents cause trash to converge in one area of the northern Pacific Ocean. The islands catch large items while small pieces of plastic remain at sea.

There are no permanent human settlements on the islands, but the coral atolls play host to a number of rare wildlife species like the black-footed albatross and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. “Here’s a place that has no permanent human inhabitants and is hundreds of miles from the nearest human civilization. So on paper should have no impacts from humans. And yet you get up there and you see beaches that are more littered with marine debris than you’ve ever seen in the main Haiwaiian Islands,” said Kevin O’Brien, PMDP president and trek-leader, on the conservancy group’s Instagram page. “The scale of the problem is off the charts.”

O’Brien’s team weighed anchor in Honolulu on March 30 aboard the merchant freighter Imua. After days of sailing northwest, the team reached the first of six targeted atolls. After coming ashore on inflatable crafts, the team combed the beaches picking up bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, and plastic lighters. They also dug up abandoned fishing nets that had become partially submerged in the sand. Conservationists say wildlife can easily become entangled in the nets. By the time O’Brien’s crew returned to Honolulu, the Imua carried 94,472 pounds of trash bound for incineration in Hawaii or recycling.

“Talking to some of these folks that are up there for the monk seal camps every summer, they’ll talk about specific nets that have been there for several years,” O’Brien said. “So a trip like this where we’re able to yank pretty much everything we see can have an impact.”

John Dawson

John is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin, and he previously wrote for The Birmingham News. John resides in Dallas, Texas.


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