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Sand Island Strike Mission: Marine Debris Rapid Response

Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii launches its Marine Debris Rapid Response Program with a Strike mission to a small islet off of Sand Island, O‘ahu.

Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii crew members haul super sacks of debris from an offshore islet on Oahu. Photo Credit: Monica Mclenigan, SCH Media Manager
October 18th 2020

The Sustainable Coastline Hawaii team has felt the effects of the pandemic by being cooped up and not fully able to engage in our hands-in-the-sand work of cleaning our coastlines. While we have been expanding our digital tools and building out our new office and community center, the void of connecting with our community at cleanups is hard to fill. There is something special about collectively removing harmful debris from the coastlines with hundreds of volunteers in just a few hours of dedicated effort. Our education program highlights that cleanups are a reactive solution to a very large plastic pollution problem that needs proactive work to turn off the tap. That being said, we also know that there are millions of tons of plastic in the ocean and if it weren’t for organizations like ours cleaning up, our environment and its inhabitants (think monk seal, honu, the fish we eat, whales, sea birds, corals, and microorganisms), would be in even more danger. An incredible report on the global issue of plastic pollution called, Breaking the Plastic Wave, created by PEW Charitable Trust, discusses that while the single most important step forward is stopping fossil fuel companies from creating more virgin plastic, there is still an absolute necessity to clean up the waste that already has escaped into our waterways. Luckily our organization looks at this holistically and works across solutions.

Marine Debris Rapid Response

Enter our new marine debris rapid response program that we are piloting in the last quarter of 2020 in partnership with Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), 4Ocean, & Parley for the Oceans. The program at its core will allow SCH to respond to debris as it washes up – ghost nets, microplastic (similar to the event in Kailua earlier in 2020), or other large debris accumulations. As the program evolves, we will have a reporting line shared with the public so that our teams can remove debris on demand. For now please send us direct messages through instagram or emails to info@sustainablecaoastlineshawaiil.org to report debris.

Before and After: SCH crew removed debris from this cove in the mangroves. Photo Credit: Monica Mclenigan & Raftography

Even without our reporting line open yet, our team has its eyes and ears all around. In early October, after @Hohungryhungryhawaiian shared a post on Instagram from a report from @maukamillworks (Derek Diaz) calling for help, we jumped on the opportunity. Derek had been paddling around the mangrove-covered islets off of sand island when he discovered a huge garbage patch on a spit of sand hidden by the branches of the invasive plants. Given that he was alone on a kayak and the debris was overwhelming, the cleanup needed community support. Rather than just paddle past and continue on with his day Derek documented the situation and reached out through social to see who could help.

SCH was ready.
Crew members roll tires through the shallows so they can be removed. Photo by Raftography

On an early Sunday morning, not long after the report, a small group of the SCH team equipped with kayaks, paddle boards, super sacks, gloves, masks, determination, and a small skiff, set out to clean the ‘ōpala (trash) from the small island. After paddling from the boat ramp across the channel, past Mokauea Island (one of the last remaining Hawaiian fishing villages - please read more on this place and the struggles to maintain the cultural use and subsistence practices in an area that once was a series of 41 connected, thriving reefs), and to the uninhabited islet covered in debris. Greeting us in the vegetation was an "Open House" sign sitting on top of an old abandoned boat, littered with plastic marine debris and the excess single-use items of our daily life.

Alika Vaquer (a long time SCH core volunteer) had seen the open house sign before - 3 years before on a similar trip by kayak.

"3 years are separating these 2 pictures (see below) with the same exact sign. Notice the amount of biodegradability of the sign, made of an extremely durable material commonly named "plastic". No difference... While finding an open house sign is pretty rare, finding plastic bottles, plastic packaging and other single use plastic is as common as finding water at the beach... " - Alika Vaquer, SCH Core Volunteer
Alika Vaquer, SCH, Core Volunteer 3 years ago (left) with the same open house sign we removed in October 2020 (right) - Photos courtesy of Alika Vaquer

In just a few hours work with our small team we were able to remove over 2000 lbs of debris consisting of an open house sign, tires, unidentifiable degraded plastics, an old kayak that was shedding plastic, and the countless amount of polystyrene foam take-out containers, plastic water bottles, bags, and utensils that had blown off shore. As we walked through the shallows around the island and came to a clearing - mangroves that had been removed as they are invasive species in Hawaii - we were astonished by the amount of plastic that we found littering the island.

Polystyrene cups, clamshells, and plates were found everywhere on the island. Photo by raftography

Deeper inspection into the intact mangrove forests revealed more of the same - a never ending mess of our single-use, convenience based lifestyle. While much of what we see on the windward side of our islands comes from all over the world, this mess was directly related to our own actions. It was another moment of reaffirming that our educational work to stop plastic at its source is necessary.

Alika continues,

"Picking up trash and marine debris to protect the environment and wildlife is nice, but the tap needs to be closed at the source. We are all a part of it no matter where we live and can start changing our consumption behavior by implementing gradual changes to consume responsibly and put pressure on manufacturers. Ask yourself about this plastic bottle of soda before buying it, what will it really become afterwards, about this styrofoam plate lunch , this smoothie or coffee cup, this plastic stir stick or this straw. The more time you spend thinking about your choices, the more you'll become aware of the plastic issues, the rest will naturally follow and fall inplace effortlessly"

That is a perfect summary of what we can all do as individuals to change the demand for plastic products in the first place. Clean Beaches Start at Home. We can all do better, and yet no one is perfect, so every change matters as we grow a more sustainable way of life together. A huge mahalo to everyone who followed along with this story, to our core crew for doing the dirty work, Kahi Pacarro for bringing his boat for the operation, Derek Diaz for inspiring our first rapid response, and to DLNR, 4 Ocean, and Parley for the Oceans for helping to fund this work.

SCH crew removing 2000 lbs of debris. Photo by Monica Mclenigan

SCH team creatively lashes kayaks together to get the debris back to land. Photo by Raftography
Plastic water bottles are one of the most common forms of plastic debris. Photo by Raftography

SCH crew members, Laura, Tanya, Monica & Caitlyn survey the island surrounding an remove plastic as they go. Photo by Raftography
Luna (Just turned 15) is an SCH warrior, but still took shade under the abandoned open house sign. Photo by Raftography
A huge mahalo to Derek Diaz who reported the debris and then worked hand in hand with SCH crew to remove it. Photo by Raftography
SCH crew member Phil Potter finds a large chunk of polystyrene foam amongst the mangroves. Photo by Raftography
1 of 5 loads of debris cleared from the island. Mahalo to everyone who helped.