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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, February 12, 2005

New effort to clean up trash in sea under way

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Federal researchers are aware of 14 cases in which endangered Hawaiian monk seals were found trapped in marine debris in the Hawaiian archipelago last year alone.

Abandoned nets are among the major types of debris collecting on reef flats and other parts of the ocean in growing amounts. Such debris threatens the lives of sea birds and marine life such as seals.

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Some were caught in loops of rope, some caught in abandoned nets. It's not known how many more were never seen, or how many of them may have died. In past years, divers have found seals drowned in tangles of old netting.

One of the main ways of dealing with the issue in recent years has been to launch vast cleanups on beaches. But a bill introduced in Congress last week seeks to learn more about the marine debris problem, and to find ways to reduce its volume at the source—before it hits the beach.

The seals represent just one of the more poignant issues in the marine debris debate. The floating pieces of rope, styrofoam cups, old bottles, cigarette lighters and all the rest — in addition to trashing the shorelines and damaging reefs — impact many kinds of marine life.

Albatross chicks die with their bellies full of plastic. Turtles get their fins caught in abandoned gillnets. Lobsters and crabs are trapped by fishing line and cargo net. Feeding sea birds snap floating bits of man-made gear off the ocean's surface as they forage for fish eggs, squid and minnows.

A U.S. Senate bill with bipartisan support proposes to expand dramatically the federal government's role in controlling marine debris.

"It certainly will help. We can attack the problem not only with cleanups, but with mitigation and research. Without this, this problem obviously is not going away," said Chris Woolaway, of the University of Hawai'i's Sea Grant College Program, who coordinates the state's "Get the Drift and Bag It" marine debris clean-up drive.

Sens. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, sponsored the Marine Debris Research and Reduction Act, Senate Bill 362. It provides $10 million annually to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and $5 million annually to the Coast Guard through the Department of Homeland Security, to help carry out the mission.

The Ocean Conservancy, which for 20 years has run an international shoreline cleanup, lauded the measure.

"It focuses on one environmental issue that is very solvable. We understand its issues," said Seba Sheavly, director of the conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup.

Much of the debris that kills wildlife comes from the commercial fishing industry, including abandoned and lost nets that keep killing fish, birds, whales and turtles, until they wash up on reefs, where they tear up ancient corals. But much of it also is made up of things tossed onto city streets and into streams, which then washes into rivers and to the sea.

"There is very little land space on this planet that does not drain into a waterway," Sheavly said. "All trash has a person's face behind it."

Inouye said the effects of marine debris may be more evident in Hawai'i than in most states.

"Since 1996, a total of 484 tons of debris have been removed from coral reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, which is also home to many endangered species," Inouye said.

The bill calls for NOAA to launch a program to catalogue marine debris to help identify sources, so that educational programs can be launched to help stop the discarding of materials that end up in the water.

The bill also would call on the U.S. Coast Guard to enhance its marine pollution monitoring and enforcement, would help track the path of marine debris at sea, help fishing fleets reduce the loss of fishing gear, encourage international cooperation in debris prevention and educate the public about limiting its role in the debris problem.

A similar bill in last year's Congress passed the Senate unanimously, but the money to put the effort into effect was cut out by the White House.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.