Huge piles of fishing buoys and nets, old footballs and volleyballs, a postal service box with rubber slippers in it, cracked construction helmets, big black tires, broken laundry baskets and even a plastic pink flamingo were stacked up Thursday morning along a federal pier at Ford Island.

In all, roughly 100,000 pounds of marine debris were collected on the reefs and shorelines of Midway and Kure atolls over the past six years before it was finally hauled more than 1,000 miles to Honolulu, where much of it will be incinerated and turned into energy.

State and federal officials came together at the pier by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Inouye Regional Center to draw attention to the toll of marine debris at the two atolls and other places in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz talked about the importance of removing marine debris from the ocean Thursday at Ford Island. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Kevin O’Brien, who led the marine debris removal project with NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, said since 1996 federal teams have removed nearly 2 million pounds of marine debris from in and around islands within the monument’s boundaries, which President Obama expanded last year to now encompass 582,000 square miles.

O’Brien underscored how the fishing nets and plastics harm endangered turtles, seals, corals and seabirds, and that removing the marine debris is one of the most immediate and tangible things his agency and others can do to help.

Thousands of pounds of marine debris collect on the shores of Midway Atoll, home to the world’s largest albatross colony, every year. Courtesy: NOAA

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said the story of marine conservation is one of good news and bad news. The good news comes in accounts of government agencies and private entities partnering to clean up the ocean. The bad news is the problem is getting worse.

By 2050, he said, scientists expect there to be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight). So the solution must also involve reducing the amount of trash people create in the first place, he said.

Schatz said the issue of marine debris — unlike more complex problems like climate change — is solvable.

“This is a matter of too much trash in the ocean,” he said. “We know what the solution is, which is to remove the trash from the ocean.”

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources provided funding to help the feds haul 12 shipping containers of marine debris that had been collected at Midway and Kure and stored on the tarmac at Midway.

Plastics, trash and discarded fishing gear end up on remote beaches and reefs — and in the belly of this black-footed albatross chick at Midway Atoll. Courtesy: Dan Clark/USFWS

It will be processed by Schnitzer Steel Corporation and transported to Honolulu’s H-POWER plant to be incinerated to produce electricity.

“Marine debris are not something you can clean up just once; it takes a sustained effort over time,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Superintendent Matt Brown said. “By working with the state of Hawaii, Office of Hawaiian Affairs and NOAA, we can accomplish more than any one agency on its own to clean up marine debris and educate the public to prevent it from entering the ecosystem.”

Given how fast it is accumulating, NOAA Marine Debris Program Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator Mark Manuel said it is “imperative” to remove the debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to “ensure the health of this valuable habitat and the species that call it home.”

Jason Misaki, DLNR’s Oahu wildlife manager, estimated the cost to load, ship and unload the marine debris at $225,000.

Watch a video from the press conference below.

About the Author