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Restoring “Plastic Beach” Back to Kamilo Point

March 22, 2013

Most of the shoreline of the south coast of Hawai’i Island is rocky and rugged, well off the beaten path. Unlike much of the Main Hawaiian Islands, this coastline has not been developed. While adventuresome tourists may be found visiting the famous seacliffs at Ka Lae (South Point) or hiking out to the legendary Mahana Bay (Green Sands beach), they rarely explore the colorful tide line in the small coves and embayments below the dusty coastal trail. If they did, they would see something that is strikingly different from the otherwise natural coastal wilderness: myriad of discarded plastic.

monk seal and trash

Monk seal, courtesy of J. Veitzbicke/NOAA

In recent years, marine debris has been receiving more attention. Today, many people are aware that the Giant Garbage Patch is a large accumulation zone of man-made trash floating within the North Pacific (Subtropical Gyre). Here, as well as in the other oceanic gyres, marine debris amasses in densities much higher than other areas. On the southeast coast of Hawai’i Island, the small 1 km cove near Kamilo Point accumulates tons of the debris escaping the gyre. The natural combination of local currents, strong onshore winds in this region, and the low sandy beach appear to make it an ideal deposition site for floating debris. However, we humans must take the blame for the presence of this non-natural debris in the ocean.

Enter the non-profit conservation organization, Hawai’i Wildlife Fund (“HWF” – http://www.wildhawaii.org). When retired marine wildlife manager turned HWF co-founder Bill Gilmartin first visited the Wai’ōhinu coastline back in 2001, he was shocked by the amount of marine debris in the region. Spending much of his career working in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (now Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument), Gilmartin was no stranger to the problems created by marine debris on wildlife. He had seen first-hand examples of fishing net entanglement of green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals, debris ingestion by Laysan albatross chicks and other seabirds, and direct damage to coral reefs by net bundles. In 1982, he began the marine debris collection program in the Monument. Inspired to start addressing the problem here on his home island, Gilmartin organized a large-scale beach cleanup effort in 2003 with funding from the state of Hawai’i. Over this two-day cleanup, HWF and 75 volunteers removed over 50 tons (100,000 lbs!) of marine debris from Kamilo Point.

Beach cleanup

HWF cleanup action at Kamilo, courtesy of G.
Fyvie/HWF

Since that time, HWF and hundreds of volunteers have removed another 110 tons of debris from the ten-mile stretch of coastline between Kamilo and South Points with funding from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

Gilmartin and colleagues estimate that approximately 15 – 20 tons of debris wash ashore here annually. About every other month, HWF coordinates a community-based cleanup effort at the “dirtiest” section of this coastline. On average, they bag and remove about 3,600 lbs. of marine debris in a single day’s effort. By weight, about 62% (199,600 lbs.) of the total debris removed has been derelict fishing net bundles. Nets are generally pulled from the shoreline using a specialized winch/cable and hook setup connected to the HWF pickup. About once a year HWF ships about seven tons of these nets to O’ahu in a donated 40’ Matson® container for inclusion in NOAA’s Nets-to-Energy program where they are burned to create household electricity. The remaining 38% (120,500 lbs.) of the debris removed includes a wide variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and functions but almost all of which (>90%) are composed of plastics. Finds range from everyday items like shampoo bottles, combs and toothbrushes; fishing industry items like buoys, hagfish eel traps and glowsticks; mariculture leftovers like oyster spaces; children’s items like army toys; and a remarkable number of unidentifiable bits and pieces, broken fragments and resin pellets (aka “nurdles”). Some of the more interesting debris items include a full-size refrigerator with Japanese kanji, a military box with Soviet Union tags, and a select few glass floats made in Norway, Korea or Japan.

Over the years, most of HWF’s efforts have focused on these larger debris items. Yet, more recently they have begun focusing more on the smaller “microdebris” plastics that have infiltrated the beach sand and certain sections of rocky shoreline. Not all plastic floats (e.g., PVC pipes), but if it made its way across the North Pacific to the remote southeast coast of Hawai’i Island, chances are it does. With this in mind, HWF has started floating the microdebris out of the denser beach sand and little by little sorting the beach and removing the man-made component.

Beach junk science

Marine debris research at Kamilo – Courtesy of C.
Spina/UH Hilo

Using this same technique, HWF volunteer and University of Hawai’i – Hilo graduate student, Catherine Spina, is currently working with advisor, Dr. Hank Carson, on a project to assess the weekly plastic debris accumulation rate for Kamilo. Carson and others at the University of Hawai’i and HWF collaborated in an investigation that links local sources of litter to marine debris accumulation around the state (1). Collaborations like these turn this “band-aid” solution into an effective learning tool and partial remedy, in which everyone can participate.

Lessons can be learned from HWF’s experience, and have been. Volunteers now see the relationship between beach litter and our own daily reliance on single-use, throw-away plastics. Worldwide, if every beach cleanup volunteer made a commitment to reduce the amount of single-use plastics they personally consume and dispose of on a daily basis, this would make a difference to the marine ecosystem. Regardless, the message behind this movement is clear: small individual steps coupled with research and strong community, private and government partnerships is moving us toward rethinking our dependence on throw-away plastics. Do your part to mālama (take care of/protect) the shoreline: Reduce, reuse, and recycle. You can also help clean up the coastal environment by participating in a local beach cleanup event, or even perhaps coordinate your own.

1 Carson, H.S., Lamson, M.R., Nakashima, D., Toloumu, D., Hafner, J., Maximenko, N., and K.J. McDermid. 2013. Tracking the sources and sinks local marine debris in Hawai’i. Marine Environmental Research 84: 76-83. 

Article from NPS Pacific Oceans Newsletter, March 2013

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  1. Our Plastic Age | Kallie's HI Life

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