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'If we're not up there cleaning up this threat, nobody is': Team hauls more than 47 tons of marine debris out of Pacific Ocean

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/23/2021 Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Wednesday that a team of scientists hauled 47.2 tons of marine debris out of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the North Pacific Ocean.

A crew of 12, which completed their expedition over 24 days, included staff from NOAA Fisheries, the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Hawaii Pacific University’s Center for Marine Debris Research.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is the largest contiguous fully protected conservation area in the U.S., encompassing an area larger than all the country's national parks combined, according to the national monument's website.

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The monument is in the northern Pacific Ocean and surrounded by what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a huge gyre of floating plastic and other debris that circulates in ocean currents. The islands act like a comb that gather debris on its otherwise pristine beaches.

a group of people sitting at a beach: Workers with the Papahanaumokuakea Marine Debris Project load fishing nets onto a small boat on Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The crew returned from the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with a boatload of marine plastic and abandoned fishing nets that threaten to entangle endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other marine animals on the tiny, uninhabited beaches stretching for more than 1,300 miles north of Honolulu. © Matthew Chauvin, Papahanaumokuakea Marine Debris Project via AP Workers with the Papahanaumokuakea Marine Debris Project load fishing nets onto a small boat on Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The crew returned from the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with a boatload of marine plastic and abandoned fishing nets that threaten to entangle endangered Hawaiian monk seals and other marine animals on the tiny, uninhabited beaches stretching for more than 1,300 miles north of Honolulu.

“This is the one critical issue facing the wildlife of Papahānaumokuākea that we can really do something about.” project lead Kevin O’Brien said in a news release. “There is so much to love about this incredible place. If we’re not up there cleaning up this threat, nobody is."

Endangered Hawaiian monk seals, threatened green sea turtles, seabirds, and other species are routinely found entangled in derelict fishing gear in Papahānaumokuākea, according to the release.

The 47.2-ton haul, which translates to about 94,400 pounds, was made up of these derelict fishing gear — so-called ghost nets — and ocean plastics. The team removed debris from Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Midway Atoll, French Frigate Shoals and Kure Atoll.

According to a 2018 study in Scientific Reports, ghost nets make up at least 46 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Most of it will be incinerated and used to power hundreds of Oahu homes, said the news release. 

On the first day of the mission, the expedition rescued a four-year-old female Hawaiian monk seal from a fishing net wrapped around her neck.

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“That success gave us the motivation to work as hard as we possibly could to remove every bit of debris that we could on this expedition," O' Brien said.

During the whole mission, they disentangled a Hawaiian monk seal, three black-footed albatross chicks, and one great frigatebird. They also cleaned about 10 linear miles of shoreline habitat.

The team chronicled their expedition on social media. 

"In my 14 years of coming to [the island monument], I have never seen so many nets concentrated in such a small area," O'Brien said on Instagram. "Net after net after net greeted us as we walked down the beach."

Environmental activists have warned about pollution in oceans for years. A United Nations report from 2018 found that roughly 13 million metric tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year. That pollution can harm biodiversity, the economy and health, the U.N. report says.

A report released in 2016 by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation said that the amount of plastic dumped into the ocean will grow to four garbage truck's worth per minute, and that the oceans are on track to have more plastic than fish in the world's oceans by 2050. 

Contributing: Ryan W. Miller, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'If we're not up there cleaning up this threat, nobody is': Team hauls more than 47 tons of marine debris out of Pacific Ocean

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