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. About 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 4
Surveying and removing nets is a very methodical, strategic process. As I mentioned earlier, an in-house GIS team creates maps with a series of points, and once the teams set out for the day, they spread far and wide to these pre-assigned locations. The survey areas are not random; they’re chosen based on data going back to 1999 that show debris hotspots within the reefs and weather trends.
One set of divers gets to work, swimming along the reef structure’s edge and visually scanning for nets trapped on the coral or in the substrate. The nets are very rarely just floating on the surface for an easy grab. Up on the boat, the coxswain and spotter are busy, too, directing the divers through the coral maze to each GIS point on the map. They are literally connecting the dots to ensure that no part goes un-surveyed.
When a net is located, the diver marks its location with GPS and relays data back to the spotter and coxswain on the boat. What kind of net is it? How big and what color? What level of biofouling is on it? This data will help future teams identify high density debris areas.
To remove the net, the divers – often working in tandem – will pull and cut as much as possible from the substrate without damaging any live coral. They are free diving, with no scuba tanks involved, since the nets they address are in less than 30-feet of water. They swim the nets back to the boat where the coxswain and spotter help lug it over the side. The nets are quite heavy in some cases, so getting them into the boat can require two or three people pulling at once. The divers work in shifts to ensure no one swims for too long – especially out here with ocean currents and brutal heat.
Doing this job requires an incredible amount of physical and mental strength. I asked Mark Manuel, the mission’s chief scientist, exactly what preparation his divers have to go through.
“Each day when the marine debris divers go out, they are using months of training to their advantage,” Manuel says. “We require each person to go through first aid and CPR courses, motorboat operator certification, specialized diver training and certification, and swim tests.”
The divers are also put through various safety exercises – including one referred to as the “Net Monster,” which simulates a situation where the diver is entangled in the net underwater.
Many of the divers have done this for years, but a few are new. “It’s extremely rewarding and a lot of hard work,” said Rachel Knapstein, a first-time diver on the marine debris mission. “Five days in, and I feel like I’m getting over the hump. I didn’t know how I would do it the first few days, but now it’s great and I feel like I’m making a difference. It’s really sad to see these nets that we pull up. They’re massive and this is such a pristine place.”
As for ship life? Rachel continued: “Close quarters with different people and spending weeks out at sea is pretty intense, too.”