Ghost nets haunting hawai’i shores

HPU masters program works on busting the source of marine debris washing up on Hawaiʻis shores

by Liam Thropp

Apr 22, 2021

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Research at Hawai‘i Pacific University is making efforts to track the sources of ghost nets washing up on Hawai‘i shores.


“Once that information is revealed, we will be able to move forward with planning for solutions with some fisheries, that we're finding a lot of fishing debris,” HPU graduate student Drew McWhirter said.  “The focus of his master’s program is to identify the source of derelict fishing gear in Hawai’i.”


Derelict fishing gear is also known as “ghosts nets,” which are commercial fishing nets that have been abandoned in the oceans by fisheries.


Animals entangled in these ghost nets get injured, drowned, or starved to death.  There are thousands of invertebrates, fish, birds, and mammals found in these nets every year.


“On top of that, these nets washed ashore, they have to cross our reefs on the way anyway, and usually they will just roll over our reefs like a bulldozer all the way in and leave an entire destructive track,” McWhirter said.


The plastics material used to make these nets makes them very durable and can last in the seas for 600 years. 


“Over a dozen cases in which we believe the animals were caught in something that wasn't like actively fish fishing gear,” said Ed Lyman, who works for Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.


The sanctuary is located at Maui, where Lyman works as a natural resource specialist and regional large whale entanglement response.  Lyman also worked with other organizations to place trackers on debris to find hotspots for where these ghost nets collect.


Lyman has seen nets big enough to tangle whales, and that’s when he and his crew head out with special tools to help.

The nets, collected by McWhirter, are taken to a lab to find where the source of the nets come from.  Information like this can be used to find these fisheries and planning a solution.


“Without this study, we wouldn't have the opportunity to come up with the solution, essentially, because we wouldn't be able to work with the source.” McWhirter said.


Most of the ghost nets that wash up in Hawai’i shores are left with only a few options to be burned as fossil fuel, landfills, or used for art.


“So recycling is not a solution for any plastics,” said Kahi Pacarro, an adviser for Love the Sea. “It's in a sense purgatory, right? Like it sits there until it's no longer usable, and then it’s going to hell: incinerator into the atmosphere.”


Love the Sea is a nonprofit organization that works to extract marine debris from the ocean. Pacarro is also the director for Parley for the Oceans.


Pacarro said that people could take the initiative by learning more about the fisheries they buy their fish from.


“How about just eating less fish? How about know your fishermen? How about no longer buying fish that you don't know where it came from. So that is what we really try to push is know your fishermen,” Pacarro said.


Ghosts nets are found in different places near the islands of Hawai’i, onshore.  The nets consist of materials like high-density polyethylene and polypropylene.


“All of these nets that we're finding, none of our fishermen fish with these types of nets, so they're coming from far away,” McWhirter said.


Instead of sending them to landfills or power plants, McWhriters keeps some of the nets he collects in hopes of a future where discoveries have been made on reusing ghost nets.


If you witness any marine life animal in distress, call (888) 256-9840, and a specialized response team can come to help.

Elizabeth Ufi is the Co-Web Editor for Ho’a. She has dreamed to have...

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