Ocean pollution is the introduction of harmful humanmade substances (debris or chemicals) to the ocean that can have adverse effects on the environment or its inhabitants. The most concerning issue regarding ocean pollution is the number of unknowns surrounding the effects it has on the marine ecosystem and the animals that inhabit it.

Marine debris encompasses all manufactured products, most of it plastics, that end up in the ocean. Common types of debris found include disposable plastic food ware, cigarette butts, and derelict fishing gear. Due to its everlasting qualities, plastics are particularly concerning; in the marine environment, sun, wind, and waves work to break plastics up into smaller and smaller pieces, giving it the ability to affect life at all levels of the food chain. Smaller organisms have been found feeding on tiny bits of plastics, known as microplastics, and associated toxins can then become absorbed in their tissues.

The ocean is also polluted with large quantities of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). POPs include PolyChlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), brominated flame retardants, and organochlorine pesticides. POPs build up through the food chain (i.e., bioaccumulate), with the highest amounts and worst effects seen in top predators such as whales and dolphins. POPs are stored mainly in the fatty tissue (blubber) of cetaceans. In times when food is scarce, whales and dolphins tend to break down their stores of blubber to provide them with an energy supply, releasing a flood of stored toxic chemicals into their body.

Few scientific studies have been conducted on how chemicals from oil spills affect the bodies of wild dolphins and whales. However, two orca populations have not recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. Ongoing studies are looking at the effects of the huge 2011 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; already the Barataria Bay bottlenose dolphins near Louisiana are showing signs of severe ill health.

Due to the location within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, the Hawaiian archipelago nearshore waters and coastlines are particularly vulnerable to high debris loads. In fact, compared to other U.S. Pacific coastal areas, Hawai’i receives 2-3 times the amount of debris accumulation. The nearshore habitat of Hawai’i drives ocean-based tourism and supports extensive coral reef systems. These fragile ecosystems help protect our coastlines from hurricanes and provide habitat to a wide variety of marine life.

The goal of this study is to determine the type, amount, and source of marine debris in the nearshore waters and shorelines of Hawai’i, so we can advocate on local and global levels for data-driven policies to prevent this material from entering the oceans.

In order to effectively address this pervasive issue, we must examine marine debris trends throughout the geographically vulnerable Hawaiian archipelago. Data collection focuses on first identifying what debris items are having an impact and gathering data that fill knowledge gaps to best advise on mitigation strategies.

As part of the Humpback Whale Sentinel Program (HWSP), PWF will collect biopsy samples from humpback whales in Ecuador to help complete one of the aims of the program: addressing the issue of pollutants in Antarctic waters. The HWSP partners with research groups working with different breeding stocks of southern hemisphere humpback whales. Including the samples that PWF will supply from breeding stock G, the HWSP will analyze samples from 80% of the Antarctic humpback whale stocks, making it one of the most comprehensive studies on persistent organic pollutants in cetaceans worldwide.

Project Partners
Jennifer Lynch, National Institute for Standards and Technology and Hawai’i Pacific University
Kristi West, Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawai’i at Manoa
Susan Bengston-Nash, Griffith University & the Humpback Whale Sentinel Program

Recent Publications
2021: Currie, J.J., Stack, S.H. Getting butts off the beach: Policy alone is not effective at reducing cigarette filter litter on beaches in Maui, Hawai’i. Marine Pollution Bulletin 173, 112937. Download PDF
2020: Remili, A., Gallego, P., Pinzone, M., Castro, C., Jauniaux, T., Garigliany, M.M., Malarvannan, G., Covaci, A. and Das, K. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) breeding off Mozambique and Ecuador show geographic variation of persistent organic pollutants and isotopic niches. Environmental Pollution, 267: 115575. Download PDF
2017: Currie, J.J., Stack, S.H., McCordic, J.A., Kaufman, G.D. Quantifying the risk that marine debris poses to cetaceans in coastal waters of the 4-island region of Maui. Marine Pollution Bulletin 121: 69–77. Download PDF
2016: Blickley, L.C., Currie, J.J., Kaufman, G.D. Trends and drivers of debris accumulation on Maui shorelines: Implications for local mitigation strategies. Marine Pollution Bulletin 105: 292–298. Download PDF

Please consider donating to our foundation so we can continue to employ Maui residents and conduct vital Research, Education and Conservation programs to protect the ocean and its inhabitants.

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Hawaii Visitor Update

Aloha, We Are Open!  Our PacWhale Eco-Adventures are open for booking as we welcome visitors back to Maui.  Quarantine restrictions were lifted on Oct. 15th for those following the state’s pre-arrival COVID-19 testing requirements.