Masked people putting debris in large garbage bags on a remote sandy beach.
Marine Debris Cleanup The Nature Conservancy and partners remove marine debris from a beach at Mo‘omomi Preserve. © Wailana Moses/TNC

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The Nature Conservancy and Partners Remove More than 46,000 Pounds of Marine Debris from Molokaʻi’s Remote Beaches

Despite travel and gathering limitations due to COVID-19, The Nature Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi Chapter (TNC) and partners removed more than 46,000 pounds of marine debris from Molokaʻi’s remote beaches at Mo‘omomi in the last quarter of 2020.

“We started cleaning the beaches more than 20 years ago,” says Wailana Moses, TNC’s Molokaʻi field coordinator. “This year, we were still able to remove a lot of marine debris in spite of COVID-19, thanks to our partners and community pulling together and doing the work in a safe, physically distant way.”

TNC’s Mo‘omomi Preserve and its adjoining beaches are home to rich coastal marine life, culturally-important fishing grounds on which local families rely, and some of the most important green sea turtle nesting habitat in the main Hawaiian Islands. Mo‘omomi’s beaches are also a “hot spot” where thousands of pounds of marine debris, such as commercial fishing nets and plastic waste, wash in from all over the Pacific each year.

A yellow helicopter hovers over a rocky beach to pick up large white bags of debris as tiny people wave from below.
Airlifting Marine Debris A helicopter lifts bags of marine debris off of a beach at Mo‘omomi Preserve. © Richard A. Cooke III

In the early years, volunteers and TNC staff carried all the waste out by hand on a grueling hike across the sand dunes of Mo‘omomi Preserve. Then it was loaded into trucks and taken to the local landfill. That changed five years ago when the Department of Land and Natural Resources Maui County Native Ecosystems Protection & Management (NEPM) division started helping with the beach cleanups and contributing helicopter time to haul the waste away. Around the same time, Molokaʻi high school student Kamiki Agliam reached out to Sustainable Coastlines Hawaiʻi for help. With their support, marine debris is now gathered in large bags donated by ocean advocacy organization Parley, and shipped off-island in containers donated by Matson and Young Brothers, the bulk of which is burned at H-Power, Oʻahu’s waste-to-power facility.

The most recent beach cleanup yielded 133 bags of marine debris, filling two 40-foot shipping containers. Over the last five years, cleanups filled eight such shipping containers, totaling about 368,000 lbs. (that’s two and a half times as heavy as the Space Shuttle, or about as heavy as six adult humpback whales). “I estimate we’ve removed almost 1 million pounds of marine debris from Moloka‘i’s coastlines over the last 20 years,” Moses says.

Examples of marine debris include: commercial fishing gear such as gigantic fishing nets, buoys, buckets, traps and spacers; household items like bottles, pens, toothbrushes, lighters, light bulbs, food containers and laundry baskets; other trash like plastic tubs, tires and propane tanks; and microplastics, which are simply very small pieces of broken plastic items.

“Cleaning up marine debris is only a small part of what we do on Molokaʻi to steward our lands and waters so that both people and nature can thrive,” says Ulalia Woodside, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy, Hawaiʻi Chapter. “The marine debris problem is getting worse, so we’re grateful to have support from the community and partners on both cleanup and, perhaps more importantly, raising awareness on how to change our behavior so we all generate less waste.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.