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HONOLULU, HI - An elite team of scientists and researchers returned from months at sea in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where they have been collecting derelict fishing gear that threaten the lives of endangered species, coral reefs, and the health of our oceans.

With $3 million allocated for ocean debris removal, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) deployed three chartered commercial vessels in September for a 90-day clean-up tour.

NOAA has joined forces with the Ocean Conservancy, U.S. Coast Guard, Hawaii Sea Grant, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other state and private organizations to clean up the waters around the Hawaiian archipelago. So far this year teams of expert divers have recovered over 60 tons of nets and derelict gear. Bringing the total amount to over 118 tons since the multi-agency cruise began its work in 1998.

Scientists estimate there are still more than 100 tons of derelict fishing gear destroying fragile coral reefs or threatening endangered species such as the Hawaiian monk seal, as well as sea turtles and a variety of seabirds and other wildlife.

The problem is that Pacific currents push massive amounts of derelict fishing nets and gear near the seals’ home, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Hawaiian Monk Seals, especially curious pups, get entangled in the nets and often drown. “Entanglement is a major threat to this declining seal population,” warns The Ocean Conservancy’s Director of Marine Wildlife, Nina Young. “This joint effort works to eliminate this threat and reduce the number of animals entangled by fishing debris, without this work the Hawaiian monk seal will have a difficult recovery.”

Sea turtles, fish, sharks and various corals are also affected by discarded nets accumulating in the water. “As the fish get entangled in the net, they become good sources of food for other creatures and the net becomes attractive to other predatory fish and sharks and consequently, these nets can go on for many years entangling and killing large numbers of creatures,” said Mary Donohue, Ph.D., a NOAA Fisheries scientist.

Cleaning up tons of debris scattered across many square miles of ocean is hard work. In this year’s effort, teams of NOAA divers spend hours underwater locating, untangling, cutting and finally removing the debris. How do they do it? Divers are pulled behind small boats, to locate and map debris. Once nets are located, divers go down either snorkeling or on SCUBA, and cut away the gear taking great care not to harm the coral. The debris is then loaded on smaller boats, transferred to the large vessels, where it is later separated into categories, carefully documented and weighed.

“It’s as if you’re undertaking a kind of net forensics,” notes Young. “You have to take into account all the various components of a net to determine its origin.” The data gathered will help to identify sources of derelict gear so that we can begin to work cooperatively with other Pacific Rim countries to educate fishermen and the public on the dangers of debris to the marine environment and continue to reduce marine debris throughout the world’s oceans.

Through science-based advocacy, research, and public education, The Ocean Conservancy informs, inspires, and empowers people to speak and act for the oceans in order to protect ocean ecosystems and conserve the global abundance and diversity of marine wildlife. Headquartered in Washington, DC, The Ocean Conservancy has regional offices in Alaska, California, Florida, and New England and field offices in Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, CA, Florida Keys, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the office of Pollution Prevention and Monitoring in Virginia Beach, VA.

The Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources. To learn more about NOAA, please visit http://www.noaa.gov

Written by: Ocean Conservancy


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