Experts expect marine debris to worsen

Current measures to prevent and reduce marine debris are inadequate and the problem will likely worsen, according a new congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council.

“Despite all the regulations and limitations over the last 20 years, there are still large quantities of waste and litter in the oceans,” said Keith Criddle, a professor of Marine Policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and the chair of the Committee on Effectiveness of International and National Measures to Prevent and Reduce Marine Debris and Its Impacts, which wrote the report. “We concluded that the United States must take the lead and coordinate with other coastal countries, as well as with local and state governments, to better manage marine debris and try to achieve zero discharge.”

The publicly available brief of the forthcoming 166-page report says “marine debris from ships and other ocean-based sources — including trash and lost fishing gear — contributes to the spoiling of beaches, fouling of surface waters and the seafloor, and harm to marine animals.”

Those effects can be amplified in the Hawaiian Islands, local experts said yesterday.

“Hawai‘i is situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so just our geography alone causes some problems, just in the way the currents run. We get debris from all over the Pacific,” said Keiko Bonk, Hawai‘i program director of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. “It seems like the currents bring debris to the northwest Hawaiian Islands constantly. There’s a constant need for cleanup.”

Keone Kealoha, the executive director of the sustainability-focused nonprofit Malama Kaua‘i, agreed.

“A lot of debris ends up in our backyard,” he said. “If you throw something into the ocean off the west coast of the United States, it’ll end up out here eventually.”

The debris hits some sections of Kaua‘i worse than others.

“Fortunately for Hanalei, not a lot of it floats up here,” said Maka‘ala Ka‘amoana, executive director of the Hanalei Watershed Hui.

“There’s not a lot of it that floats into the bay. In Moloa‘a, due to the current and the direction the bay faces, stuff goes in there like it’s magnetized. It’s bizarre. Some people used to call it ‘plastic beach.’”

One of the most common forms of debris is large-scale fishing nets cut loose at sea, according to the report.

“We’re seeing them come in a lot behind the Wailua golf course, all the way down to Maha‘ulepu and all the way up to Larsen’s beach,” said Barbara Wiedner, Net Patrol program coordinator for Surfrider Kaua‘i. “For the last year and a half, we’ve gone out sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly, to remove the nets off the beach.”

The study explained why the number of derelict fishing nets floating around in the ocean is so high.

“It is a persistent problem because of accidental losses and legal loopholes. Also, current regulations do not include accountability measures for commercial and recreational fishing vessels for loss of their fishing gear, offering few incentives to take responsibility for cleanup,” the release states.

The nets can often be a hazard to local marine life, including endangered seals, turtles and coral reefs.

“Especially for the Hawaiian monk seals in terms of entanglements, we have concern,” Bonk said. “Unless we have enough response to deal with these entanglements, the seals can die. That’s a big deal not just for us but for everyone in the conservation community.”

Local committee members who worked on the report include retired U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Paula Carroll of Honolulu, University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program Specialist Mary Donohue and University of Hawai‘i Professor and Dai Ho Chun Distinguished Chair in Arts and Sciences Alison Rieser.

• Michael Levine, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or via e-mail at


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