Ocean Debris – A Present and Growing Danger

Yesterday I listened to a fascinating yet troubling webinar about marine debris and the anticipated arrival of Japanese tsunami marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in early 2012.

It was hosted by Marine Affairs Research and Education (MARE) http://marineaffairs.org/marinedebris.html, publisher of MPA News and founder of http://www.marinedebris.info, an online community and discussion forum on research, management, and prevention of marine debris. Hosting partners included Blue Ocean Sciences http://blueoceansciences.org and the EBM Tools Network http://www.ebmtools.org

The speakers were:
1.) Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator, NOAA Marine Debris Program
2.) Ray Born, US Fish and Wildlife Service Permit Manager, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument
3.) David Swatland, NOAA Deputy Superintendent, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument
4.) Scott Godwin, NOAA Resource Protection Specialist, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument
5.) Andrea Neal, President, Blue Ocean Sciences; and Administrator, Digital Ocean Collaborative on Marine Debris
6.) Julia Parish, Field Project Support Assistant and Field Camp Leader, Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary

They shared satellite images and ground truth information of vast amounts of debris in the Pacific Ocean resulting from the tsunami that destroyed parts of Japan in March of this year. The buoyant portion of that debris is still making its way across the ocean with anticipated landfall expected at the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as early as the first quarter of 2012.

These islands are home to 23 endangered or threatened species including the Hawaiian monk seal, short tailed albatross, and several sea turtle species. The islands also provide habitat for 14 million sea birds, including nesting habitat for over 98% of the Laysan and black-footed albatross worldwide.

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, which is within the national monument, is the US Federal Aviation Administration’s designated diversionary runway for transpacific flights. It’s sea wall, which protects the runway, has been damaged by and remains threatened by marine debris, e.g. shipping containers and actual ships.

I’m reminded of Jacques Cousteau’s early collaboration with NASA. – For a time this year NASA’s satellite imagery was successfully tracking the debris but unfortunately as the debris disbursed satellites could no longer track it. – Cousteau and NASA used to also derive images from U2 aircraft imaging but the Pacific’s area is too vast to effectively conduct overflights to track debris. Thus, the scientists are now relying on sophisticated computer models to track the debris but models can’t necessarily account for variables such as wave action and storms.

Unfortunately ocean debris is not a new problem. It does however continue to grow. Although there is no good news, at least scientists have begun establishing baseline data. They don’t know the total volume of ocean debris but I think they were referring to the Tsunami’s aftermath, not total ocean debris, when they stated that it is estimated to be 52 million metric tons.

Due to ocean currents, debris travels great distances. In the Pacific there are two particular areas, “garbage patches” where the currents collect an inordinate amount of debris.  In between is the “convergence zone”, which also happens to be the Hawaiian Archipelago.

Particular concerns regard hazardous materials, larger structures like the aforementioned shipping containers and ships themselves, which run aground and damage coral reefs, and invasive species like vermin, insects, and seeds, which can all be very problematic and take years if not decades to eradicate.

The organizations mentioned are interested in hearing from sailors traveling between Hawaii and Japan who see debris and request specific information regarding the debris seen and very importantly accurate position coordinates.