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Report From the French Frigate Shoals — Part 4

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posted 07/25/05

The Trashman Cometh

By Joe Spring, Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Journalism Student

On my nightly circuits around the island to gather data, I bring a five-gallon bucket to fill with trash from the beach. I can easily fill it on the first trip. After just ten nights, I have collected 26 lighters, six glow sticks, four sneakers (none my size, unfortunately), 43 glass bottles, one stick of deodorant, 89 bottle caps, 86 floats of various sizes, 13 flourescent light bulbs, 43 glass bottles, 47 plastic bottles, three rubber balls, one can of Cheez Whiz (working!) and a volleyball.

The fruits of one man’s labor.
Photo credit: Joe Spring/USFWS/NMFS

Much of it comes from over the horizon: wind- or water-borne debris from landfills, discarded or lost commercial fishing tackle, waste from ships or oil rigs, and debris from shipwrecks account for much of the problem. I have barely made a dent in the amount of garbage on the island, and every day, the wind and waves deliver more.

Unfortunately, the debris I see floating in the ocean (jetsam) and that delivered to land by the ocean (flotsam) is not only an eyesore for animals, it is yet another obstacle to survival. Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles become entangled in nets and can injure themselves trying to get out or suffocate if they fail.

Even the seabirds floating on the surface and keeping a wary eye out for hungry sharks are not immune to the less obvious danger posed by trash. Many of the birds feed on fish near the surface and they often ingest floating plastic debris at the same time. Adults of some species travel hundreds or thousands of miles to gather food for their chicks, only to return to the island and disgorge lighters, bottle caps and fishing line into the stomach of their offspring. I often find the dried carcasses of chicks with undigested bits of plastic among their bleached bones.

Albatross chicks among flotsam on East Island. Photo credit: Joe Spring/USFWS/NMFS

Every year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sends a boat out to collect marine debris on the beaches of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Between 2001 and 2004, NOAA personnel gathered nearly 422 tons of garbage—and the amount they collect each year keeps rising. But I imagine that one ship picking up debris over all of French Frigate Shoals is something like me trying to clean up East Island with one 5 gallon bucket.

As good as it might feel to see the pile of trash I have gathered growing outside my tent, it is becoming apparent that picking up debris after it has arrived is the wrong way to go about it. Instead, we need to keep all the flotsam from ever becoming jetsam.

The time I spend collecting plastic and glass bottles with faded writing in Japanese, English, Arabic, Korean and Spanish on an 11-acre spit of sand in the middle of the Pacific also shows me that, as wide and expansive as the oceans are, every bit of it is vulnerable to individual human actions virtually anywhere in the world. Ultimately, the Earth itself is nothing more than a small, fragile island paradise.

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