Featured Image Credit: NEEF.org
By Alice Morris
Hawaii’s waters are a little bit cleaner thanks to a quick-thinking whale watching crew.
The Safari Explorer tour vessel was taking a group of whale watchers out to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary in late March when it encountered a massive tangle of fishing debris floating in the waters of the Auau Channel.
Crewmembers estimate that the clump of tangled fishing net weighed between 700 and 1,000 pounds.
The crew was able to lift the trash aboard the vessel where they cut it into pieces, filling about a dozen large trash bags in the process
Kent Redell, the expedition leader, said that although this accumulation of trash was unusually large, marine pollution is a common sight off Hawaii’s coast.
“We do often find floating debris out in the water as we cruise through the channels, but we’ve never really had an undertaking of this kind before, when it comes to retrieving debris in the water,” said Redell. “The last thing we would want to come across is an entangled humpback whale. There’s not much, if anything, we can do for that except report it, so it was encouraging that we didn’t have to come across a sight like that, especially with guests on-board.”
Hawaii’s waters are home to approximately 18 species of whales and dolphins. Around 10,000 to 12,000 humpback whales migrate annually to Hawaii between December and May. During this time, thousands of visitors will flock to the islands to see the whales up close.
Unfortunately, due to ocean currents and atmospheric winds, large amounts of trash accumulate in Hawaii’s waters every year in the form of cigarette butts, bottle caps, and fishing nets, which can be found swept up on shorelines, caught in reefs, and floating adrift at sea. Those nets can entangle and drown marine animals or cause other physical harm if ingested.
Studies estimate that almost 40% of whales may become entangled in fishing gear at some point in their lives, though that percentage is likely higher. Scientists don’t know exactly how many whales are killed by marine debris each year, but some studies suggest that entanglement may account for 3.7% of annual mortalities of humpback whales off the northeastern United States.
In 2002, NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary launched the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network to help prevent marine animals from becoming entangled in marine debris.
“Unfortunately, it’s not going to be the last time someone comes across a net,” said Redell of the incident in Hawaii. ”But I’m hopeful it’s also not going to be the last time that people feel it their responsibility to take it out of the water.”