Cover Story

The Pacific Ocean is choking on our waste.


Cover image for Nov 26, 2008

Ever since I went to Midway, I’ve never looked at a bottle cap or a disposable lighter in the same way. I used to think they were insignificant little things, which is close to not thinking at all. But walking around this gorgeous atoll 1,500 miles from Honolulu, I discovered that they are lethal weapons responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. When I see one on the beach now, I pick it up, put in my pocket and throw it in the trash.

Midway is home to the biggest albatross rookery in the world. More than 600,000 pairs of Laysan albatrosses descend each year on a pair of islands that make up a tad less than a square mile, packing some areas with a density of several thousand per acre. In fact, there are so many albatrosses present during the November-to-June mating season that the only plane that services the island, a vintage turbo-prop Gulfstream I, has to land at night to reduce the danger of hitting one.

To walk around Midway in mating season is to go back to a time when millions of seabirds nested in the Main Hawaiian Islands, the largest chain in the world devoid of land mammals, their main predators. After the arrival of Polynesians and their dogs and small rats roughly 1,000 years ago, and the introduction by Europeans of mongoose, cats and bigger rats, bird populations fell dramatically (precisely how many albatrosses were nesting in the main islands remains unclear, according to Sheila Conant of the University of Hawai’i.)

In the 19th century, Japanese sailors killed millions of albatrosses in Midway for the long feathers to make hats, reducing the mating population to 50,000. Only since World War II have their numbers recovered thanks in large part to the elimination of rats by the Navy. Today, however, the albatross, like many other creatures of the Hawaiian archipelago, is facing perhaps its direst threat to date, in the form of the millions of tons of plastic carelessly tossed into the Pacific Ocean every year.

Squid eggs that cling to floating objects like bottle caps and lighters are a favorite diet for young birds, and parents often return to disgorge them into the wide-open beaks of their young. Most chicks expel them later, and the ground is littered with bits of plastic at any area where chicks gather.

But some chicks are unable to regurgitate the plastic. About 40,000 of the 290,000 albatross chicks that hatch each year die before reaching the water, mostly of hunger and dehydration, and the dead ones have a higher incidence of plastic absorption, says Midway’s chief scientist, John Klavitter. Each morning, a staff member in a golf cart picks up the remains–a mixture of bones, feathers and colorful bits of plastic–near the island’s residential areas. These come to roughly 10,000 every year, just in inhabited areas, where the effort serves largely to keep the down the smell and the fly population. Elsewhere, the carcasses, in various states of decomposition, are too numerous to count.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of floating plastic on every square mile of ocean. In the Pacific, most of it tends to gravitate to two areas of low winds. One is called the Eastern Garbage Patch, with a density of 2.6 million items per square mile. Twice the size of Texas, it lies about halfway between Hawai’i and San Francisco. The other is just south of Japan. Between them stretches a 6,000-mile trash-filled highway called the sub-tropical convergence zone, where the cold northern waters meet–and slide under–warmer southern waters. In El Nio conditions, the highway moves south and the Hawaiian Islands get more trash.

Next to Midway’s main pier lies a six-foot-high pile of garbage, gathered by staff and volunteers throughout the year, which contains everything from tires to bottle crates and laundry baskets–virtually all of it plastic.

The day after I flew in, that pile was loaded into a container on the deck of the Coast Guard buoy tender Walnut, a portly black-hulled buoy tender based in Honolulu. We set off for Maro Reef, where the ship had stopped for three days on its way to Midway, gathering marine debris–20 percent of the total oceanic garbage that comes from ships, not land. Most of it is made up of fishing nets and ropes, also plastic, abandoned at sea by fishing vessels when lines break or when the weather turns. It’s much cheaper to buy a new line than to repair a damaged one.

At sea, these lines and nets mysteriously find each other and also snare finer gill nets and pole-fishing lines used by coastal fishers, forming netballs the size of cars or trucks. These drift just below the surface for years or decades and, as they slowly circle the garbage patch gyres, kill an estimated 1 million sea animals per year, including seals, turtles and seabirds. Eventually, the ones in the Eastern Patch peel off and drift to the Hawaiian archipelago, mostly the Northwestern Islands. The fact that humans have designated these islands the largest marine reserve in the world offers no protection to them from netballs whatsoever. Pushed by waves and storms, the tangled masses of nets crash into reefs like demolition balls and, laden by the coral they have ripped out and caught, sink into the sand.

Making a difference at Maro

Attempts to force the fishing net industry to use biodegradable materials have not been successful.

For years, entrepreneur Tim Veenstra has been working on ways to locate these floating timebombs before they hit the reefs, so they can be easily craned aboard ships like the Walnut. Veenstra has developed a drone with a camera that can be launched from a ship going along the 6,000-mile trash superhighway, looking for big debris ranging from netballs to 40-foot containers. In March, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) team experimented with the planes and found they had trouble operating in the high winds of the north Pacific. Veenstra says he’s confident the program will be successful.

In the meantime, the only way to stop marine debris made up of nets from continuing to damage the environment is to do it the hard and expensive way: send a ship with a crew of close to 20, including divers, to wrestle the debris off the reefs and haul them into the ship.

After an 18-hour sail, we dropped the anchor off Maro Reef. The reef, discovered by a Nantucket whaling ship named Maro, may be 31 miles long and 18 wide, but all that’s visible in calm weather is a few breakers here and there and patches of brown and aquamarine water.

The crew had spotted a particularly prominent netball during its three-day stopover on the way to Midway, so on the morning low tide a four-boat flotilla roared off the ship, twisting and turning through the shallows. We zoomed by a solitary monk seal dozing inches off the water on a piece of flat coral no bigger than itself.

At first underwater glance, it didn’t look like much: a sandy oval hill, two-feet-high and 25-feet-long, emerging from an equally sandy bottom 12 feet below the surface, near a large coral head. What gave it away were some lengths of rope rising from the middle, reaching vainly for the surface.

“When the next hurricane comes around,” predicted Chip Young of NOAA, standing on a Coast Guard skiff above the netball and directing the operation, “I bet it will pick up this thing and send right back over the reef.”

“They don’t just smash coral,” Young explained. “The parts that stick out entangle fish and then the turtles, birds and seals that try to catch the fish that got entangled in the first place get caught in it, too.”

Since 1996, NOAA, sometimes in partnership with the Coast Guard, has been removing these nets throughout the Northwestern Islands each summer, and 570 metric tons had been taken in so far–10 times as much as has been removed from Main Hawaiian Island beaches. But it’s a Sisyphean task: by the end of our trip, we would haul home just 28 tons, half of the amount that accumulates on the islands each year. It was because of exceptionally calm weather this week that the Walnut had been able to make the first clean-up of Maro Reef, the last spot in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to have its marine debris removed. In normal trade wind conditions, explained Cmdr. Jeffrey Randall, the Walnut’s skipper, the skiffs can’t find the channels between the reefs because waves are crashing throughout the area.


Once the netball was spotted, the team needed to figure out how to get it out.

Chief Daniel Howes went in first, followed by Chief Warrant Officer Chandler Tyre, who had just celebrated his promotion from enlistment. Both wore full diving gear, wetsuits and tanks.

I watched underwater from a distance as the two men tried to uproot the nets with no effect. Clearly, the netball, weighed down with coral heads, had been covered with enough sand to make it hard to extract. Then the two men attached the protruding ropes to the most powerful skiff in the fleet, the only one with an inboard engine. They gunned it on and off for half an hour, and made no progress whatsoever.

Float bags were next. Cream-colored and plastic, they were tied to a piece of line and then filled with air from a scuba tank. Three were filled, and did nothing either. So out came the big ones, pillow-shaped and six feet long. “We have almost 20,000 pounds of lift,” Ensign Ariel Piedmont said.

That did the trick. The big bags lifted enough of a mass of tangled nets of all colors that the divers, now working in a water made milky by the stirred-up fine coral sand, were able to use small serrated knives to cut off the part of the ball, and a first lump of netting was heaved with great effort and difficulty by a half-dozen Coasties into the boat

Two hours later, a second big chunk had been brought up and heaved in, and Ensign Chad Beck, another diver, remarked in wonder, “This is massive, absolutely massive.” By the time the third lump had been cut off and hoisted in, the skiff was full. We returned to the Walnut, where it was weighed, craned up and dropped into one of two containers lashed to the deck for the occasion.

On the way back, as soon as the anchored Walnut melted into the horizon, we got lost, not once but twice: navigating this huge expanse of shallow coral heads and channels half the size of O’ahu was no easy task, even with a GPS. Its appearance changed hourly as the rising tide covered the features that had guided us in.

Finally we made it back, and another big chunk of the net was hauled aboard with much grunting and yelling. It would be our last trip back to the Walnut. There was still some part of the mass of nets buried in the sand, which the divers estimated at a fifth of the total. But it was so low in the bowl the divers had created that Young figured it would soon be covered by sand and would no longer present much danger to wildlife or coral.

He decided to leave it there and call it a day. All told, the Coast Guard and NOAA divers brought in 1,480 kg of debris that day.

The next day, the teams all spread out in search of nets. As we snorkeled along a loose grid, admiring the abundant fish and occasional lobsters, bits of netting appeared every few hundred feet or so. Some were so small that they could be pulled off by hand. Others required the efforts of a team of divers.

Later, a seal, perhaps the same one we had seen on the way in, paid us a visit, eyeing us curiously and without fear. This animal lives in a place of extraordinary isolation, and represents a slice of wildlife that mankind hardly ever gets to see, let alone study, because the place is so inaccessible even in normal weather. Still, our actions reach this place, and I was proud to know that our government is reaching back, to aid in its preservation and in the well-being of its inhabitants.