KAHULUI, Maui — The heat from the helicopter radiated off the ocean surface as Go Fly Maui pilot Nick Moran hovered in position over a roughly 400-pound “ghost net.”

Leaning out of the doorless aircraft, Campbell Farrell yanked on a steel cable to hook a hefty GPS tracker to the blob of abandoned fishing gear.

As this scene unfolded earlier this month off the southwest shore of Maui, a curious tiger shark swam away and tour boats shuttled visitors in for a closer look at the humpback whales and calves spouting nearby.

Farrell, executive director of the ocean stewardship nonprofit Love The Sea, snagged the net on a second pass and detached the line. With the beacon transmitting its precise location, the helicopter returned to Kahului. A satisfying end to a nearly three-hour search that was actually for a much larger ghost net reported a few days earlier.

Go Fly Maui pilot Nick Moran, left, and Love The Sea Executive Director Campbell Farrell look in the waters off Molokini for a reported ghost net so they can attach the GPS beacon to it for a boat to then come pick up.

That weekend, a boat would use the GPS beacon to track the net and haul it safely to shore. The net and the mess of plastics tangled inside it will eventually be burned for electricity.

While the larger net — estimated about 16 times bigger — remains out there somewhere, Farrell and nonprofit partners plan to use this effort to help convince potential private and public funders that this helicopter-assisted method of finding and tagging such nets can significantly limit the damage they do.

Ghost nets, which get their name because they continue catching fish long after they are discarded, are a worldwide problem. They entangle wildlife, ensnare boat propellers, crush coral reefs and can wash ashore in areas that are hard to reach or that make removal challenging and even more expensive than hiring a helicopter.

The nets are largely from abandoned or lost commercial fishing gear. While technologies exist for the fishermen to track and recover their own gear with relatively inexpensive transponders, it’s usually not financially worth it to them. More money can be made fishing instead.

Since fishing nets are now mostly made of plastic and other materials that can take hundreds of years to degrade, they can drift at sea for decades and travel thousands of miles — potentially wreaking havoc on wildlife all the while.

Derelict fishing nets, known as ghost nets, were removed in June from the North Pacific Gyre where swirling ocean currents have collected marine debris and formed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Mary Crowley of Ocean Voyages Institute, in foreground, says it’s vitally important work. Courtesy: Ocean Voyages Institute

Policy changes, like a 1992 ban on drift nets for many areas, helped reduce the problem a bit. But discarded gear from bottom-set gill nets, trawling and longlining continue to accumulate in the ocean, along the shore and on beaches.

This poses a hazard to boats and impacts fish stocks, according to a United Nations report in 2018 that estimated up to 800,000 tons of ghost gear enter the ocean each year.

Partnerships have been crucial in making it possible to find the nets and bring them to shore. They share in costs like sending up the helicopter — about $1,000 for 90 minutes — or provide in-kind support like scientific expertise, such as that offered by Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Halfner of the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center.

Parley Hawaii CEO Kahi Pacarro, who spent almost 10 years with Sustainable Coastlines removing hundreds of thousands of pounds of nets from Hawaii beaches, is one such partner in the effort to remove ghost nets with Love The Sea.

“It’s exponentially easier to get out there with a boat and bring back these nets than 100 volunteers breaking their backs removing them on beaches,” he said.

A GPS tracker was attached to a small ghost net off of Maui via helicopter on Jan. 16. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2020

In the past, Pacarro said, the nets were removed after they were already posing a major threat or hurting something.

“That’s not acceptable, especially when we have one of the most prolific raising grounds for our whales,” he said, adding that the nets also take an economic toll on Hawaii when they land on beaches that are popular with tourists.

Mary Crowley, executive director of the California-based Ocean Voyages Institute, is another key partner, along with Oriana Kalama from Ocean Defender Adventures and Jennifer Lynch, director of Hawaii Pacific University’s Center for Marine Debris Research.

Ocean Voyages Institute conducted a cleanup expedition in 2019, working with the sailing cargo ship KWAI, that removed more than 84,000 pounds of nets and consumer debris from the North Pacific Gyre — home of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — before it found its way to the Hawaiian Islands. The group removed 12,000 pounds of ghost nets from Kaneohe Bay last year.

Love The Sea Executive Director Campbell Farrell, right, considers where the abandoned net may have drifted since it was reported as Go Fly Maui pilot Nick Moran listens. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2020

“It is vitally important to remove even small pieces of netting that are found in the islands as small, medium sized and large nets are all very destructive to ocean life,” Crowley said.

She urged the public to report net sightings to her at mary@oceanvoyagesinstitute.org and/or the U.S. Coast Guard.

“This project is more than just what we were doing that day,” Pacarro said. “That was just a small picture of a broader scope, which is to get these nets before they wash ashore on our beaches or entangle wildlife or get stuck on our reefs.”

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