KAILUA-KONA — The ocean is full of fish. And garbage.
Neither is a new phenomenon, and it isn’t exactly news that the waters off West Hawaii haven’t been exempt from dangerous pollutants. However, state officials, boat captains and residents in the area have all noticed an apparent uptick in marine debris in recent weeks — namely derelict fishing and cargo nets, plastics and even construction materials.
Capt. Jeff Fear, a long-time commercial fisherman, said plastics and other trash are more or less constant 20-40 miles offshore. Where he’s noticed the increase in debris is at 1,000 fathoms, where nets are the primary problem, and what he referred to as the Ono Lane, located roughly 40-50 fathoms out from the shoreline.
“There’s been a lot of stuff in there the last couple weeks,” Fear said. “You name it, it’s there.”
Carried by the currents, the problematic presence of excess debris both in the water and on the shoreline has plagued Hawaii Island’s entire leeward coast.
Lynda Bertelmann got a group together Tuesday to clear fishing nets, PVC pipe and wooden planks full of nails off the Ala Kahakai Trail that runs the coastline between the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort and the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
She said friends of hers living in Kawaihae have seen debris washing up in the bays at Honokoa and Kailapa.
Megan Lamson, fish and habitat monitoring technician with the state Department of Land and Natural Resource’s Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), said nets have left tangled messes at Pololu and Puako, adding one is currently littering Makalawena Beach.
Capt. Jeremy Bricco, employed by Jack’s Diving Locker, fished a net out of the waters off Kohanaiki Saturday as his boat was departing for the night’s manta ray tour. He estimated the net weighed between 200-250 pounds and said it took three people to pull it aboard.
“For some reason, I don’t know what’s happened, but the last two or three weeks we’ve had a lot of this stuff coming by,” Bricco added.
Lamson, also the Hawaii Island program director for the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, said an apparent increase in marine debris stretches back considerably further that — but added the keyword is “apparent.”
“Anecdotally, yes, the large, derelict fishing net bundles are seemingly on the rise,” she said. “There has been kind of an uptick actually since 2017. But scientifically, I would be uncomfortable saying it’s statistically significant. However, there are fishermen coming into the DAR office, saying, ‘I’ve never seen so much.’”
While nets, lines, plastic and other trash are piling up in the Pacific at an alarming rate, Lamson explained that in the Hawaiian Islands, such debris tends to accumulate on northeastern shores. On Hawaii Island, accumulation is more common along the southeast coast, starting at South Point and stretching several miles northeast.
The prevalence of ocean pollution makes it more or less a certainty that every part of every island will be impacted by marine debris to one degree or another. But Lamson said identifying specific culprits can be as murky as navigating the water they pollute.
“We kind of learned that blaming any one country or any one industry is really ineffective,” she explained. “We all have to recognize the problem and work toward the solution together.”
Lamson added, though, that the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, along with volunteers, has removed more than half a million pounds of marine debris in the last 15 years. By weight, more than 51 percent was comprised of net and line bundles, which are most frequently used for the purposes of fishing and transporting cargo.
Some of the net/line waste may have been intentionally discarded, though Lamson believes most finds itself adrift accidentally.
DAR installed net bin receptacles outside its Kona and Hilo offices in February of 2017 and March of 2018, respectively. Since that time, Lamson said the division has removed around 4,650 pounds of derelict net and line bundles in seven truckloads. The Kona office produced two truckloads in 2017 and already four this year, with a fifth about ready to ship out.
Mark Manuel, Pacific Islands Marine Debris regional coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), spoke to whether the state should expect even more debris to pile up.
“There is currently no indication that the amount of marine debris in our ocean is decreasing,” said Manuel, naming plastics as the most common type. “Additionally, we don’t have a significant amount of marine debris data (or even a good baseline) in Hawaii to determine whether or not to be expecting more.”
As to the source of the netting strewn about the West Hawaii coastline, as well as all the other islands, Manuel said it’s not originating with Hawaii commercial fishermen, which are part of the long-line industry.
“These nets washing up are mostly from the trawl or purse seine fisheries that occur throughout the Pacific,” said Manuel, adding the sources are both international and domestic.
Ocean current patterns may also play a role in why West Hawaii has apparently been the landing spot for more debris in recent weeks, but Lamson said those patterns can be dynamic and are thus difficult to determine. Several small, local eddies complicate matters further.
As both the source of the pollution and the factors pulling it with a possibly greater frequency into West Hawaii waters remain at least partially obscured, the best solution is to get involved with clean-up efforts.
The Hawaii Wildlife Fund conducts several annually to help combat some of the obvious adverse effects — entangled marine life, inadvertent plastic ingestion, the smothering of coral reefs and the potential import of invasive species.
Fear is also a prominent member of Big Island Wave Riders Against Drugs, which conducts beach clean-ups. As a fisherman, he holds Scoop It events, in which he solicits other boat captains to help clean local waters for the collective good.
“A lot of us guys work at night, so you can’t see (the debris),” Fear said. “One of these times, somebody is going to hit something, and they’re going to sink, and somebody is going to get hurt.”