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Protecting Paradise: Marine Debris Team Does the Heavy Lifting

November 09, 2018

The team removed more than 160,000 pounds of lost or abandoned fishing nets and plastics from the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, an ecologically and culturally significant area, part of the Papahānaumokuāea Marine National Monument.


Stretching 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands, a chain of remote islands and atolls known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are hundreds of miles from the nearest human populations. Yet, these beautiful coral reefs and uninhabited shorelines are centrally located in the North Pacific Gyre, where currents gather marine debris from all around the Pacific Ocean.

NOAA’s marine debris team travels from island to island by ship and small boat, carefully pulling derelict “ghost” fishing gear off of underwater reefs and collecting plastic debris from shorelines. They clean up nets and other debris that damage coral reefs and threaten wildlife, including endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles. Hauling debris is often a dirty, exhausting, and sometimes fly-filled task, but the team loves its work.

We present to you their story, in photos:

The Great Maze of Pearl and Hermes Atoll

Maze of reefs at Pearl and Hermes Atoll

From the sky, the coral reefs of Pearl and Hermes Atoll (called Holoikauaua in the Hawaiian language) stretch into the distance, almost 14 miles across. Navigating the reefs in a small boat is like finding your way through a maze—an amazing network of reefs that are both epic to encounter, and daunting to survey and clean up (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

Surveys From Above

Divers work to carefully remove a net from the reef

For the first time in the history of this project, the marine debris team deployed a small unmanned aerial system (also called a drone) to find and photograph derelict fishing nets from above. Here, a team of divers works to carefully remove a net from the reef while two small boat crews motor in to pick up the net (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

A Scar on the Reef

Divers remove a large net from the reef at Pearl and Hermes Atoll

Derelict fishing nets wear down and break corals or even grow into the reef structure, smothering living coral. In this aerial photo, the divers remove a large net from the reef at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. They painstakingly cut the nets off dense thickets of Porites compressa, also known as finger or hump coral, and pull it into deeper water to haul it away in the small boat. You can see the scar of bleached, dead reef in the upper right, where the net smothered the corals (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

Chop Chop

Diver cuts nets underwater

Kristen Kelly, marine debris technician, holds her breath and free-dives down to carefully cut and remove a large derelict fishing net from the reef at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

All Hands on Deck!

The team pulls a large mass of nets into the boat

The team works together to pull a large mass of nets into the boat near the barrier reef at Midway Atoll. There is no easy way to get nets from the water to the boat, and a successful net pull relies on creative use of knots, line, and muscle. This pile of tangled nets weighed 3,900 pounds or 1,770 kilograms (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

Threats to Wildlife

A green sea turtle struggles to free itself from a derelict fishing net

In addition to damaging corals, derelict fishing gear poses a serious choking and entanglement hazard to many threatened or endangered marine species and seabirds in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This green sea turtle (called honu in Hawaiian) got tangled in a ball of fishing line and nets at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Luckily, the team successfully untangled and released it shortly after this photo was taken (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Ari Halperin).  

A Curious Pup

Young monk seal pup investigates derelict fishing net

Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, with only 1,400 individuals remaining, most of which live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They are very curious and this young pup popped up to investigate a derelict fishing net at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. This seal worked its head through a loop of line, but fortunately did not get permanently entangled. After the seal swam away, the marine debris team moved in to clear out the net (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).  

Underwater Surveys

Marine debris divers are towed underwater

Marine debris divers are towed underwater to look for derelict nets along a sand margin dropoff just inside the barrier reef of Pearl and Hermes Atoll. As nets are washed in over the barrier reef from the open ocean, small coral heads can be ripped off the substrate and become entangled in the net ball, causing the net to sink. Waves and currents push the nets across the sand and down the sand margin dropoff where the divers find them sitting at the bottom of the slope. The dark strip in this photo is piles of loose algae that have also accumulated at the bottom of the dropoff (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

Seal-Kittery Island

Marine debris technician cleans up debris along the beach

On these remote, unpopulated shorelines, the team walks miles around the perimeter and along the coast to pick up plastic debris by hand and remove it from the habitat. Tessa Code, a marine debris technician, piles another buoy onto a growing pile of fishing floats collected from the shores of Seal and Kittery Island at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

Lost at Sea

Plastic debris litters the shoreline

Do you recognize any of these items? In addition to fishing nets, buoys, and floats, the team also finds everyday items that you might have in your home, including bottles, cigarette lighters, toys, toothbrushes, umbrella handles, and even shoes (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).  

Laysan Island Flies

Even in paradise, hauling debris is hard work. Some of the beautiful shores of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are swarming with flies—they are especially notorious and pesky at Lisianski and Laysan Islands. With a backpack full of debris, Drew McWhirter (marine debris field technician) is surrounded by flies at Laysan Island (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

All Aboard

Derelict fishing nets are craned onboard the NOAA Ship Sette

A load of derelict fishing nets are craned from a small boat onto the deck of the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette for transport back to Honolulu (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam).

What You Can Do

No matter where you live, we are all connected to the ocean. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands may be far from where you live, but you can still make a difference! The best way to stop the tide of marine debris is to prevent it from entering the oceans and Great Lakes in the first place. You (yes, you!) can do your part using these tips:

  • Get Involved to help remove marine debris from beaches, rivers, and inland waters by organizing a cleanup or by participating in a cleanup event with a local organization. Can’t find a cleanup near you? Start your own and use the Marine Debris Tracker App to record what you find!
  • Remember that our land and sea are connected. Whether you live inland or on the coast, we all depend on the ocean for the food we eat, the air we breathe, and more.
  • Dispose of waste properly, no matter where you are. Even if you live inland, trash travels! Wind, rain, and storms can move litter, transporting it to your local waterway, and it can eventually end up in the ocean.
  • Reduce the amount of waste you produce. By reducing your waste footprint, you can reduce the number of items that can end up in our oceans and Great Lakes.
  • Reuse items when you can. Choose reusable alternatives like coffee mugs, bags, and utensils over disposable items.
  • Recycle as much as possible! Bottles, cans, cell phones, ink cartridges, and many other items can be recycled. Items like fishing nets and line can also be recycled.


NOAA Fisheries marine debris project in the Pacific Islands region is supported by NOAA (Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Pacific Islands Regional Office, Marine Debris Program, National Marine Sanctuaries, and the Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program,) in partnership with the University of Hawaii's Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the State of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.