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person carrying a large net
During PMDP’s expedition, the team removed 16,820 pounds of marine debris from the critically important coastal shoreline of Kamole (Laysan Island). (Photo credit: Andrew Sullivan-Haskins)

More than 86,000 pounds of marine debris were removed from Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) by a team from Hawaiʻi-based non-profit organization Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project (PMDP). Nine of the 16 team members who were involved in the 30-day mission during July and August have ties to the University of Hawaiʻi.

large bunch of nets as people look on
PMDP Hawaiʻi charters a 180 foot long ship during its expeditions. The charter vessel is capable of housing the entire team during its 30-day missions and also has enough deck space for all four small boats as well as all the debris collected. (Photo credit: Andrew Sullivan-Haskins)

Of the 86,100 pounds of marine debris removed, 69,330 pounds or more than 80% were ghost nets:

57,240 pounds removed from Kamokuokamohoaliʻi (Maro Reef)

  • All 57,240 pounds were ghost nets removed from the coral reefs

16,820 pounds removed from Kamole (Laysan Island)

  • 6,720 pounds were ghost nets removed from the shorelines
  • 10,100 pounds were plastic and other debris removed from the shorelines

12,040 pounds removed from Kapou (Lisianski Island)

  • 5,370 pounds were ghost nets removed from the shorelines
  • 6,670 pounds were plastic and other debris removed from the shorelines
monk seal sleeping next to plastics
The island of Kamole (Laysan Island) is home to one of the largest populations of critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals in the world. Marine debris is one of the greatest threats to the survival of the Hawaiian monk seal. (Photo credit: Andrew Sullivan-Haskins)

“It feels good to be able to remove these nets and prevent entanglements to wildlife and damage to the healthy coral reefs, but at the same time it’s heartbreaking to see the continual influx of marine debris in one of the most pristine, protected places in the world,” said PMDP Executive Director James Morioka, a 2012 UH Mānoa graduate in marine biology and RCUH employee from 2011 to 2022.

“We need to do better globally to prevent these nets from entering the oceans, and it all starts with the decisions we make at home in our daily lives.”

Ghost net dangers

Using their team of highly-skilled freedivers and small boat operators, PMDP conducted the cleanups focusing on carefully removing ghost nets from the shallow coral reef environments. These ghost nets pose entanglement threats to protected endemic wildlife and suffocating negative impacts to the living coral reef habitats. The team also disentangled and saved a Hawaiian green sea turtle from a net, as well as several protected seabirds.

“If PMDP isn’t there to clean up Papahānaumokuākea, no one is,” Morioka said. “We happened to be in the right place at the right time to save that turtle. You can only imagine how many more lost animals there would be if PMDP wasn’t preemptively cleaning up these reefs.”

UH impact

Other PMDP team members with UH ties:

person diving next to a large bunch of nets
PMDP marine debris technician Ford Stallsmith resurfaces after working on a net at Kamokuokamohoaliʻi. (Photo credit: Andrew Sullivan-Haskins)

The team has a second mission to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2023 scheduled for August 26–September 22. Since 2020, PMDP has removed a total of 589,847 pounds of debris from Papahānaumokuākea. Over the last two years, the PMDP team has removed more than 143,345 pounds of ghost nets from just one single coral reef system: Kamokuokamohoaliʻi (Maro Reef).

A majority of the debris will be incinerated to generate electricity for powering hundreds of Oʻahu homes. Recyclable plastics will be set aside for PMDP’s local student-led ocean plastics recycling project.

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