A crew of nine volunteers for a marine conservation group departed Hilo on Monday evening en route to provide pollution relief to an island in the Republic of Kiribati.
The research vessel Martin Sheen, operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, left Radio Bay after a monthlong resupply for Operation Clean Waves, a campaign to remove plastic pollution from and provide clean water solutions to the drought-stricken island of Fanning Atoll.
The 80-foot Martin Sheen is one of Sea Shepherd’s 11 operating vessels, collectively referred to as “Neptune’s Navy.” The research vessel, the only sailboat in the fleet, is tasked with studying plastic and microplastic contamination in the oceans and is named after “Apocalypse Now” star and Sea Shepherd donor Martin Sheen.
Operation Clean Waves is a two-month campaign to Fanning Atoll with three main objectives: to recover plastic debris washed along the island’s shores, to assess the health of the atoll’s coral reefs and to assess how to provide clean drinking water to the island, said campaign leader Sam Phillips.
“It’s a big campaign,” Phillips said. “As a part of the damage to the reef, there’s not a protective barrier, so the salinity of the ocean is leaching into the groundwater.”
In addition, Phillips explained, changing climate patterns altered the position of the Intertropical Convergence Zone, a belt of clouds and storms near the equator, leaving the island largely rainless for the past seven months. Without rainfall, and with contaminated groundwater, the island’s roughly 1,800 inhabitants have few options for water.
Stephane Sanchez, captain of the Martin Sheen, said the island is isolated from the outside world, with up to seven months passing between new ship arrivals. With so much time between shipments, the islanders cannot rely on outside aid for drought relief.
In the meantime, ocean currents continually sweep plastic waste — of which approximately 8 million metric tons are added to the oceans every year — against Fanning Atoll’s shores.
“Imagine 100 meters of rubbish, 1 meter deep,” Sanchez said.
During the roughly weeklong trip to the island, the boat will pull a “manta trawl,” a very fine mesh designed to capture oceanic microplastics, extremely small plastic pieces that can be trapped in the gills of fish. Microplastics are formed by the deterioration of larger plastic debris or are otherwise intentionally manufactured, such as the microbeads often found in exfoliating soaps.
“You can be in the middle of the ocean, with no other humans around, and you’ll still see a piece of plastic floating there,” Phillips said.
After approximately two months, the Martin Sheen will return to Oahu with up to 10 tons of plastic waste. In a partnership with environmentalist group Parley for the Oceans and sportswear manufacturer Adidas, the waste will be recycled to make shoes, Sanchez said.
Another partnership, with clean water relief network Waves For Water, will determine the best way to provide long-term water solutions to the island, although the Martin Sheen will carry water filters to the atoll for a short-term solution.
A long-term solution for the island might be impossible, Sanchez said. The highest point on Fanning Atoll is only 3 meters above sea level, with much of the population living and farming on lower parts of the island. As climate change raises sea levels worldwide, islanders on the atoll might be forced to abandon the island before the end of the century.
“On islands like this, the people there have lived that lifestyle forever,” Phillips said, unsure of how the island’s inhabitants would be able to transplant their culture and customs to a new island.
“Here, of course, your island is still growing,” Sanchez said. “You should send the volcano down there,” he joked.
The Washington-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is dedicated to raising awareness of and mitigating the harmful effects of human consumption on the planet’s marine ecosystems.
Before Operation Clean Waves, the Martin Sheen conducted the society’s Divina Guadalupe III project, to study Cuvier’s beaked whales at Mexico’s Guadalupe Island.
Before that, the Martin Sheen was involved in the organization’s Operation Milagro, an extensive campaign to protect the vaquita porpoise — an endangered species of which only 30 exist in the wild and which are inadvertently caught and killed by poachers trawling for other fish, Phillips said.
After the conclusion of Operation Clean Waves, the vessel will sail north to join Operation Virus Hunter, which seeks to combat Canadian salmon farms, which become breeding grounds for parasites that infect wild salmon throughout their migratory routes.
While the Martin Sheen rarely stays in one place for more than a few months, Sanchez said the boat likely will return to Hilo in January 2019.
During the monthlong stay in Hilo, residents donated food and supplies, as well as surfboards, Sanchez said.
“Hilo was very cool,” Sanchez said. “The people here are so welcoming.”
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