Who would have thought that a kid from the mountains of Montana would grow up dedicating his life to saving the sea? Allow me to introduce you to such a man: Kevin O’Brien, President of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project, which he founded in May 2019. If – like me – you don’t know where/what Papahānaumokuākea is, look at a map of the northwest chain of the Hawaiian islands (NWHI). You’ll see 10 uninhabited primary islets and atolls of astonishing beauty. Kevin is working to preserve an otherwise intact Hawaiian ecosystem – with monk seals, sea turtles, dolphins, seabirds and coral reefs – that’s under siege from ocean trash.

As a boy living on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Kevin got to regularly explore the tide pools of the Oregon coast on summer trips with his biologist father. He recalls his dad being able to remember the complex scientific name of a green sea anemone, and thinking to himself, “I want to do that when I grow up!”

Cold, murky, and mysterious, Oregon’s coastal waters didn’t bear up well in comparison once Kevin plunged into our warm, clear sea when he visited Hawaii partway through college. He felt at home, and transferred directly to the University of Hawaii. Here he earned a zoology degree with a Certificate from the Marine Option Program.

Kevin’s first job working with marine life consisted of tagging sharks in Kaneohe Bay at Coconut Island – what a cool job for a 19 year old! Once he graduated from college, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) hired him as a temporary technician to remove marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, which are now protected as a National Monument.

Kevin’s voice gets animated as he tells me of the child-like excitement he experienced anticipating his first-ever visit to this remote, rarely visited, tropical archipelago: Papahānaumokuākea. He had long dreamed of seeing Laysan Island, known for having one of the few natural lakes in Hawaii, a broad white sand beach, as well as the fullest complement of all the bird species in the NWHI.

“I was just giddy with the excitement of going there,” Kevin recalls. These islands constitute some of the most intact ecosystems of today’s world. “Even though I knew I was going there to remove marine debris – mostly abandoned fishing nets – I was not prepared for the sight that met my eyes.” The gorgeous white sand beach, a quarter mile wide, lay thickly littered with plastic trash washed ashore from ‘civilization’ at least 600, perhaps thousands of miles away. “I knew at that moment that I had found my life’s passion in this work.

In fact, the plastic debris on the beaches can become so profuse, female sea turtles, honu, that come ashore can scarcely find room to dig nests for their eggs, where baby turtles will emerge and head for the sea.

Kevin also described to me how Hawaiian monk seals are attracted to marine debris, like little children attracted to new “toys”, only to become fatally entangled in all the abandoned fishing gear. At this point 30% of the total 1,400 remaining monk seals are only living because human beings have rescued them from marine debris, fishing line, or intervened in some way.

As Kevin affirms, “It’s our fault, so it’s our responsibility.”  Every year, 110,000 lbs of abandoned fishing nets accumulate on the reefs of Papahānaumokuākea, and an unknown, but staggering amount of plastic washes ashore on the beaches there.

No surprise, NOAA must have recognized what a dedicated worker they had in Kevin and offered him a permanent position. The only problem is, NOAA is a scientific agency dedicated to collecting information about the ocean and atmosphere.  And while specialized operational capabilities have been developed by NOAA over the last two decades to conduct these complex remote removal operations, NOAA’s resources are spread thin among many other competing scientific priorities and mandates, and it became clear that, despite the best intentions to combat marine debris in Papahānaumokuākea, more had to be done if we were to keep up with the problem.

So after nearly 12 years working at NOAA, Kevin saw that another entity needed to come into existence with the specific mission of reducing sea trash in Papahānaumokuākea. For that reason he founded Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project (PMDP), a non-profit organization supported by grants and private donations. The Project works in close coordination with the 4 governmental agencies that manage the Monument to carefully remove ghost nets and such from the fragile coral reefs and beaches that surround the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

The Project’s threefold mission is to reduce:

  • Entanglement hazards to Hawaiian monk seals & green sea turtles
  • Coral reef damage
  • Ingestion hazards to seabirds.

Kevin explains their philosophy: “When you love something, it’s really easy to want to protect it.” The Project therefore focuses on the beauty and amazing nature of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, showing us WHY they are worth loving and caring for. This protected National Monument constitutes over ⅔ of our entire Hawaiian island chain – a much larger area than the inhabited islands.

And these coral reef laced islets are breathtakingly, heart-achingly beautiful.

The archipelago’s name Papahānaumokuākea evokes ancient layers of meaning, in which the fertile Hawaiian earth mother, together with the expansive sky father, brought to life this exquisite lei of islands in the sea, as well as the people who live upon and amongst the isles.  From this sacred place of the Northwestern  Hawaiian Islands, life began in the form of a coral polyp, and to this place, the spirits return at death.  A sacred name for a sacred place, certainly worthy of our love, protection and care-taking. Three cheers for the work of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project!

To learn more, and to donate to this important work, visit their website at www.pmdphawaii.org.

Photo credits: Steven Gnam of NOAA

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