This is how plastic pollution is debilitating our marine ecosystem
By Kahi Pacarro
Deep introspection of pollution ends at the epiphany that pollution is the result of failed design. If consumer goods and commercial fishing materials were designed to consider the end of their use, we would drastically constrict the flow of plastics dumping into our ocean. This most obvious conclusion also represents perhaps one of the most daunting paths of implementation. The reason? Plastic is made from oil.
As the uphill path is being walked to tackle the bigger picture of addressing sustainable design, people throughout Hawaii are working on a daily basis to not only rid our coastlines of debris, but more importantly, inspire us to stop using so much plastic.
As the world slowly recognizes the un-sustainability of over-consuming plastic, we need to turn our existing waste into a resource. Therein lies one of the most poignant current solutions.
Born out of our desire to eliminate thousands of pounds of marine debris entering the landfill or H-Power, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii has initiated the world’s first Ocean Plastics Program.
In collaboration with Method Home, we turned ocean trash into soap bottles that lined the shelves of Whole Foods across the country. This has now grown to collaborations with Parley for the Oceans and Adidas.
The successful implementation of our ocean plastics program placed Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii on the radar of not only big-name brands but also researchers working within the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM), the largest protected conservation area under the United States, as well as one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. The area consists of 139,797 square miles in the Pacific Ocean, which, according to Papahanaumokuakea.gov, is also larger than all of the country’s national parks combined.
Researchers deployed for months on end – whose task it was to save the critically endangered monk seal – would walk over plastic pollution and societal remnants with no conduit to address the daunting amount of marine debris overtaking the habitats that seemed so important to the PMNM’s real residents.
Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii’s Ocean Plastics Program gave reason, set precedent, and laid the pathway to bring further purpose to the researchers long and arduous task while under deployment within the PMNM.
As Ni’ihau dropped under the horizon, our last glimpse of the Hawaiian Islands welcomed our entrance into the mysterious and majestic PMNM. Recently brought aboard the 230-foot NOAA Research Vessel the Hi’ialakai, our goal was to asses the damage marine debris was causing in the Monument, figure out what to do about it, and whether our Ocean Plastics Program could succeed.
The Monument represents a breathing ecosystem where all parts are integral to a larger whole, contrasting the beauty of the wildlife is the evidence of mankind’s waste: waste from our everyday lives, waste from commercial fishing and waste from a war torn past.
The Monument is in a state of disrepair, being brought back to life by a small army of dedicated scientists and contractors while being barraged by society’s continual over-consumption of plastic and demand for fish.
Monk seals, green sea turtles, baby albatross and masked boobies have unsolicitedly embraced the plastic tide with no choice but to accept their current reality. As our storm drains, litterers, dumps, canals, and streams empty out millions of pounds of debris into our oceans, the debris is met with millions of tons of nets, buoys, and rope intentionally dumped overboard only to wash up on the shores of Papahanaumokuakea.
Old nets and ropes are tied together to become fish aggregating devices (FAD’s) and thrown overboard. Often attached to the FAD, a small device communicates the temperature of the water, the depth of the ocean, the GPS location, the average size of fish underneath, and the density of fish. When the right parameters occur, the boat returns to harvest the fish below.
Curious monk seals play with these plastic conglomerates only to get tangled and die. Albatross fledglings starve to death in their plastic rimmed nests as their corpses decompose only to expose plastic filled stomachs. Force-fed plastic meals by their parents, similarly to how society is force feeding plastic to us.
As the World wakes up to the need to curb plastic production and use, we need to identify and protect the places affected by its most insidious repercussions. After visiting the Monument, the idea of expanding the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument – something currently being proposed – represents an unprecedented opportunity to further protect one of the world’s most important existing habitats and set a precedent to encourage the protection of more critical habitats allowing our oceans to heal.
On that first journey, we returned with over 5,000 pounds of marine debris and since recovered another 15,000 pounds with more on the way. But, as we started our journey back to the Hawaiian Islands, still in the daze of experiencing a life-changing trip, reality and society quickly set in as the skilled Captain smoothly navigated the giant ship alongside a reflective mylar balloon with the words “Congrats Graduate!”
Graduates of our highest educational institutions celebrating with detrimental superficial balloons show the magnitude and scale of our current situation.
Kahi Pacarro is the Executive Director at Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii.