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Kaho‘olawe Cleanup Reveals the Truth About Trash

Tons of marine debris collected in Kanapou Bay cleanup provide education abroad. “It was a dream come true to be able to spread the marine debris message to such a large audience... ”

July 26, 2012
Trisha Smith - Senior Contributing Writer ( , The Maui Weekly

Although more individuals are adapting "greener" habits, a majority of the population still uses single-serving plastics and non-recyclables.

And, when you throw something away, where exactly is "away?"

Members from the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) and supporting organizations are beginning to think it's Kaho'olawe.

Article Photos

An ocean of plastics. The “Out to Sea” exhibition in Switzerland’s Museum Fur Gestaltung Zurich contains shocking amounts of plastic flotsam and garbage collected during global beach cleanup campaigns, including over 6.6 of 31 tons collected within Kanapou Bay on Kaho‘olawe during an 18-month period in 2010 and 2011. “Marine debris is an ongoing problem that is affecting all of the Hawaiian Islands, unfortunately, but it is something that everyone can help eliminate by making intelligent consumer decisions… ,” said Cheryl King of Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund who traveled overseas to educate on the cleanup. Visit
Photo: Cheryl King

Although the smallest of eight main Hawaiian Isles, Kaho'olawe suffers from some of the biggest problems of the chain. A sacred home of historical Hawaiian gods, Kaho'olawe of today continues to recover from military testing and harmful ranching. Kanapou Bay is known as a "catcher's mitt" for marine debris from the Pacific Ocean, and the litter that washes ashore seems never-ending.

Due to prevailing winds and currents, marine debris funnels into the bay off the southeast coast and piles up on Keoneuli Beach. The bay captures both local and global marine debris from all across the Pacific, including derelict fishing gear, shipping crates, plastic beach toys and a variety of other debris, according to KIRC.

KIRC is chartered with managing Kaho'olawe, with the goal of restoring the island, and teamed up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2010 to remove an enormous amount of accrued debris.

According to Hawai'i Wildlife Fund (HWF) Vice President Cheryl King, nearly annual cleanups were conducted there for over a decade. But even with removing around five tons per trip, it didn't have any long-lasting impact.

Thanks to a generous grant from NOAA's Marine Debris Program, one of King's many KIRC duties as the ocean resources specialist and principal investigator for this project was to organize cleanup campouts that facilitated more time and effort picking up debris there.

Through the project, KIRC and participating groups collected an astounding total of 31 tons during 10 cleanup trips in 2010-11 across a 200-meter stretch of beach.

"Access was dangerous due to often rough ocean conditions and murky, shark-infested waters that the crew with supplies had to navigate through, but rewarding experiences were had by all of the 121 individuals involved," said King recently. "During a lot of hard but fun work, Kanapou Bay is now cleaner than it has ever been. It no longer looks like it did in the picture that is displayed if you search Wikipedia for 'marine debris.'"

An ocean steward in his spare time, Jacob Freeman of CDF Engineering was proud to participate as the project engineer over an 18-month period. Under contract by his sister company, CDF Helicopters, Freeman's teams were essential in lifting trash and recyclables back to Maui and taking netting "uprange" on Kaho'olawe to be used for erosion control.

King and Freeman recently returned from being graciously hosted by the Museum fur Gestaltung Zurich in Switzerland, where last December they shipped a 40-foot container filled with over 6.6 tons of marine debris collected from Kaho'olawe. King said she simply responded to an online request for marine debris for their educational exhibit.

"It became a wonderful partnership, as it was a dream come true to be able to spread the marine debris message to such a large audience in this stunning way," said King.

According to King's report, debris was sorted and recycled when possible after being brought back to Maui by ship and helicopter through CDF. Of the nearly 31 tons collected from Kanapou, 9.3 tons made it to the Maui landfill, 6.6 tons were shipped to Switzerland and 2.2 tons were reused, researched and recycled. Thirteen tons of nets were bundled, and strategically placed in Kaho'olawe's gullies by helicopters as a novel method of erosion control, she said.

The "Out to Sea" exhibit in Switzerland, which also includes trash from cleanups in the North and Baltic Seas, is a wonderful opportunity for educating the world about the detrimental effects of plastics and debris on animals and humans. The exhibit will travel throughout Europe in the fall. Visit to learn more.

"My experience working with Cheryl specifically is one of great discovery every day," said Freeman. "It is difficult to find people who wake up in the morning, so passionate about caring for deep issues."

"Even in a land-locked country, their rivers still lead to the ocean, so their trash contributes to the marine debris problem," King said of Switzerland. "It's not just an eyesore learning about the negative impacts on animals and people is the key to changing behaviors."

For now, garbage continues to be carelessly thrown away, and plastic debris continues to wash ashore on Kaho'olawe.

Rob Parsons, who is serving his second term as the executive assistant to the mayor for environmental concerns, said Maui is fortunate to have dedicated individuals like King, and organizations such as Community Work Day, Surfrider Foundation, and the Blue 'Aina of Trilogy Excursions.

"Beach cleanups can be one of the best opportunities to provide education on what is being discarded, by whom, and how we might consider reducing the amount of trash that each one of us produces," he said.

King is "taking a bite of marine debris" in other ways with "Sharkastics," a term for plastics with obvious teeth marks from sharks and other animals. Nearly 6,000 "sharkastics" were collected during the Kanapou cleanup.

Go to and visit to learn more about the extraordinary Kaho'olawe mission.

Hawai'i Wildlife Fund also conducts monthly marine debris cleanups on Maui. Visit



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