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Hawaiian Marine Refuge Filled with Ocean Life... and Garbage

Nov 18, 2014 03:24 PM EST

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, one of the largest marine refuges in the world, is filled with a wide array of ocean life, as well as 57 tons of garbage.

At least, it was until the NOAA sent a team to the World Heritage Site in October to clean up the trash, which had shockingly accumulated in just a year's time. This stretch of tiny uninhabited islands and coral reefs seems to be the endpoint of the massive amounts of garbage that humans dump into the oceans.

A group of 17 NOAA divers aboard the Oscar Elton Sette spent 33 days removing 57 tons of garbage, ranging from bottle caps and cigarette lighters to giant nets lost by factory fishing trawlers - one of which was 28 feet by 7 feet and weighed 11.5 tons.

And among the thousands of pieces of plastic they retrieved were 7,436 hard plastic fragments, 3,758 bottle caps, 1,469 plastic beverage bottles and nearly 500 lighters.

"The amount of marine debris we find in this remote, untouched place is shocking," Mark Manuel, operations manager for NOAA Fisheries Coral Reef Ecosystem Division and chief scientist for the mission, said in a press release. "Every day, we pulled up nets weighing hundreds of pounds from the corals. We filled the dumpster on the Sette to the top with nets, and then we filled the decks. There's a point when you can handle no more, but there's still a lot out there."

And that's bad news for the collection of animals and plants like seabirds and endangered green sea turtles that call this marine refuge home. Divers rescued some of these turtles from derelict fishing nets dredged up from the ocean bottom.

The NOAA, which uses maps with GIS locations based on 15 years of data to locate the trash, has conducted this mission annually since 1996, removing a whopping 904 tons of marine debris in total.

"This mission is critical to keeping marine debris from building up in the monument," added Kyle Koyanagi, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for NOAA's Marine Debris Program.

To help shrink the amount of waste that ends up in our once-pristine oceans, the Environmental Protection Agency says reducing, reusing and recycling are the three key steps.

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