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NOAA PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program Removed 32,201 Pounds of Marine Debris from Midway Atoll in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument!

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By: James Morioka, Guest Blogger and Field Logistics Specialist with the NOAA PIFSC, Coral Reef Ecosystem Program

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), located around the mostly uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, includes reefs, atolls, and shallow and deep-sea habitats which are home to more than 7,000 marine species, many unique to Hawai`i. Centrally located within the North Pacific Gyre, the PMNM is particularly prone to marine debris accumulation that presents potentially lethal threats to numerous marine and avian species. For example, of the approximately 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses located at Midway Atoll in the far northwest of the PMNM, nearly all are found to have plastic in their digestive system, and roughly one-third of chicks die due to plastic ingestion.

An aerial image of Midway Atoll's barrier reef. (Photo Credit: NOAA PIFSC, Coral Reef Ecosystem Program)

An aerial image of Midway Atoll’s barrier reef. (Photo Credit: NOAA PIFSC, Coral Reef Ecosystem Program)

To combat this issue, a team of nine specialized divers from the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) conducted a 28-day operation to survey and remove marine debris at Midway Atoll, focusing on derelict fishing gear in shallow reef and shoreline environments. Debris accumulation and the concentration of microplastics (<5mm) and mesoplastics (between 5mm and 2.5cm) were also explored. The work was divided between in-water surveys and fishing gear removal from Midway’s barrier reef, and shoreline surveys and the removal of fishing gear and plastics from the beaches of all three of Midway’s islands (Sand Island, Eastern Island, and Spit Island). Overall, the team successfully removed 14,606 kilograms (32,201 pounds—that’s 6 elephants!) of derelict fishing gear and plastics.

Over the past three years, the cleanup effort at Midway Atoll has been focusing on removing derelict fishing gear and plastic items. Using a survey method modified from that used nationally by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, this study emphasizes the abundance of North Pacific fisheries-specific debris that accumulates in the Hawaiian Archipelago. By collecting, categorizing, and counting all of the removed debris, the team hopes to bring forth public awareness to what debris is accumulating, particularly everyday consumer products.

Everyday products littered the beaches of Midway Atoll, none more prominently than plastic beverage bottles. A total of 3,486 beverage bottles were removed from the shorelines, along with 9,019 separate bottle caps. Hundreds of other household items such as toothbrushes, personal care products, plastic dishware, plastic utensils, and other plastic containers were also removed, along with 959 disposable cigarette lighters. Plastic pollution dominates the collection of marine debris along shorelines every year, and with outreach and education, the team hopes to vocalize the plastic issue and open the eyes of the everyday consumer. Fisheries-specific debris is also a big problem, such as derelict fishing nets, fishing buoys and floats, eel cone traps, and oyster spacer tubes (typically used in aquaculture to separate scallop shells during long line oyster farming and cultivation). This year, 4,366 plastic oyster spacers were removed, as well as 4,178 hard plastic buoys and 1,467 foam buoys.

The human-created problem of marine debris will continue to threaten the fragile, vital, and valuable coral reef ecosystems across the Hawaiian archipelago until a more permanent solution is found. Fortunately we can each do our part every day to help protect our environment and wildlife from the effects of marine debris. Working together– from recycling and reusing materials, to participating in beach cleanups in your area– we can make a difference!

The cleanup team removed, sorted, and tallied 32,201 pounds of marine debris! (Photo Credit: NOAA PIFSC, Coral Reef Ecosystem Program)

The cleanup team removed, sorted, and tallied 32,201 pounds of marine debris! (Photo Credit: NOAA PIFSC, Coral Reef Ecosystem Program)

This year’s operation was made possible by the NOAA PIFSC CREP, funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and the in-kind services of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

7 thoughts on “NOAA PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program Removed 32,201 Pounds of Marine Debris from Midway Atoll in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument!

  1. I know of a lot6 of people who would love to help remove debris from these precious atolls. Thank you all for the great job you are all doing.

  2. will this debris be recycled?

    • Yes. However, due to the remote location of Midway Atoll, it is very difficult and expensive to immediately transport this debris back for recycling. Debris stays on Midway until the next NOAA ship or resupply barge is in the area to bring it back to Honolulu. It is then that debris is recycled or otherwise properly disposed of. Much of the debris is recycled through the Hawaii Nets to Energy program. The main goal of this effort was to remove it from the shorelines and reefs to reduce the chance of entanglement and ingestion.

  3. Thanks for all the hard work in cleaning up the planet!

  4. Outstanding effort! Now, everyone else needs to make a much smaller effort of controlling their own trash – it’s really not that hard – considering the scope of what this team had to do, the effort to better control our trash at an individual level is so much smaller and simpler.

  5. This is a fantastic example of caring people cleaning up our environment and a fantastic example of how severe the issue of plastic pollution really is. Our two young founders actually authored an award winning Plastic and Recycling Awareness Curriculum that teaches the next generation of leaders how to be the solution to the issue of plastic pollution: http://onemoregeneration.org/educational-program-info/

  6. Turn that discarded plastic into high quality fuel right there on the island. Check out the Clean Ocean Project or Clean Ocean International. Jim “Homer” Holm is your man. His team developed his dream. As a sailing captain he couldn’t handle the plight of the ocean. I think every Pacific island should have Homer’s machine. I’ve seen it work, it’s for real!

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