Searchers airborne for ocean debris

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to get tough with marine debris off Kaua’i.

Beginning Friday, trained staffers with NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center were scheduled for up to five hours of flying in a helicopter for as many as five consecutive days, spotting and identifying marine debris along the coastline.

The crew members were scheduled to gather GPS (global positioning system) data, take photographs, and record other information, Seema Balwani, a lead investigator for the project and a management and program analyst for the NOAA office in Honolulu, told The Garden Island.

The information will be used to determine the location of heavy concentrations of marine debris, and schedule its removal.

The work is essential to protecting the marine ecosystems on the island, officials said.

The work on Kaua’i follows in the footsteps of similar work done by NOAA personnel off the Big Island earlier this month.

Also earlier this week, NOAA leaders held a news conference at the Honolulu Harbor to discuss the preliminary results of the work done so far on the Big Island.

The project is the first of its kind, and is part of a series of marine-debris-collection projects in Hawai’i that are funded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

The focus of the program is to mitigate problems related to marine debris, and to protect the marine environment, NOAA officials said in the release.

For the Kaua’i project, NOAA crews aboard a helicopter are conducting most of their work at an elevation of 1,100 feet, so as to not disturb federally-protected Hawaiian monk seals and Humpback whales, Balwani said.

Flying at that elevation is likely to give the search crews a bird’s-eye view of marine debris in the ocean, she said.

At the same time, the aircraft will be able to go lower, if need be, to pinpoint debris sites, she said.

The Big Island search led to discovery of nets on the east side of the island.

At the same time, large concentrations of nets were found on the beach at South Point, and in the waters north of Kona, Balwani said.

“At South Point, they saw a lot of nets on shore, and some in the water,” Balwani said. “The waves bring in the nets (to shore).”

Kaua’i and the Big Island were selected as being “high-priority” by leaders of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and NOAA’s Pacific Island’s Regional Office in Honolulu, Balwani said.

Marine debris continues to pose a threat to marine life and habitats in Hawai’i, NOAA officials said.

As recently as November 2004, a three-ton mass of derelict fishing net in Kane’ohe Bay on O’ahu was removed by members of an emergency team consisting of federal, state, and local entities.

Washing ashore, these ghost nets can cause serious damage to reefs, entangling and breaking coral, officials said.

While the issue of marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands has been addressed for more than 10 years, little is known about the abundance or impacts of derelict fishing gear on the nearshore ecosystems of the main Hawaiian Islands, Balwani said in a news release.

“The time has come for us to increase the scope of our marine-debris project, and focus efforts on our local shorelines and reefs,” she said.

NOAA funding for this project was made possible through the support of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawai’i, NOAA officials said.

When funding is available, aerial surveys will be conducted off O’ahu and Maui County, NOAA officials said.

During the news conference in Honolulu, retired Navy Vice Admiral Dr. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, and under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, said, “Marine debris is one of the most pervasive problems plaguing the world’s oceans and coastal areas.”

He said the project demonstrates “NOAA’s commitment to Hawai’i to promote local stewardship and the well-being of our beaches and coral reef habitats.”

Inouye said the NOAA project will help keep Hawai’i’s marine environment clean.

“In Hawai’i, we are able to see the impacts of marine debris more clearly than most, because atmospheric forces cause ocean surface currents to converge on our island state, bringing with them the vast amount of debris floating throughout the Pacific,” said Inouye.

“I am pleased to see NOAA’s commitment to keeping Hawai’i free from marine debris and its devastating consequences through projects like this,” Inouye said in the news release.

The Hawai’i project is part of a nationwide effort that includes marine-debris work in the Pacific Northwest, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

The Marine Debris Research and Reduction Act, introduced by Inouye, could support that existing program, NOAA officials said.

The legislation has been unanimously approved by members of the Senate, NOAA officials said.

The legislation seeks to address “the pervasive problem of marine debris, which is a major cause of death to marine mammals, birds, and other marine life, and also threatens navigation safety and degrades important aquatic habitats, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds,” Inouye said in a news release.

“I believe this bill will finally provide us with the ability to tackle and ultimately solve a worldwide problem that has lingered far too long,” he said. “I hope to see this bill become law this Congress.”

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