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$5 million awarded to Hawaiʻi Sea Grant, partners to combat marine debris

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After being cut free from the reef, large ghost nets like the one pictured here are recovered by specially trained marine debris technicians from PMDP. Teams use a combination of lines, specialty knots and teamwork to haul these large nets into their boats. (File photo: James Morioka)

The University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program and its partners were awarded $5.1 million to address rampant marine debris issues in Hawai‘i and develop urgently needed, innovative solutions that can be shared worldwide.

The funding will primarily be used to deal with derelict fishing gear that has been abandoned, lost or discarded.

This kind of debris devastates threatened and endangered species, including Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles and humpback whales.

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It also harms commercial and recreational fisheries; poses a hazard to shipping and boating; pollutes the shoreline and nearshore waters; and is a health hazard to humans and other animals.

This investment from the National Sea Grant College Program will connect visionary experts from across the state and region in three multi-year projects to increase the efficiency of derelict fishing gear removal; repurpose the gear that is brought to shore; and engage a network of community members and resource managers throughout the Pacific to develop a regional Pacific Islands Marine Debris Action Plan.

“While Hawai‘i and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are known worldwide as hotspots for ocean plastic pollution and environmental damage, the cutting-edge technologies that will be developed through these large grants will have far-reaching impacts on other states and nations impacted by ocean plastic pollution,” said Darren T. Lerner, Hawai‘i Sea Grant director and principal investigator of two of the grants.

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Project funding includes:

Development of new cutting and lifting technologies to increase efficiency of derelict fishing gear removal ($1,830,345).

  • The focus is to improve the detection of the nets; develop innovative tools to cut the net masses which have been known to weigh up to 11 tons each and are now cut and brought onto boats by hand; and develop new technologies and techniques for lifting the nets out of the water.
  • Since in-water marine debris removal was initiated in 1996, a staggering 2.4 million pounds of debris have been removed from within the boundaries of Papahānaumokuākea  alone, and the applicant organization, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project, now spearheads marine debris removal efforts in this area. It aims to remove the annual debris accumulation as well as address the backlog that is now impacting coral reefs and thousands of marine and terrestrial species. 
  • The principal investigator is Lerner and the co-principal investigators are Kevin O’Brien and James Morioka from the the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project, and Mary J. Donohue and Darren Okimoto from Hawai‘i Sea Grant.

Nets to Roads: Innovative research to scale-up removal and repurposing of derelict fishing gear ($2,990,627) 

  • This project focuses on all aspects of the issue, from detecting the debris at sea and forecasting its arrival in Hawai‘i’s nearshore waters; rapid removal and transport to a centralized storage facility from anywhere around the state; sorting and repurposing the debris into plastic pellets that are compatible for use in asphalt roads in partnership with the Hawai‘i Department of Transportation.
  • Ultimately, the goal is to recycle 40 tons of ocean plastic each year for use in asphalt roads in Hawai‘i.
  • A large emphasis of the project will be on research and education at each step of the process. The principal investigator is Lerner and the co-principal investigators are Jennifer Lynch and David Horgen from Hawai‘i Pacific University and Donohue and Okimoto from Hawai‘i Sea Grant.
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Pacific Islands Marine Debris Community Action Coalition ($299,987) 

  • Fishing communities in Hawai‘i and the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands have unparalleled physical and cultural connections to the ocean but are some of the most impacted globally in the context of marine debris.
  • Efforts to mitigate this problem have been limited historically, so this project will connect communities who have not been traditionally engaged to address marine debris with nonprofit organizations, government agencies and academic institutions to develop a regional Pacific Islands Marine Debris Action Plan. 
  • The principal investigator is Eileen Nalley, Hawai‘i Sea Grant’s ocean and coastal ecosystem health specialist, and the co-principal investigators are Lerner, Elizabeth A. Lenz, and Donohue from Hawai‘i Sea Grant.

“Hawai‘i Sea Grant is partnering with the most imaginative and talented researchers, practitioners, communities and other partners to both remove and repurpose this very harmful type of ocean plastic pollution,” Donohue said. “The projects in and of themselves are brilliant, but together they constitute a unique opportunity to significantly advance our ability to mitigate derelict fishing gear.” 

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