Biz, birds and beach: how marine debris tangles with island life

Royal Caribbean cruise line was one of several companies that announced recently a campaign to eliminate single-use plastics from its cruise ships by the year 2020.

“We have a newly formed plastics team within the corporation,” said chief executive Michael Bayley. “We manage our waste very well, but we have an exciting opportunity to play our part in the overall reduction of plastic, which, it’s becoming clear for all to see, has such a negative impact on our oceans.”

The company isn’t the only cruise line to ditch the plastics. Several lines including P&O Cruises and Cunard also made the announcement as part of an environmental compliance plan.

The announcements come in the wake of the American Chemistry Council’s December predictions that plastic production will rise 40 percent in the next decade. Studies show about 10 percent of that plastic ends up in the ocean annually — about 8 million tons currently.

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Kauai marine debris

Commercial fishing equipment is the bulk of the plastic and marine debris that lands on Kauai, according to the island’s Surfrider Net Patrol, and animals do become entangled.

In fact, land-based beach debris isn’t nearly as much of a problem on Kauai, according to Net Patrol. Derelict nets are the bulk of the debris, though there is microplastic woven into many of the beaches.

“We don’t have the inundation of water bottles you see on other islands,” he said. “Much of our plastic is in the form of nets.”

These so-called “ghost nets” and other fishing equipment are responsible for navigational hazards on the water and for animal entanglement below. The January release of the humpback whale from hundreds of feet of braided fishing line off the coast of Maui is one example.

Fishermen retrieve these ghost nets from the sea as they see them, according to the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, but the nets can become lost in the Pacific Ocean quickly.

Some of those made up the more than 91,000 pounds of debris Kauai Surfrider volunteers collected off of Kauai beaches in 2017.

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Debris and the birds

Kauai’s endangered seabirds are also at risk when it comes to marine debris, especially microplastics, but conservationists say that it is low on the list of current threats, according to Andre Raine, of the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project.

Raine was part of a mentor group for Elizabeth Kain, graduate of Kauai Community College, who studied the topic in a paper entitled, “Plastic Ingestion by Newell’s and wedge-tailed shearwaters in Hawaii,” published in 2016.

Together, the group discovered plastic ingestion has increased since the 1980s, for both the Newell’s shearwater and the wedge-tailed shearwater.

In fact, the frequency of plastic ingestion in Newell’s shearwater drastically increased from 11 percent in 1987 to 50 percent in the recent study.

“It is a significant threat, but we have more pressing threats like power line collisions and predators,” Raine said.

Debris and tourism

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Concerns about impacts to the economy, as well as the environment, have been raised by entities like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which studied and confirmed that marine debris deters visitors.

On Kauai, however, plastic and people are simultaneously arriving at exponential rates and business is thriving — especially within the tourism industry.

For the past six years, Hawaii has set records in the visitor industry. In 2017, visitor spending on Kauai increased 9.6 percent to $1.8 billion in 2017 from $1.6 billion in 2016.

Total visitor numbers for Kauai saw a 7.5 percent increase to 1.3 million in 2017 from 1.2 million in 2016, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority.

And none of those tourists are complaining about marine debris or plastic on the beaches, according to Sue Kanoho, KVB’s executive director.

In fact, between the shopping and dining, many vacationers are finding ways to lend locals a hand and help clean up the beaches.

“The visitor base is important for our cleanup efforts,” said Barbara Wiedner, of Kauai’s Surfrider. “We’ve had some people with families they get off the plane and it’s their first activity.”

She continued: “More and more people are contacting us in advance of their trip, wanting to give back to the island because they love it so much.”

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She says while those efforts are important, stopping the production of marine debris is important and ditching single-use plastic makes a huge difference.

“We have to stop using plastic,” Wiedner said. “And, with their (cruise ships’) closed circuit, it’s probably less expensive to wash a plate than throw it away

February also brought a report to the Royal Geographical Society from environment journalist Oliver Tickell, which claims the release of plastic into the oceans violates international law and urges governments to take action.

“Lost and discarded fishing equipment can entrap fish, turtles, cetaceans, sea birds and other marine animals, causing great suffering and high mortality,” Tickell writes in the report.”


Written for The Garden Island Newspaper March 3, 2018.  

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jessicaelse

Author and award-winning journalist Jessica Else currently works as the environment reporter on the island of Kauai and enjoys writing about sustainability projects, endangered animals, health and wellness, festivals and food, and outdoor adventuring.

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