Two Marine Debris Program staffers are participating in NOAA’s annual mission to remove derelict nets and other marine debris from sensitive coral reefs and shorelines in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. An estimated 52 tons of derelict fishing gear washes up in the Monument each year, threatening the pristine ecosystem. Follow their journey.
By: Dianna Parker
Mission Log 9
The marine debris removal mission isn’t entirely about derelict fishing gear. For several days, our team removed thousands of pieces of plastics and other marine debris from two tiny islands at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
The variety of litter we found on Midway Atoll, a little wildlife paradise more than 1,000 miles from any city, was astounding. Each team surveyed several transects of shoreline, cleaning up debris 10 centimeters or larger in size. Bottle caps, cigarette lighters, and small floats were an exception, since birds eat them. We picked up 7,436 hard plastic fragments, 3,748 bottle caps, 1,469 plastic beverage bottles, 477 lighters, dozens of buoys, ropes, and floats, toys, toothbrushes, laundry baskets, shipping crates, a firefighter’s hat, and other remnants of human consumption and commercial fishing activity.
Cleaning up shorelines is less physically taxing than diving for derelict nets, but it can be brutal in its own way. Each pile of miscellaneous debris, no matter how heavy, has to be carried and waded out to the small boats, which are positioned off shore. Everything gets packed into enormous, 42 gallon bags in the boat and transported back to a pier on Midway’s main island. Each bag weighs more than 200 pounds with all the debris packed inside.
Then there’s “the sort,” which is exactly what it sounds like: we dumped everything on the pier, sorted it into categories, and tallied it up. It was chaotic – 243 bottle caps here! 20 hard buoys over! – and very dirty. Gloves and a tolerance for foul smells were a must.
The marine debris removal team has done this cleanup at Midway Atoll for several years now, and besides the ultimate goal of cleaner beaches for wildlife, the data collection gives us information about the debris. On one beach, we did an accumulation survey using NOAA Marine Debris Program protocols, which can help us better understand how fast debris accumulates and whether there are any debris “hotspots.”
Midway Atoll is a fascinating place – not only because of its abundance of wildlife, but because of its tremendous history, including its pivotal role in World War II. It was a U.S. Naval Air Station, submarine base, and site of the Battle of Midway, a turning point of the war in the Pacific. Much of the Navy’s original infrastructure is still there.
Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the atoll, protecting the remaining historical presence in addition to the wildlife. Endangered Hawaiian monk seals, turtles, and a pod of spinner dolphins live there. Nearly three million birds, including the world’s largest population of albatross, nest on the islands.
As we walked the beaches, we saw dozens of bird carcasses with brightly colored plastics spilling out of their stomach cavities. We do not know whether the plastic caused any of their deaths, but it’s still a jarring sight. It’s an indicator of just how far our marine debris problem goes: Midway Atoll is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and none of these birds feed anywhere near an urban center.