As remote as they may be, the Northwestern Hawaiian isles at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument end up with an estimated 115,000 pounds of marine debris litter on their shores, including derelict fishing gear, every year.
A team of 11 led by the nonprofit Papahanaumokuakea Marine Debris Project, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently removed more than 82,600 pounds of marine debris and trash during a 16-day cleanup project.
All of the debris came from Lalo, or the French Frigate Shoals, a remote atoll within the monument that provides essential habitat for nesting seabirds, threatened green sea turtles, and endangered Hawaiian monk seals.
Lalo is home to over 90% of the Hawaiian population of sea turtles that travel there for safe nesting, as well as 18 different seabird species and approximately 500,000 breeding seabirds. It is also an important pupping site for Hawaiian monk seals.
“Working together with the Papahanaumokuakea Marine Debris Project and Monument co-managers, we were able to reduce the amount of entrapment and entanglement hazards at Lalo,” said USFWS Monument Superintendent Jared Underwood in a news release. “Though work to cleanup debris takes place throughout the year, this trip was essential for removing some of the larger threats posed by aging infrastructure on the island.”
In October 2018, when Hurricane Walaka passed over Lalo as a Category 3 storm, the winds and storm surge scattered debris across Tern Island, the largest island.
The hurricane exacerbated the existing entrapment threats to wildlife, which were posed by infrastructure left behind from the island’s days as a U.S. Navy airfield in World War II, U.S. Coast Guard Long Range Navigation radio station, and field research station.
Since then, debris cluttering Tern Island has posed an increased hazard to wildlife, entangling and entrapping turtles, monk seals, and several species of seabirds.
The crew removed derelict fishing nets and plastics. as well as infrastructure-related hurricane debris, including lumber, roofing, steel cable, scrap metal, boat hulls, tires, and fiberglass.
They also broke up problematic sections of concrete slab, and strategically removed some steel slats that made up the World War II-era sea wall to provide escape routes back to the open ocean for entrapped monk seal pups and turtles.
“Papahanaumokuakea is the most amazing landscape on earth, both ecologically and culturally, and one that sustains our most vulnerable Hawaiian wildlife species,” said project president and founder Kevin O’Brien in the release. “Picture tiny sandy islands where nearly every square foot of land is used by seabirds, turtles and seals for critical nesting, burrowing, basking and pupping. So it’s a good feeling when we come away from one of these cleanups with a massive pile of rubbish, because each pound of debris removed from this landscape directly translates into square footage of new, safe, available space for wildlife to use. This type of tangible positive action is what our organization works to provide for the wildlife of Papahanaumokuakea.”
The debris will be sent to designated disposal locations, while plastics and metals will be repurposed and recycled.
Support for the clean-up was provided by the USFWS, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, USFWS Pacific Islands Coastal Program, NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and Office of Hawaiian Affairs, as well as private donations.