The Whalenerd's Podcast
Beach Clean Up with Kapa Sungear
Updated: Jul 21, 2022
While on Maui I have been staying with some friends and fellow ocean minded people this winter. My roommates are small business owners, one of their companies being sun apparel and water gear company, Kapa Sungear. Founded by Captain Amanda Padilla, Kapa Sungear is a company dedicated to protecting our oceans by reducing the need for sunscreen with protective clothing. They also help fund a project to plant native vegetation on the island of Kaho’olawe with Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission.
We took a day trip around the island to look for wildlife earlier in January and went over to the driftwood sculptures near Kahului harbor. While we were at the sculptures, we realized that the beach was covered in marine debris. The north side of the island is typically the windy side in Maui due to the prevalent Northeast trade winds. So, we got the idea to clean the beach using clean-up and survey kits from Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF). I work for PacWhale EcoAdventures which is part of the PWF structure. A few days later I stopped by the Ocean Store for PWF after my shift on the boat and picked a few up kits. The kit is a grain bag from Maui Brewing Company and a survey sheet that you fill out after auditing your trash collected. You can also ask for PPE from the retail staff behind the counter. The kits can be used on any beach, you email the results of your debris audit to the PWF Conservation Department, or fill out their online form, when you are done and then safely dispose of the trash.
If you are a Maui County resident and you want to regularly clean up your favorite beach, consider the Adopt a Beach Program at PWF.
If you are not on Maui but still want to do a beach clean up and submit your data to PWF, you can do so online by downloading their online form and take it with you to the clean up or fill out their interactive form on their website after the clean up.
On the 26th of January Amanda, her soon to be sister in law Flor, and I drove down to the beach north of Kahului harbor with our beach clean up kits, an extra bucket, and some gloves. Bonus points to Flor who brought her own yard work gloves that she could wash off and reuse later! We started walking the rocky shore line and instantly found dozens of pieces of small plastic wedged in between the large cobble stones. The beach is comprised of large rounded rocks formed in a steep slope due to the high surf action on the lava rock shoreline. There is also a significant amount of driftwood of all sizes, coconuts and even fish carcasses, jellyfish and shells. The wave action on the beach is very active due to prevailing trade winds, so we really needed to be aware of our surroundings while cleaning. The beach at first glance was deceiving, it didn’t seem that littered.
But as you look closer and take in the patterns of the stones and driftwood, you start to see debris everywhere. All the things in my hand were collected in that same space as the photo above. Tricky right?
One of the first large identifiable pieces of plastic I picked up was something we could almost consider a fossil these days, the faceplate of a Nokia cell phone. You know those indestructible brick ones that you haven’t seen since the early 2000’s? I have seen fisherman use them more recently than when they were popular on the market, but given how durable they can be, who knows how long since it was last used by a person. The possibilities of how it got on a beach are numerous. It could have been meant for a return program and had been gathering dust in a box for decades, it could have fallen off a garbage truck, or some other situation entirely.
As I continued down the beach, I came across something that I definitely did not want to pick up – a Portuguese man o' war. These jellyfish have a powerful sting and even with gloves on, I didn’t want to risk getting any nematocysts on gloves by accident and later touch my skin while picking up trash. They are seen throughout the year in the Hawaiian Islands and if you find one, you are likely to find more. I did see another smaller one on the beach and I had seen a few on the ocean in previous days. These animals are also driven to the shore by the wind just like the debris we were cleaning, which is why you normally see more than one at a time, they catch the same wind and currents.
We weaved our way from the waterline to the crest of the slope on the beach where the vegetation starts to take over. There was evidence of a camp near one of the storm drains. We didn’t want to disturb the makeshift driftwood shelter or attempt to move the half recliner nearby. Unfortunately, there are some people who find themselves with no choice but to camp on the beaches in Maui. While driving to the beach we passed a group of cars on the roadside pull off before the beach access that had people camping in them, and one caught on fire while we were cleaning the beach. We paused to see where the smoke was coming from and saw the firetruck extinguishing the flames. It didn’t seem like anyone was hurt thankfully. It was certainly a reminder that not everything is perfect in paradise.
While cleaning near the storm drain I found most of a hard hat. I picked it up to show to Flor and she lifted up a work boot. I jokingly yelled over to her “is there a whole construction worker here somewhere?” Not long after that, Amanda came walking down the beach with a busted up kite board or windsurfing board, a full bag, and a spare trash bag she had found along the way. After she dropped off her bulky items, she came back with the bucket and her extra trash bag. It was still intact, so why not fill it with trash before we haul it off the beach?
Less than hour in to our beach clean up, we had filled four bags and the bucket, and we had only made it a third of the way down the beach. Most of what we collected was unidentifiable plastic pieces. We did collect some parts of fishing floats, mooring gear, nets, and lines which were sourced coming from boats, which is not surprising since we are on an island and near the largest port on the island. Two of the common items we found on the beach, are associated with fisheries that are not common near Maui.
We found these black baskets that are one way entrance funnels used in hagfish traps. There is no commercial hagfish fishery in Hawaii, so these lightweight parts of the traps are potentially floating thousands of miles away from the mainland of the US and Canada where the fishery is prevalent. The part we found acts like a one way gate that allows the hagfish to slide in, but never be able to swim back out. There are specifically sized holes in the side of the trap that allow undersized fish to escape. These gates pose a significant threat to the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal when they are not on the whole trap. The seals stick their snout in the gate and then it gets stuck and traps their mouth shut. Surfrider Foundation has a campaign to document them and will even come collect them from you if you find them on the beaches in Hawaii.
After doing more research on these traps and how they are required to be constructed, the gate must have a biodegradable or weak link (destruct device). That way if a trap is unretrievable or lost, the larger hagfish eventually will have a way to escape. This is not uncommon in trap fisheries, but with hagfish, the lightweight plastic gate then floats freely at the surface and can end up thousands of miles from its starting point. This practice is good for the hagfish, but ends up posing a huge risk to a much more endangered species in the process. There are only about 1400 Hawaiian monk seals left on our planet. Entanglement is one of the leading threats to this species.
The other item we found were these gray or black tubes that were all about 12-15 inches (30-38 cm) long and of the same diameter. We picked up about 150 of them throughout the morning. These are oyster spacers. These spacers are used to build a frame or bracket that goes inside an oyster bag that is floating near the surface in an oyster farm. This frame is also called a booster, it allows the bag to stay open wider giving the oyster space to tumble around and have more water flow. This is better for the oyster and helps farm a better product. But just like the weak link in the hagfish trap, what’s better for the target species ends up creating more lightweight plastic debris in our oceans. There is not a significant oyster aquaculture effort here in the Hawaiian Islands, so these spacers are likely coming from far away. Some of the biggest producers of oysters in the North Pacific are Japan, Korea, the US and Canada. These spacers can be found by the thousands during clean ups in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Check out this report in 2015 where they cleaned up over 4300 of these spacers in one year.
We tallied up the debris we picked up and filled out our report for PWF, we picked up approximately 50-60 lbs (22-27kg) of trash in thousands of pieces. Bottle caps, unidentifiable plastic, fishing gear, clothing, plastic bags, food wrappers and so much more. Despite a decade long ban on plastic bags and a significant phasing out of plastic straws in Maui County, we still found them on the shoreline. This year many single use plastic items will no longer be permitted to be sold or given out by restaurants in Maui County as well. While these ordinances do make a difference, these plastic items will be haunting us for many years after we stop producing them.
As we loaded up the car with our haul, we also took one of the trash bags hanging on the cement barricade in the gravel pull off lot. Someone had left a few bags tied up for people to dispose of their trash, so we took one that was tattered and ready for disposal.
I felt bittersweet at the end of the clean-up. I felt good about what we removed from the beach and that I had some new things to learn about marine debris when I got home, but I also felt saddened by the fact that we couldn’t do more. We only made it part way down the beach, and we saw more debris actively washing ashore while we were there. I went by that beach and stopped for a few minutes to walk around about 4 days later and it was like we had never been there to clean anything. The wind was heavier that day too and the wave action had brought rafts of microplastic into the surf. The surface water was discolored by this layer of small plastic pieces sloshing around in 3-4ft (1-1.5 m) bands all down the shore.
I will always take an opportunity to clean the beach, but I know that is only one tiny part to solving the enormous plastic crisis we are facing. We have to work toward solutions that stop the production of limited use plastics in the first place.