Our reality could be more trash than fish in oceans soon

Conservation group cleaning up, trying to save ocean life

Hannah Bernard, award-winning marine biologist of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund (in photo), discusses the ‘garbage patch,’ a large patch of floating debris in the Pacific Ocean (second photo). Debris gets caught in the current, damaging coral reefs, killing marine wildlife and contaminating the water. Bernard, who has been a marine biologist, teacher, expedition leader and researcher for 37 years, shows the crowd examples of everyday debris that is killing marine wildlife. The Maui News DAKOTA GROSSMAN photos

MAALAEA — People need to “rethink plastic,” or there will be more trash than fish in the ocean by 2050, said the co-founder and executive director of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

During a presentation Wednesday night at the Maui Ocean Center, “Thinking Like an Island: How to Survive the Plastic Pollution Pandemic,” Hannah Bernard told the audience to imagine a truck full of trash being dumped into the ocean every minute, because that’s about how much waste enters the water every year in Hawaii.

That’s 8 to 12 million tons of debris, she said at the packed Sphere, to an audience of about 100.

Bernard said that “marine debris is a problem for us and a problem for endangered species.” It also is affecting traditional practices and recreational activities like fishing, with an 80 percent decline in coastal fish catch in Hawaii in the last century, according to the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council.

The buildup of plastic and other man-made material is causing a multitude of problems, the marine biologist said. They include damage to land and water habitats, health and safety hazards for humans, and the marring of Hawaii’s landscape and beauty.

Debris can cause entanglement of wildlife by nets, ropes and lines. Animals also have ingested plastic, leading to illness or death, she said.

“The toxic chemicals that adhere to plastic, that’s what gets migrated up into our system,” Bernard said. “Not only for us humans, but over 690 species are impacted by marine debris.”

Debris could get tangled in fishing gear and under boats, causing navigational hazards and financial expense. And this is not just a Hawaii problem; the wind and ocean currents carry trash from across the Pacific Ocean, Bernard added.

“Storage is a problem,” with landfills overflowing and crews “running out of space to store trash,” she said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program and its nonprofit partners are experimenting on ways to better dispose of garbage. For example, Hawaii Nets to Energy recycles marine debris into usable electricity, with 100 tons of net creating enough energy to power 43 homes for a year.

The Sphere at the Maui Ocean Center reaches full capacity Wednesday in preparation for Hannah Bernard’s presentation on the plastic pandemic.

“Nets to Energy is a project that does not represent the answer,” she said. “But we’re learning. It’s a way for us to learn and find the most effective way to deal with the issue and help the environment.”

Bernard’s nonprofit Hawaii Wildlife Fund is working to change the tide of the “plastic plague” threatening the islands by researching more ways to reduce waste.

“We are working to change laws by promoting legislation like the recent polystyrene foam ban and the statewide ban on oxybenzone in sunscreen,” she said. “We were part of the plastic bags ban on Maui to encourage people to start bringing their own bags.”

The county ban on polystyrene foam food containers went into effect at the start of the year. Businesses cannot use or sell foam food service containers in the county, including hinged clamshell containers, cups, plates, bowls and serving trays.

Last year, Gov. David Ige signed legislation that will ban the sale of sunscreens containing two chemicals believed to harm coral reefs in 2021. Hawaii was the first state to enact a ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Maui County enacted a plastic bag ban in 2011.

The Hawaii Wildlife Fund started in 1996 and is responsible for removing 300 tons of marine debris from the coasts of Maui, the Big Island, Lanai and Kauai, Bernard said. Its focus is on rehabilitating areas with the highest needs.

Current projects on Maui include the Maui Marine Removal Project and hawksbill sea turtle recovery program. Statewide, the group is involved in outreach education programs.

Keeping habitats and beaches clean requires community involvement, Bernard said. It will “take a couple generations” to revert back to a trash-free ecosystem, she said.

The community could recycle and reuse, reduce waste, create artwork from trash, bring debris to the landfill and pull trash from the ocean, she said.

She encouraged people to reduce their use of plastics by carrying their own utensils, cups, straws and containers instead using plastic items just one time and disposing of them. If there’s less demand for plastic, there will be less production of it.

“The truth is, is there’s power in the consumer. . . . We can change, I have to believe that,” she said. “In the meantime, choose your favorite place and participate in a beach or stream cleanup.”

To learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit the Hawaii Wildlife Fund website at www.wildhawaii.org or the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council at www.mauireefs.org.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.