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PWF Chief Scientist to Advance Marine Debris Research and Solutions at Hawaiʻi Workshop

Pacific Whale Foundation’s Research team began studying marine debris in 2013, monitoring, collecting and reporting marine debris found in the ocean and along Maui’s shoreline. We have also provided the science to support legislation that aims to reduce debris and, just this summer, started a RETHINK campaign to help individuals reduce their plastic waste to curb debris at the source. This month marks an important event that could help shape our continued research into marine debris. The 2019 Hawai‘i Marine Debris Action Plan (HI-MDAP) Research Workshop will be held July 25-26, where PWF Chief Scientist Jens Currie will present Pacific Whale Foundation marine debris research findings.

HI-MDAP establishes a comprehensive framework for strategic action to reduce the ecological, health and safety, and economic impacts of marine debris in Hawai‘i by 2020. The NOAA Marine Debris Program (MPD) and the EPA facilitated the development of the HI-MDAP with active participation and input from Hawaii’s marine debris community – government agencies, academic institutions, private entities, and nongovernmental organizations, of which Pacific Whale Foundation is proud to be included. The 2-day workshop will bring together Hawai‘i-based researchers in the field of Marine Debris to determine the current state of scientific investigation, identify gaps in knowledge, and scope research resources in the state of Hawai‘i. Participants will also be able to update and reassess the priorities of the 2017 HI-MDAP Research Workshop.

The Hawaiian archipelago, which includes the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are prone to accumulating marine debris because of their central location in the North Pacific Gyre.

Marine debris threatens coral reef and shoreline ecosystems, while also posing as an entanglement threat to marine life, including endangered Hawaiian monk seals, humpback whales, and the threatened green sea turtles. Additionally, marine debris destroys habitats, introduces non-native species, and threatens navigation.

During the last workshop in 2017, Currie presented general findings based on our database of debris items, now at almost 84,000 pieces, and founded partnerships with NOAA MDP and National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). This January, our study with NIST was published in which we analyzed macro marine debris in Maui County waters and found that 90% was plastic. This year, he will present our findings on a study conducted to determine whether the 2014 ban on cigarettes at Maui beaches and parks had any impact.

A bill passed by Maui County in April 2014 prohibits the use of tobacco products in designated county areas. In June 2015, the state of Hawai‘i passed a similar tobacco-free policy for state beaches and parks.


Our research team collected debris from select sites before and after the ban. Although data are still being analyzed, preliminary results have found no significant reduction in cigarette butt litter accumulation, which remains the number 1 debris item found across all survey sites on Maui. This may be due in part because there has been no enforcement of this new law, with zero citations given in the 5 years since the law went into effect. If legislation is going to work, it must be enforced and possibly widened to tobacco producers and not just consumers. We did find however that pushing education and outreach at and near the beach, such as promotion on in-room hotel tvs, pamphlets in rooms and at check in, and informational signs at the beach results in a reduction of 52% of general litter on the beach. These findings and others are being drafted into an upcoming publication that evaluates the effectiveness of policy on debris accumulation in Maui; stay tuned for further results. Currie remarks,

“I look forward to attending so we can learn about what others are doing to study marine debris, continue to grow partnerships and collaborations, get feedback on our current research, and work with the marine debris community to determine the full scope of impacts and come up with feasible solutions that work, whether it be through policy, education, or some other means.”

Read more about our marine debris reduction efforts and how you can be involved. Also, #RETHINK single-use plastics and find alternatives.