Marine Debris Removal in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument
People haul a derelict fishing net into a boat.

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (monument) is one of the largest fully protected marine conservation area on the planet and spans 582,578 square miles, an area larger than all the country's National Parks combined. These protected Hawaiian islands are located to the northwest of the archipelago's main eight islands. Papahānaumokuākea is integral to Native Hawaiian culture and is a sacred landscape. The monument is home to more than 7,000 marine species and a total of 23 species that are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, including the threatened Hawaiian green sea turtle, endangered Hawaiian monk seal, and the critically endangered Laysan duck. 

The monument, which is also a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Site, is mostly uninhabited by people and located far away from human populations. Despite the distance, massive amounts of marine debris, mostly made up of derelict fishing gear, finds its way onto the shores of the monument every year and lurks in the water column from the surface of the water to the sea floor. The devastating effects of marine debris include entanglement and ingestion by wildlife, habitat damage, and transport of potentially invasive species.

An estimated 52 metric tons of derelict fishing gear from commercial fisheries all over the Pacific float into the monument every year, and many of these nets become trapped on the extensive reefs. Derelict fishing nets, ranging in size from a basketball to a small car, continue to catch marine life for years after they are lost and are a constant entanglement threat for the monk seals, green sea turtles, seabirds, and other wildlife that depend on the vast coral reef ecosystem. The reefs themselves are in danger from abrasion and scouring as the heavy nets glide through the currents and snag on vibrant corals, in some cases coming to rest on top of the reef structure. Smaller debris which litters the beach, such as plastic bottle caps, lighters, and toothbrushes, can impact seabirds, some of which often mistake plastic items for food.

Removing marine debris reduces the potential for damage to the unique native ecosystem of Papahānaumokuākea. Since 1996, a large-scale effort to remove marine debris from the monument has resulted in 923 metric tons (more than 2 million pounds) of primarily derelict fishing gear and plastics removed. That’s equivalent to about ten adult blue whales, which is the largest animal on the planet! To combat the debris and mitigate its hazards, multiple partners collaborate on this removal mission every few years to clean debris from the monument and its shores. The NOAA Marine Debris Program has been involved in this effort since the Program was established in 2006.

Once a removal mission is completed, the tons of nets and plastics are sorted and disposed. Some debris is reused and repurposed and some goes to the Hawai‘i Nets to Energy Program to create electricity for homes across the island of O‘ahu. Additionally, an assortment of debris goes to artists and some are used to educate people about the impacts abandoned nets have on our marine ecosystems.  

*It is important to use the ancient, contemporary, and common names of the islands to acknowledge the historical and cultural significance of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Learn more about the ancient and contemporary Hawaiian names.

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