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Tons Of Litter Wash Ashore On Most Remote Islands

by J.R. Pegg

"There is not one place where you can not see some sort of plastic debris"
Litter on remote island

Even on Laysan, a tiny and uninhabited island at the end of the Hawaiian Archipelago, the beach is littered with plastic cigarette lighters, toys, vials, and other marine debris that has washed ashore

Photo: Tom Ordway/Ocean Futures Society

(ENS) WASHINGTON, DC -- There is little chance most of us will have the opportunity to see firsthand the natural beauty of the 1,200 miles of coral reefs, atolls and small islands known collectively as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But there is a good chance some of our trash will.

Hundreds of tons of debris -- discarded fishing gear and familiar plastics such as cigarette lighters and bottles -- collect each year in this remote environment, brought by ocean currents from all over the world.

"We are using the ocean as a garbage can," famed oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau told ENS.

Cousteau, who spoke with ENS via satellite phone this week, completed a six week expedition through the Northwest Hawaiian Islands earlier this month.

He and his 21 member crew have explored and documented the wildlife and Polynesian culture along the islands and coral reefs that stretch 1,200 miles from the main Hawaii Islands, ending on the remote island of Kure.

These islands and coral reefs comprise two-thirds of the Hawaiian Archipelago -- the longest chain of coral-ringed islands in the world.

Scientists estimate that some 7,000 species live in the region and believe 25 percent of marine species in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands live nowhere else on Earth.

It is home for 14 million sea birds, including virtually all of the world's Laysan albatrosses and world's black-footed albatrosses, and for several endangered and threatened species including Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles.

The area holds some 65 percent of U.S. coral reefs, providing rich habitat for an array of fish, sharks and other marine life.

The abundance of seabirds and marine life is "absolutely amazing," says Cousteau, but the sheer volume of debris and trash is shocking.

Few beaches remain untouched, he said, as the system of currents sweeps in debris and trash from thousands of miles away.

"There are millions of cigarette lighters that can be identified from all over the world," Cousteau said. "There is not one place where you can not see some sort of plastic debris. I was not prepared for that."

When the crew arrived at Midway Island, 80 tons of discarded fishing gear greeted them at the pier.

All this trash and debris is having negative impacts on wildlife and the marine ecosystems. The crew found scores of dead seabirds, some with 10 ounces of plastic in their guts, as well as coral reefs littered with trash and discarded nets.

Cousteau says an effort led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is making a dent in cleaning up discarded fishing nets and gear. The federal agency reports its efforts -- along with state agencies and non governmental organizations -- have removed some 320 tons since 1996.

But this effort is at best the equivalent of treading water.

Laysan island

Laysan island

Photo: Tom Ordway/Ocean Futures Society

NOAA has depth limitations of 40 feet and focuses on fishing gear, not the tons of plastics littering many of the islands.

Most trash and debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands ""will not be cleaned up unless a special program is created," Cousteau said.

"It is out of sight, out of mind and that has to change," he said.

The son of legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau -- and president of the non profit conservation group Ocean Futures Society -- is not shy about his hope that the documentary his crew is creating will prompt increased protection of these remote ecosystems.

"We need to wake up," he said. "We have an opportunity here to really do something really good for the world."

The area was designated as a Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in 2000 by President Bill Clinton -- a move that began a process to permanently protect the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a National Marine Sanctuary.

Under Clinton's order, the government has until October 2005 to permanently protect the area as a National Marine Sanctuary, something Cousteau believes is critical to its long term protection.

More resources and improved surveillance are needed for illegal activities if the U.S. is going to safeguard its largest marine protected area, Cousteau said.

"No matter how hard the fish and wildlife people are working, they are working without adequate resources," Cousteau said.

He told ENS that his crew reported a fishing boat in protected waters, but the Coast Guard did not have a plane to follow up on the sighting.

"We are talking about a place that is as big as the Great Barrier Reef," Cousteau said. "It really needs to be better taken care of and if any country can do it, the United States can."

Of all the footage he and his crew gathered, Cousteau highlighted their nighttime observations of Galapagos sharks, monk seals, giant trevally and other species hunting, feeding and hiding -- a picture of coexistence.

"The sight of the harmony that we were able to observe shows there is room for everybody," he said. "The jungle law prevails -- you have your share and I have mine."

And it was the giant trevally -- known as jacks -- that grabbed some extra attention from Cousteau, who said the group did not take one dive where they did not see the big fish.

Jacks can grow to be more than four feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds.

"Their presence, strength and aggression was something that I had not anticipated," he said. "The jacks are in charge and even keep the sharks at bay."

Cousteau says he is coming home with more questions than he had when he left and sounds keen to plan another expedition before too long.

Deeper dives as well as more exploration of the region's seamounts -- "ecological oases in the middle of the ocean" -- top the list, but Cousteau wants to learn more about the Polynesian culture.

Cousteau will get some further insights into the culture of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as the documentary is edited. In addition to the Ocean Futures Society expedition, "Voyage to Kure" will chronicle a parallel expedition by Nainoa Thompson, a native Polynesian, who sailed a replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe.

Thompson relied on traditional navigation techniques, using the ocean currents, the wind, the stars, the Sun, cloud formations and birds to guide him.

"Voyage to Kure" will air nationally on U.S. public television in the fall of 2004.

© 2003 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

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Albion Monitor August 20, 2003 (

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