100,000 pounds of marine debris removed from Papahānaumokuākea

Kamaliʻi Andrade and Kaʻehukai Crane goin’ loading their boat with marine debris Kamokuokamohoaliʻi. (Photo credit: James Morioka/PMDP)

Nearly 100,000 pounds of marine debris that was smothering coral reefs and beaches in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands has been removed, thanks to a group including the University of Hawaii among Mānoa alumni and students.

net on the coral reef underwater with a diver
Diver Max Lee works to remove an abandoned fishing net from Kamokuokamohoaliʻi. (Photo credit: James Morioka/PMDP)

Sixteen free divers from the non-profit organization Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project (PMDP) collected 97,295 pounds of marine debris from the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument during a 27-day mission in July. More than 88% of that, or 86,000 pounds, consisted of ghost nets cleared from a single reef. Nine of the 16 team members were either uh Mānoa alumni and/or current students at uh Manoa and uh Hi.

“The fact that we are seeing this kind of accumulation in such a small area is really indicative of the scale of the global marine debris problem,” said Kevin O’Brien, PMDP President and Founder, and 2006 uh Graduated in Mānoa zoology.

The majority of the debris collected will be incinerated to generate electricity to power hundreds of Oʻahu houses, according to PMDP. In addition, some of the recyclable plastics will be set aside for PMDPof the local student-led ocean plastics recycling project.

Dangers of ghost nets

bird munching plastic net
A black-footed albatross inspects an abandoned fishing net on Kāmole/Laysan Island. (Photo credit: Andy Sullivan-Haskins/PMDP)

Ghost nets are large tangled masses of lost or discarded plastic fishing nets. They can cling to shallow coral reefs, smothering and breaking up colonies of living coral. These nets also pose a danger to most marine animals, including honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles), many species of seabirds, and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

The reef where the ghost nets were removed is known as Kamokuokamohoaliʻi (island of the shark god) or Maro Reef. It is one of the most diverse coral reefs in Hawaiihome to 37 species of coral. Kamokuokamohoaliʻi sits at the heart of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a string of remote, uninhabited islands that make up the final 1,300 miles of the Hawaiian island chain. The shallow part of the reef (depth less than 10 feet) on which marine debris has accumulated is about eight miles long. It is home to a vibrant ecosystem, including Hawaiian monk seals, honu, rays, sharks and thousands of reef fish, many of which are only found in Hawaii.

O’Brien described the amount of ghost nets removed from the reef as equivalent to walking through Central Park and a few surrounding blocks, and finding trash equal to the weight of a commercial airliner.

Locate ghost nets

person in the water dismantling a net on a reef
Diver Ryan Naluai works to remove a large abandoned fishing net from Kamokuokamohoaliʻi. (Photo credit: James Morioka/PMDP)

Divers swim in patterns above the reef to search for the nets. When a net is located, divers carefully cut the net from the reef to prevent further damage and carry it by hand in a boat. The nets vary in size, but can weigh over 2,000 pounds each. All removal work is done using freediving techniques to keep the team fast and agile.

Other marine debris

In addition to the 86,000 pounds of ghost nets collected, PMDP also cleaned an additional 11,000 pounds of nets and plastics from the shores of two other locations: Kamole (Laysan Island) and Kapou (Lisianski Island).

An estimated 115,000 pounds of marine debris accumulate on the reefs of Papahānaumokuākea each year, according to PMDP Executive Director James Moriokawho is a 2012 uh Mānoa graduated in marine biology. PMDPThe next cleanup mission is scheduled for September, with the goal of removing an additional 100,000 pounds of debris.

“It’s our goal to PMDP to continue regular clean-up efforts in the future to maintain the health of coral reefs and protect countless animals from entanglement and potential injury or death,” Morioka said.

people clinging to nets above the surface of the water
Kevin O’Brien, Namele Naipo-Arsiga, Gabriela Echeverry, Kaʻehukai Goin, Derek LeVault and Charlotte Frank work to remove a large abandoned fishing net from Kamokuokamohoaliʻi. (Photo credit: James Morioka/PMDP)

Other PMDP team members with uh ties:

  • Derek LeVaultuh Manoa, 2006, BA zoology
  • Kaʻehukai Grant Goinuh Manoa, 2021, BA Hawaiian studies; is currently pursuing a MRS in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science at uh Hello
  • Maximilian Leeuh Manoa, 2020, BS Marine biology
  • Sydney Luitgaardenuh Manoa, 2019, BS Marine biology
  • Louise Currieuh Manoa, 2017, BS Marine biology
  • Nome Naipo-Arsigauh Manoa, 2017, BS kinesiology and rehabilitation sciences
  • Charlotte Frank—currently enrolled at uh Mānoa in the Graduate Certificate Program in Ocean Policy at the College of Social Sciences
large fishing nets on a boat
97,295 pounds of marine debris (mostly derelict fishing gear) removed from Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (Photo credit: James Morioka/PMDP)

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