Plastics in Paradise: Scientists Collect 60 Tons of Junk Surrounding Remote Hawaiian Islands

The sheer volume of plastic pollution stunned researchers.

A Hawaiian monk seal hauled out on a large net at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. (Photo: Courtesy NOAA)

Oct 30, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Imagine you’re on a cruise through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—a 1,200-mile chain of atolls making up some of the most remote seascapes in the world.

Would you expect to find pristine beaches and crystal-clear water? Or nearly 60 tons of fishing nets and plastic garbage?

Diana Parker and 16 members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program found the latter.

“I’ve done a lot of cleanups in different parts of the country, on the East and West coasts,” Parker said. “I thought I’d seen everything, but getting out to those remote islands and seeing the mess out there was really shocking.”

The Sette, NOAA’s 224-foot research vessel, recently wrapped up a 33-day cleanup trip during which Parker and the team gathered as much garbage as they could. They ended up with around 57 tons of debris. Derelict fishing nets made up most of their haul.

The “ghost nets” can damage coral reefs, kill fish, and entangle marine mammals. The team rescued three green sea turtles stuck in fishing nets. Scientists discovered plastic in the stomach of nearly every dead bird found at Midway Atoll, according to Parker.

“It was heartbreaking, seeing them stuck like that,” she said. “It’s really gratifying to be able to help them, but at the same time, you realize what a big problem this is.”

Mark Manual, the chief scientist on the mission, said in a statement that the team pulled up nets every day of the trip.

“We filled the dumpster on the Sette to the top with nets, and then we filled the decks,” he said. “There’s a point when you can handle no more, but there’s still a lot out there.”

How much more debris is out there? It’s hard to say, but the handful of islands and atolls making up the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands act as a garbage dump for ocean plastic.

Parker said that stretch of ocean is in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, where the changing seasons shift ocean currents north and south. “As the currents shift back and forth, the islands act as a comb, snagging everything that’s swirling around in the ocean,” she explained.

In one year alone, it’s estimated that more than 52 metric tons of derelict nets end up in the 139,000-square-mile region.

But commercial fishing isn’t solely to blame. The NOAA team found more than six tons of plastic trash during the trip, including 3,758 bottle caps, 1,469 plastic beverage bottles, and 477 lighters.

The plastic pollution has become so severe that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating how plastics have damaged the environment at Tern Island, 564 miles northwest of Honolulu. The study should help scientists understand the dangers posed to wildlife by plastic and microplastic pollution.

“We can’t clean up the entire ocean on these trips,” Parker said. “We need people to be more responsible with their plastic, and a more solutions-based approach from the international fishing community on how to improve fishing gear, so not so many of these nets end up fishing indiscriminately.”