By Evelyn Wight
Hank Lynch fell in love with the ocean growing up around boats in Hong Kong, sailing with his father and swimming and snorkeling as much as possible. These early experiences cemented a lifelong fascination with the ocean. Today, the windward O‘ahu resident spends his days on or in Hawaiian waters, both as a Conservancy staff member and on his own.
In January, Lynch noticed more pelagic fishing net masses in Kāneʻohe Bay than he’d ever seen.
“I’m on the water all the time, most weeks and every weekend, and I started seeing a lot of marine debris coming in close to shore where it can damage coral reefs. I wanted to do something about it,” he says.
Lynch is a scientific diver for the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i marine monitoring program, conducting fish and coral assessments across the state. He was hired by TNC in 2012 to help build the Super Sucker vessels and run a crew of divers tasked with removing invasive algae from Kāne‘ohe Bay. Previously, he spent 10 years working on Oʻahu as a commercial diver in off-shore aquaculture and marine salvage industries, racking up more than 13,000 working dives.
With more than 100 salvage jobs under his belt, countless hours on and under the water, and a good relationship with Heʻeia Harbor Master Ernie Choy and other State boating employees, Lynch decided to clean up the masses of debris he was seeing in Kāne‘ohe Bay. And over a five-week period, working on weekends, evenings and holidays, he brought in more than 7,400 pounds of discarded nets and other garbage.
Lynch found some of it on his own, but once word got out, Choy and others started reporting debris masses to him. He was shocked at how much it was.
“Nets tangled on coral reefs can crush them like a bulldozer, creating a rubble field that won’t recover. I’ve seen first-hand reefs damaged from vessels that have run aground and similar net masses in Kāneʻohe Bay. Those damaged corals are still dead five to six years later. Marine debris can cause worse, irreparable damage. I couldn’t just leave it there,” he says.
In addition to his own work, Lynch estimates that the Conservancy and its partners brought in an additional 5,000 pounds of net masses from Kāneʻohe Bay earlier this year, including one mass that weighed more than 3,500 pounds
He cautions that most boaters shouldn’t intervene when they see big floating debris masses because there’s a significant risk of entanglement as well as the possibility of fines if corals are damaged.
“Removing a heavy tangle of fishing nets off a coral reef in shallow water takes a lot of rigging skill,” he says. “It’s not always intuitive, and if you’re not careful you can get hurt, damage your vessel and the reef. It takes time to figure out how to do it safely, and how to carefully tow large tangles of nets into shore. If you see a large amount of marine debris, report it, so it can be safely brought into shore.”
A Global Problem
Marine debris is a growing concern, with large patches of garbage in all the world’s oceans. While micro plastic garbage has received a lot of attention, a recent report suggests that nearly half the debris comes from an under-regulated high-seas commercial net fishing industry. Lynch says most of the debris he finds is not from Hawaiʻi-based commercial or recreational fisheries.
“Hawaiʻi is occasionally in the line of fire for large pulses of marine debris from the open ocean,” he says. “It’s a global problem that's affects us locally.”
Despite this sobering information, Lynch says he sees many positive signs.
“People are more aware of Kāneʻohe Bay, especially what goes on below the surface,” he says. “There are school groups coming out to learn and help, and lots of partners working together. I’ve seen more people picking up trash along the shoreline, and every little bit helps. It gives me a lot of hope for our oceans.”
To report debris, call the State DLNR at (808) 587-0405 or e-mail DLNR.firstname.lastname@example.org/.