A somber sight: Marine debris cleanups at Kamilo Point magnify need to reduce use of plastics

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Every time Stacey Breining, education and outreach coordinator for the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, takes a group of volunteers to Kamilo Point in Ka‘u, she notices the same thing. People’s facial expressions change, becoming more and more somber, when they hop out of the car and see the beach.


Every time Stacey Breining, education and outreach coordinator for the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, takes a group of volunteers to Kamilo Point in Ka‘u, she notices the same thing. People’s facial expressions change, becoming more and more somber, when they hop out of the car and see the beach.

Often, the volunteers are beach cleanup veterans — some have helped clean Hilo Bayfront — but even that experience doesn’t prepare them for seeing Kamilo Point.

“The closer they get to the sand, they realize how deep the issue is,” Breining said.

During the most recent HWF beach cleanup that took place Jan. 21 in partnership with the Surfrider Foundation and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 66 people, including 15 keiki, collected 135 bags of trash at Kamilo Point. The trash weighed more than a ton (2,725 pounds). Washed-ashore fishing nets made up 450 pounds of the total.

An additional 2,000 pounds of net was dragged past the high tide level to be removed during the groups’ next cleanup.

“We do a really good job on the beach that day, but the next time we come down, it’s just as dirty,” Breining said.

Most of the debris washing up on Kamilo Point and other Hawaii beaches is plastic. It’s a change from the trash of several decades ago; Breining said older generations remember going to Kamilo Point and seeing glass balls — once used by fishermen to keep their nets afloat — all over the beach. These days, you’re more likely to see small pieces of photo-degraded plastic, or, on occasion, debris from the 2011 tsunami that struck Fukushima, Japan.

“A lot of the plastic we find on the beach has likely been floating in the ocean for many years,” Breining said. “It doesn’t biodegrade … it just breaks into smaller pieces, and that’s what makes it scary.”

And it just keeps coming.

“It’s coming from all over the Pacific,” Breining said. “It’s coming from wherever there’s people.”

HWF has cleared almost 200 tons of marine debris from the Big Island since 2003.

“We’re a couple hundred pounds away from meeting that goal,” Breining said.

“It’s an ongoing battle, basically,” said Mark Manuel, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Still, Manuel said public awareness of the marine debris problem has increased in the past few years thanks to work by the statewide network of cleanup groups and other nonprofits.

The cleanups are a way to “get your hands on the problem and see what’s out there,” he said. “A lot of times, that’s what it takes, is for a kid to pick up the plastic.”

In 2014, the HWF developed a keiki marine debris education curriculum that was implemented in 20 schools around the Big Island. The program initially received funding from NOAA; this year, Breining is able to return to the classrooms thanks to new private funding.

Marine debris even has a place in higher education: Since 2007, the University of Hawaii at Hilo has offered an upper-level course titled “Marine Debris in the Pacific.” Twenty-four students are enrolled this semester. Despite the specificity of the class name, the course offers a look at “all these great big-picture topics,” said UH associate professor Steven Colbert. Biology, ecology and chemistry are all covered.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “We’re focused on plastics for a lot of it,” Colbert said.

“We’ll talk about solutions as we get to the end of the semester,” he said. “I try to make it a class where students are able to make a difference.”

A Kamilo Point cleanup in conjunction with HWF is planned for later this spring.

Making a difference isn’t limited to cleanups, however.

“It’s also to encourage students to find ways to change their own behavior (and) reduce dependence,” Colbert said. “Really, ultimately, the bigger thing that needs to be done is changing how people use plastics.”

That aim goes hand in hand with the goals of the latest Hawaii Marine Debris Action Plan, updated last fall following an NOAA-hosted conference. One such goal is increased education and outreach for reducing plastic usage on a broad scale, continuing in the heels of the statewide plastic bag ban.

Removal activities such as the HWF’s cleanups are “very important in the present,” Manuel said. “But in the future, we need to prevent our trash from becoming marine debris.”

The updated action plan also includes a new focus on research.

“The impacts really draw the most attention, like entanglement of wildlife,” Manuel said. “We still need more research on how (marine debris) affects humans.”

“Fish ingesting microplastics (plastic that is less than a millimeter in diameter) — do these contain toxins that could leach out into fish and shellfish we consume?”

The cleanup findings themselves also could be used to inform future research.

“There’s still a lot to learn about everything about marine debris,” Manuel said.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Get involved


To participate in a Big Island beach cleanup March 4, email chair@kona.surfrider.org (Kona), kpg@hawaii.rr.com (Puako), chair@hilo.surfrider.org (Hilo) or jterhune@hawaii.edu (Hilo).

To get involved with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund’s marine debris education program, email Stacey Breining at stacey.hwf@gmail.com.

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