Researchers save monk seals and collect trash in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Researchers save monk seals and collect trash in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

FORD ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel returned to Hawaii on Monday after a three-week mission to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Researchers rescued a couple of ailing monk seal pups and also brought back heaping piles of trash. Crews carefully unloaded 5,000 pounds of marine debris and plastic that washed up along beaches in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. NOAA teamed up with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii for a pilot project to collect the harmful garbage.

"The impact, it's mind blowing. These animals are just nesting in marine debris," said Kahi Pacarro, executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. "Then you have some of these animals that didn't make it from the past season, and all you have is a rib cage and feathers, and the rib cage is filled with plastic."

The research project will identify the types of debris and estimate accumulation rates.

"It's coming from the gyre, the North Pacific Garbage Patch that we've heard a lot about. This is trash that's entered the ocean from Asia, the continental United States, also from Hawaii," explained Pacarro.

The vessel had room to bring back all the garbage after dropping off 14 researchers and their supplies at five remote camp sites. They'll spend the next three and a half months helping to save endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

"Our crews are going to be doing things like disentangling seals that they find entangled in marine debris. They're going to be moving young seals from islands with very high shark predations," said Stacie Robinson of the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Program.

The teams will also be doing population surveys. There are roughly 200 monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands and 900 in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The ship brought two prematurely weaned monk seal pups to The Marine Mammal Center's hospital in Kona for rehabilitation. They'll be returned to their home next year.

"Out of all of the seals that we help, we're able to trace back about 30% of the population to either the individual seals that we've helped or offspring of those seals," said Robinson.

The end of the voyage coincided with World Oceans Day, an event which is sponsored by the United Nations.

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