Saving Marine Life: Coral Reefs Cleanup in Northwest Hawaii

Written by on September 16, 2009 in Marine Life, Other News, Policy & Ocean Law

The Oscar Elton Sette, one of NOAA’s research vessels, is currently at the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument on its first of two planned expeditions this year intended to remove deserted fishing gear to save marine life, especially in coral reef ecosystems of the North West Hawaiian Islands (NWHI).

Derelict fishing gear, removal is essential for reducing risks to marine life - NOAA/NMFS

Derelict fishing gear, removal is essential for reducing risks to marine life - NOAA/NMFS

Marine life is heavily impacted by debris, including derelict fishing gear, through the destruction of essential habitat, entanglement, ghost fishing, and ingestion.  Humans are the sole source of all marine debris.  Derelict fishing gear and related debris are responsible for broad degradation of the Pacific region’s economic and ecological resources.

The expedition led, by expedition Chief Scientist Kyle Koyanagi, departed on this mission on September 1, 2009.  It will be a 30-day mission by the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s (PIFSC) Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED).

Trapped seal pup - © Steve Whitford 2004/Marine Photobank

Trapped seal pup - © Steve Whitford 2004/Marine Photobank

This coral reef ecosystem is home to over 7,000 unique marine species.  Besides supporting a rich assemblage of corals, fish, invertebrates, algae, and other reef inhabitants, the shallow-water reef environment provides critical habitat for protected species such as the threatened green sea turtle, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, and various seabirds.

Read the Marine Science Today article on Hawaiian Monk seals.

The derelict fishing gear consists of fishing nets or net fragments (from gill nets, trawl nets, etc.), fishing lines, rope, and other components of fishing gear discarded, lost or abandoned at sea by the multi-national fishing fleets of the Pacific.  Swept along in the ocean currents, the debris accumulates on sensitive reefs and near-shore habitats of the NWHI.  Derelict fishing gear can smother, abrade, and destroy coral reefs and their inhabitants and fatally entangle monk seals, turtles and other marine life.

Debries On Coral - NOAA/NMFS

Debries On Coral - NOAA/NMFS

A crew of 17 CRED scientists with specialized training in scuba diving will conduct in-water surveys of marine debris at Maro Reef, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, and Kure Atoll and remove the debris they find.  They will focus on areas known to have high densities of derelict fishing gear.  Debris removal operations will also be conducted along the beaches and shores of Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, and Kure Atoll to reduce the risk of entanglement for protected marine mammals and other wildlife that utilize these shoreline locations.

Since 1996, NOAA Fisheries Service, through the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, has been removing deserted fishing gear from the islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI).  In 2001, the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program began supporting a large scale effort to remove derelict fishing gear.  To date, this partnership has removed 442 metric tons of derelict fishing gear.

Entangled sea turtle - Credit: NOAA/NMFS

Entangled sea turtle - Credit: NOAA/NMFS

On this trip the team will also conduct oceanographic observations in the region.  Oceanographic instruments, including Subsurface Temperature Recorders (STRs) and Ecological Acoustic Recorders (EARs) will be inspected, deployed and/or replaced at Maro Reef, Pearl and Hermes Atoll and Kure Atoll.  While the Sette is in transit along the NWHI, the scientific crew will deploy a CTD instrument to measure conductivity and temperature variation from the sea surface to the ocean depths at designated permanent sampling stations.  The CTD data will be added to a NOAA database of ocean measurements important for improved understanding of local and regional ocean dynamics and the impacts of climate change.

There are many organizations available to address the marine debris problem, and cooperation is being sought from industries, fishers, non-governmental organizations, and Economy representatives.  In fact, much is done to minimize the problem: outreach and education – not only by disseminating information, but seeking ways to regularize the exchange of scientific research and data, monitoring/data collection and research, engaging stakeholders – establishing net collection points, establishing gear repair, re-use and recycling centers among others, business and industry involvement – insurance companies, manufacturers, innovation and incentives for proper disposal, economic impacts, regulation, compliance, institution and infrastructure.

Derelict fishing gear in Northwest Hawaii - Credit: NOAA/NMFS

Derelict fishing gear in Northwest Hawaii - Credit: NOAA/NMFS

Copyright ©  2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Celia is Director of Business Operations for OceanLines LLC and is a frequent contributor to both OceanLines and Marine Science Today. She is a certified diver and her favorite topic is marine biology, especially stories about whales. .

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