Saving the environment one fishing net at a time

By Teri Okita – bio | email

CAMPBELL INDUSTRIAL PARK (HawaiiNewsNow) - Washed ashore. More than 700 metric tons of old fishing nets and gear have littered the pristine beaches of Papahanaumokuakea in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands.

Environmentalists continue to remove much of it, and now, they've figured out a way to take the marine debris and make the most of it.

We see underwater pictures of errant fishing nets drift through the ocean and one wrapped around the neck of green sea turtle. A diver tries to help untangle it from its noose.

"The nets themselves are an entanglement threat," says David Swatland from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. "They're an ingestion threat for marine mammals - for birds, for turtles, for anything in the water. It also, where it collects on the coral, it can smother the coral."

The nets kept accumulating. So, NOAA - the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration - along with other government agencies partnered with private companies to extract the marine debris and use it for energy. NOAA divers head out once a year to coincide with the Coast Guard's routine patrols.

CG Commander Brian Hofferber says, "We have the assets. We're in the area, so as long as we're out there, and we have the time and availability to do that, we'll do everything we can to help out more with the debris recovery operations."

Once recovered and shipped to Oahu, the nets are taken to Schnitzer Steel recycling facility to be chopped into one-foot pieces.

"It's very slow, very time consuming," says Larry Snodgrass, general manager at Schnitzer. "The amount that you saw today in the bin would take them about one day to cut it up." The bin we saw was a garbage truckload full.

They've been removing this kind of debris for the past 14 years, and in that time, have collected about one-point-four million pounds of derelict fishing gear.

The chopped pieces then get trucked down the road to H-power's facility that converts waste into energy. It's mixed in with huge piles of trash. The marine waste is a small but important part of this process to create energy and save Papahanaumokuakea from debris build-up.

Swatland says, "The last couple years, we've been able to pull out just about as much as has accumulated, but if we can't get out there and do that every year, the amount out there is going to keep getting bigger."

They plan to net more nets when they return in late summer.

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