Swiss ocean-trash researchers arrive in isles

Honolulu Star Advertiser - June 19, 2015
Tim Hurley

Nearly halfway through their sail around the world, a group of researchers arrived in Hawaii to look at plastic pollution on our shores as part of a global study of the issue.

The Race for Water Odyssey expedition, sponsored by the Swiss-based Race for Water Foundation, hopes to raise awareness about the problem of plastic pollution and inspire action to fight back.

The nonprofit’s blue-and-white, triple-hulled former racing sailboat was welcomed Thursday by Hawaii officials in a ceremony at Kewalo Basin.

“We know marine debris in Hawaii,” said Suzanne Case, director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. “From the main Hawaiian Islands all the way up the chain to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, our beaches oftentimes are literally trashed with marine debris.”

Over the next two weeks, the Race for Water crew will survey three Oahu beaches — Kahuku, Makapuu and Kahana — as well as beaches on Hawaii island at Papakolea (Green Sand) and Punaluu County Beach Park.

The research team will be beachcombing for plastic using a scientific method developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and using drones to capture images of plastic in hard-to-access locations.

The data will be analyzed by researchers at Duke University and Oregon State University in an effort to develop a body of evidence that will allow for a better understanding of marine pollution.
“We want to take the data and develop new methods to better assess how plastics show up on beaches,” said Dave Johnston, assistant professor of marine conservation and ecology at Duke University. “Every piece of plastic put in the ocean in the past 60 years is still there in one way, shape or form.”

The MOD70 Race for Water boat and crew set sail three months ago from Bordeaux, France, with aims to visit island beaches in five “trash vortexes,” where winds and ocean circulation round up rubbish and allow it to congregate.

Islands act as barriers to the long-range transport of plastics and trap debris, leaving a representation of the waterborne pollution in the vortex, or gyre.
Hawaii is in the middle of the vast North Pacific Gyre.

In less than 300 days, the Race for Water expedition will travel more than 40,000 nautical miles, with 20 stopovers in 13 countries.

At each stop, the crew plans to meet local sailors, fishermen, authorities and others to learn how they deal with the problems posed by plastic on their shores.

Three weeks ago the expedition left Easter Island, but not before finding what foundation President Marco Simeoni called a dire situation.

“It’s terrible what’s happened there,” he said. “Easter Island is at the center of the South Pacific Gyre, surrounded by 2,000 miles of open ocean, (yet) we saw millions and millions of micro-particulates on the beaches there. It’s just amazing because it’s not the local people who are making these wastes.”

Simeoni said his crew talked to Easter Island spear-fishermen who told them they usually find plastic in the stomachs of fish.
“One said he found a bottle of Coca-Cola in a tuna,” he said.

Kahi Pacarro, executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, said Race for Water researchers will likely find similar results from their Hawaii surveys. He said his nonprofit’s beach cleanups have collected nearly 30,000 pounds of marine debris over the past four years.

“You would be shocked,” he said.

It’s been estimated that 1 million birds each year are killed by marine debris, according to the foundation, and 80 percent of pollution in the oceans is due to plastic. Each year some 250 million tons of plastic is produced globally, and 10 percent of that ends up at sea.

Most of the plastic pollution comes from large coastal cities, and, with those cities expected to grow substantially in the future, they are where the foundation will concentrate its outreach, Simeoni said.
Starting July 1, Oahu merchants will be banned from distributing plastic checkout bags, in part, to prevent the bags from ending up in the ocean. Honolulu is the last of the counties in Hawaii to outlaw such plastic bags.

During Thursday’s ceremony, state Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo) presented a resolution from the state Senate welcoming the foundation and praising its mission.