By: Carey Morishige
The issue of marine debris in the Pacific Islands region differs from most other areas in the U.S. because of the remote locations, fairly small island areas and unique ecosystems and species.
The Pacific Islands region, NOAA’s largest region geographically, encompasses Hawaiʻi, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) – a large region of islands and atolls spanning both sides of the International Date Line. Known for their beauty, these islands are distinctive in terms of marine debris due to their remote locations in the Pacific, small island areas and unique marine ecosystems and species.
In the islands, watersheds are fairly small (compared to those in the continental United States)and land and ocean are intimately connected. These island areas range in sizes from 76 mi2 (land area of American Samoa) to over 4,000 mi2 (Big Island of Hawaiʻi)—the approximate sizes of Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles County.
Each island deals with its share of “typical” types of marine debris, ranging from domestic litter to derelict fishing gear and vessels. Marine debris generated by natural disaster events is also a big issue in these island areas, including the 2009 tsunami in American Samoa and most recently with Japan tsunami marine debris. Impacts of marine debris on species and ecosystems in the islands translate directly to effects on the economy and culture of these special places.
On islands with limited land area, landfill space is at a premium. This makes marine debris disposal quite challenging. To address this issue in Hawaii, public-private partners created the Hawaiʻi Nets to Energy program in 2002, which uses derelict fishing net, line, and rope to create electricity. Additionally, remote island locations also add to the complexity, cost, and response-time for addressing marine debris.
Marine debris is not a new issue for these islands. Partnerships are a key to success in addressing marine debris in these unique island areas.