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Combating Marine Debris in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project, or PMDP, was founded by former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employee Kevin O’Brien in 2019. Previously, a NOAA-run debris removal program ran from 1996 to 2018, and in that timeframe they cleared 2.1 million pounds of derelict fishing gear (DFG) from the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Unfortunately, due to problems with funding (which stemmed partially from NOAA’s primary function as a scientific research organization rather than a clean-up organization) the program was shut down in 2018. However, Kevin O’Brien understood the necessity of this sort of work, and promptly began his own nonprofit to fill the void that NOAA was forced to vacate. PMDP was formed to work collaboratively with the mission of the national monument, rather than occupying its own niche in marine debris clean-up. The program emphasizes the importance of engaging with native Hawaiians to understand the land from their perspective and attempts to encourage environmental stewardship among the people who call the monument home. PMDP also attempts to be as diverse as possible, working with youth and members of multi-generational communities from a variety of backgrounds.

O’Brien notes that the organization operates around the idea of “protect what you love.” For the people who work at PMDP, it’s natural for them to want to protect and preserve the beautiful landscape of Papahānaumokuākea. The challenge, he says, is in getting people who may never visit or live in a particular place to want to protect it with the same sort of drive. His solution? Stories. Having people of all walks of life detail their experiences with the land and describe the ways in which they’ve been impacted by marine debris can be more compelling than a traditional public relations (PR) campaign at generating interest in a project like PMDP. O’Brien hopes to expound upon this method in the future for the sake of restoring and preserving the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. For now, the organization continues with its direct methods of controlling the amount of marine debris in the monument.

The organization has completed three large-scale clean-up projects across 2020 and 2021, with plans for at least three more beginning in 2022. In October of 2020, over the course of 10 days O’Brien and his team removed 82,600 pounds of debris from Tern Island, which had been hit hard by a hurricane in 2018, and generated an immense amount of trash and waste from leveled structures. The following spring, in a 23 day clean-up, was one of ten organizations—along with the US Fish and Wildlife Services, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and the Center for Marine Debris Research, a department of Hawai'i Pacific University—to collect 94,472 pounds of debris, most of which was derelict fishing gear (DFG). Their final project of that fiscal year was a 30-day clean-up focused on removing derelict nets from coral reefs, which resulted in 123,690 pounds of DFG debris being removed from the water.

If you’re interested in learning more, or how you too can contribute to their project, visit PMDP’s website! For information on how Seaside has been doing its part in cleaning up marine debris from local beaches (and how you can help), visit here!


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