The forecast predicted thunderstorms, but Kevin O’Brien didn’t think much of it. Over the fifteen years he’d been coming to the remote atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, he’d never encountered lightning that presented any real threat to divers or boats. That day last summer off Kapou (Lisianski Island), however, was different. A few thunderclouds gathered and quickly passed until one stalled overhead. “It just stopped right over the island and continued to build until it was about twenty-five miles in diameter with lightning striking the water and the island all around,” O’Brien recalls. “It got pretty sketchy.”
O’Brien reminded his crew of their training: Hunker down in the vegetation, stay away from the tallest growth and minimize contact with the ground. Everyone wrapped themselves in the black contractor trash bags they use to collect plastic and other debris and waited out the lightning for several hours while O’Brien worried about hyperthermia setting in. Everyone kept their spirits up by belting out Katy Perry’s “Firework.” The first line—“Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”—felt particularly relatable. Eventually there was a lull, the crew bolted from the island and made it back to their vessel unsinged.
The next morning they got up and went straight back into the water to resume their work. Over the course of two month-long voyages, each filled with grueling fourteen-hour days, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project (PMDP) aims to cut and remove two hundred thousand pounds of marine debris and abandoned fishing nets from the delicate coral reefs of the world’s most remote atolls.
(LEFT) A diver removes derelict fishing gear at Holaniku (Kure Atoll). - PHOTO BY JAMES MORIOKA.(RIGHT) Max Lee clears a ghost net from Kuaihelani.
By the time O'Brien founded PMDP in 2019, he had already spent years cleaning up marine debris during his time with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "The problem," he says, "is that the mission of that particular division at NOAA
is to conduct science to inform management, not to engage in direct management." O'Brien and his NOAA colleagues had been coordinating annual debris cleanups throughout Papahanaumokuakea, but in 2018 NOAA announced that the agency wouldn't be able to organize another mission until 2021. "If we wanted this work to continue, we'd have to create an additional mechanism to assist," says O'Brien. "That's why we created PMDP- to do the heavy lifting of these missions. Everyone knew this work had to get done to protect the habitats and the species up there."
When describing PMDP's work, O'Brien often refers to "up there" and "down here." "Up there" is roughly 75 percent of the Hawaiian archipelago-the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands-which few ever visit. "Down here" is the eight inhabited islands, from Niihau to Hawaii Island. But most of Hawaii, geographically, is "up there," part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest protected area under US jurisdiction-582,578 square miles, bigger than all the other national parks combined. Papahanaumokuakea has 3.5 million acres of coral reef, which account for 70 percent of all the coral reefs in the United States. At least seven thousand species call the monument home, a quarter of which aren't found anywhere else in the world. It's home to 23 endangered species, including 80 percent of the Hawaiian monk seal population. Each year around 90 percent of the green sea turtles in Hawai'i nest on just one atoll, Lalo (French Frigate Shoals).
The monument stretches 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu; sailing from Honolulu, it takes the PMDP crew four to five days to reach Manawai, one of the farthest atolls in the archipelago. There's an irony to Manawai and most of Papahanaumokuakea: With the exception of Kuaihelani (Midway Atoll), there isn't much human presence-visiting the region requires a special permit-and yet the landscape is covered with the detritus of civilization. The monument lies just south of the North Pacific subtropical convergence zone where floating trash from all over the Pacific Rim collects. Currents pull the accumulated debris toward the fragile atolls, littering the shorelines with toothbrushes and water bottles, toys and bicycle helmets, shoes and umbrellas, laundry baskets and, of course, fishing nets, which also get tangled on the reefs. "If there were ever a place on earth that this stuff shouldn't exist," says O'Brien, "it's Papahanaumokuakea."
Lauren Chamberlain cuts a net from the reef at Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Reef).
With half a million square miles to cover, PMDP picks its battlefields. One consideration is not making matters worse. "Stepping foot on every island up there has to be done in a biosecure manner," says O'Brien. "We can't just jump on an island and grab debris. They're so sensitive. Invasive species can wreck ecosystems and cost millions to eradicate." Crew members have a different set of clothes for each island, kept frozen for forty-eight hours before reuse. Boats must be disinfected between visits to different atolls.
While PMDP removes all kinds of debris, it's focused on the fishing nets-"ghost nets," as the crew calls them, "because we're mainly focused on entanglement hazards," says O'Brien. "We're trying to fulfill one mission: Make sure the animals who live in Papahanaumokuakea have the best chance of survival." Several species get entangled in the nets: turtles, birds, sharks. Monk seals like to wrap themselves in the nets and sleep. "Sometimes they get out," says O'Brien, "sometimes they don't. It's such a remote place that I think that the number of times that happens and no one witnesses it is high. For every one we see, we probably don't see a hundred. It's really hard to know."
The crew removes nets both in the water and on shore. Working in the water is more complicated. Nets plaster themselves over coral, shading it out and eventually killing it. "A lot of times we'll find a big net, peel it back and underneath there's the perfectly white dead coral scar underneath," says O'Brien. Sometimes new coral grows over a net, embedding it into the dying coral beneath. Everyone freedives because scuba gear is too cumbersome and could easily become entangled in the nets, which have to be cut away by hand. "It's hard to figure out how to approach a net," says O'Brien, whose fingernails are brown with bruises from the most recent mission. "They're so massive and amorphous, and it's hard to cut something unless it's under tension."
It can take all day to free a single net. The crew divides up into teams, and each works from one of four Zodiacs modified for ghost net removal. The shallow draft vessels can navigate near shore and can hold up to four thousand pounds of netting. Sometimes that weight can be met with just a single net, which must be cut into smaller pieces and hauled aboard the Zodiacs.
(LEFT) Sydney Luitgaarden and Louise Currie clear debris from Kapou (Lisianski Island). (RIGHT) Marine debris technicians haul a net that divers have cut free at Holaniku onto a Zodiac.
So far PMDP had done most of its work at Manawai, which the crew affectionately calls "the maze" for its complex reef structure. They spent two months training-CPR, first aid, emergency oxygen administration-as well as boat-driving and a three-day freediving safety course. "Most of the divers on our team have a four-minute breath hold," says James Morioka, who left NOAA in January of 2022 to join PMDP as CEO. "I tell them the only number we're really ever going for is zero accidents, zero injuries. One hundred thousand pounds of debris for each mission is a great goal, but if we can't meet it that's OK."
"We push people to find their limits," O'Brien adds, "so that when we go out and do this work they can back away from that point so they don't run the risk of getting into the danger zone of a blackout." Still, emergency oxygen is always on hand in case someone gets entangled or runs into other problems in the water.
Not everyone involved in the work started out as an expert waterman or woman. When Nameleokuupuuwai Naipo-Arsiga interviewed to join the sixteen-member crew, she estimated she could dive ten feet deep; after training she reached sixty-six feet. "She came in with probably the least experience out of the group," says O'Brien, "and she ended up being one of our team leaders."
Previously, Naipo-Arsiga was an anesthesia technologist at the Hilo Medical Center. It was steady work with steady pay, but she couldn't shake her craving for adventure. Then she saw an Instagram post about PMDP. "The deadline was the next day," Naipo-Arsiga recalls. "I wanted to apply but I was nervous." Taking the opportunity meant leaving a stable job. "I made the jump," she says. "It was the best choice I could have made."
Once back in Honolulu, the debris is transferred to containers. Most will be incinerated to generate power, and discussions are underway to include some in road-building materials.
O'Brien, who at 39 is one of the oldest crew members, says that endurance is key to surviving the rigorous training and the challenging work. "End of the day, this is a young person's job," he laughs. "It's exhausting work. Best leave it to the young folks."
The youngest member of the crew is 20-year-old Kamalii Andrade-it was his second season with PMDP. "For me," he says, "this is really important because I grew up as a spearfisherman. I was so involved with the ocean. This work makes me happy, and it gives me a sense of fulfillment. I get to go out and take care of this place that has taken care of me for so long. I get to be the big brother it never had and go out and fight for it."
By the end of the last mission, Andrade was leading a Zodiac boat team. Every day, he and the other team leaders would stagger their drop-offs to Imua, the 185-foot cargo ship that PMDP charters, so that each team had time and space to offload their haul. Each load is weighed, and the specifics of each recovered net-chiefly its size and the location where it was found-are recorded in an effort to build a data set. No one really knows how much debris is in Papahanaumokuakea.
On a three-hundred-meter stretch of beach on Eastern Island at Midway, less than a quarter of a mile, PMDP removed 3,795 pounds of debris, plastic and nets. That represents less than 1 percent of the total shoreline in Papahanaumokuakea. From another stretch of shoreline-this one was 1.5 miles long, or 5 percent of the shoreline in the monument-crews removed 21,724 pounds of net. Morioka says the best current estimate for how much new debris moves into Papahanaumokuakea is about 115,000 pounds a year.
The PMDP has so far removed over half a million pounds of debris from Papahanaumokuakea, much of which drifts south to the monument from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. "If there were ever a place on Earth that this stuff shouldn't exist," says PMDP founder Kevin O'Brien, "It's Papahanaumokuakea." Above, the PMDP team hauls a large ghost net into the Zodiac off Kapou.
The 2022 crew pulled in 97,295 pounds on their first mission-just shy of the halfway point toward the goal of 200,000 pounds for the season. On the second mission they hauled in 106,655 pounds-just surpassing the overall goal. All the debris is tossed into one of four shipping containers aboard Imua, each with the top cut off for easy loading. Most of the debris will be incinerated to generate power. PMDP is in talks with Hawaii Pacific University and the Hawaii Department of Transportation about a "nets-to-roads" project to incorporate ghost nets into road-building materials.
To date PMDP has removed 503,747 pounds of debris, and in 2024 Morioka hopes to increase the number of missions-each of which costs roughly $1 million-from two to three each year. The short-term goal is to remove the backlog of existing debris by the end of 2027 so that a single annual mission will suffice to clean up new debris.
When all of the debris is weighed at the end of each day, there's something beyond the abstract satisfaction of the data; there is the concrete evidence of a tough job well done. "A friend told me it's good to have a job where you get to make piles. That is some measure of the satisfaction," says O'Brien. "It's nice the next morning, too, when you get your coffee and see this giant pile on the ship."
(LEFT) Large pieces of debris, like this ghost rescue boat washed ashore at Manawai, can cause significant damage to the reef and removing them poses logistical challenges. (RIGHT) A young kaupu (black-footed albatross) investigates fishing gear at Kamole (Laysan Island).
Morioka and O'Brien never lose sight of what a privilege it is to visit Papahanaumokuakea, a place where a red-footed booby might land on your head because you're the first human it's ever seen, a place where you can barely walk across a beach because every square foot is occupied by nesting albatrosses. "You can sit in your boat in the middle of a lagoon at Manawai," says, O'Brien, "ten miles from the surf, and you'll have the quietest quiet you've experienced in your life-not a sound at all."
Sharing these moments with fifteen other people is sometimes the most powerful part of the experience. "My favorite part is seeing the new people who've never been there," says Morioka. "We worked eighteen consecutive days and it was really grueling, but through all the hard work they would have that one moment when a dolphin encounters them while they're surveying, or they disentangle two turtles in a net. They have a pure elation, and that's what brings joy to me."
Morioka hopes that the crew members, including Naipo-Arsiga, will return next season. She doesn't know what the coming year will bring-she has more adventure in her yet, she says-but she hopes to return. "For Hawaiians, Papahanaumokuakea is kupuna islands, it's ancestors, it's an example of what was before," she says. "Once you pass Kaua'i, your behavior changes. I love that switch. I love that feeling of how small you can be in the grandness of nature, putting other beings as equals with us. I feel so tiny, but I don't feel like I'm diluted, like I'm less-than. I feel like I become a part of the story. I feel so close to life, that pulse, that energy."
Lighters, bottlecaps, toothbrushes-if it floats, it might end up on the most remote shores and reefs in the world. - PHOTO BY ELYSE BUTLER