for National Geographic News
Editor's Note: Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society is on a film expedition in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to raise awareness about the need to protect the region's unique biodiversity for future generations. This is the fourth National Geographic News feature to showcase the islands and the expedition.
Derelict fishing nets, plastic bottles, cigarette lighters, television tubes, spray cans, broken toys, and thousands of other pieces of plastic and non-biodegradable junk converge on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands every year, scarring a seascape nearly void of people with tons of human waste.
"It's absolutely horrifying the scope of seeing it uncontained out here and definitely impacting the environment," said Jean-Michel Cousteau in an e-mail to National Geographic News sent from the Searcher. "Every time we go ashore, we are startled and shocked by the amount of debris that systematically litters the coastlines and reefs."
Cousteau and the Ocean Futures Society expedition team of 22 are in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands en route to Kure, the most northwestern of the islands, filming a new documentary to raise awareness of one of the last pristine, large-scale coral reef ecosystems in the Pacific. Everywhere they look, junk taints the horizon.
The marine debris traps critically-endangered Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi) and threatened Hawaiian green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), bulldozes through miles of pristine coral reef habitat, and kills thousands of Laysan and blackfooted albatross (Diomedea immutabilis and Diomedia nigripes) chicks who ingest tiny bits of plastic.
"As we explore these islands and observe the declining populations of millions of seabirds we are in shock to see the land covered with small bits and pieces of plastic of all sorts and colors," said Cousteau.
Since 1996 a multi-agency cleanup effort spearheaded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has removed 320 tons (705,000 pounds) of debris from the reefs through tedious, back-breaking labor, but thousands of tons remain and more is deposited in the island chain each year.
"It continues to come in," said Russell Brainard, an oceanographer with NOAA Fisheries in Honolulu. "Until we remove it from the ocean and eliminate the source, this will be a continuing problem."
The documentary, Voyage to Kure, will contrast images of the pristine reefs and islands with the images of debris entangled on the corals and washed onto the beaches in an attempt to encourage people to take better care of the oceans and lands. Those who can't wait for the images to air on public television in fall 2004 can follow the adventure on the website of the Ocean Futures Society. (See link at bottom.)
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are a 1,200-mile (2,000-kilometer) long chain of islands, atolls, and coral reefs that stretch northwest towards Asia from the main Hawaiian Islands. Human presence there is sparse, but the dearth of people cannot prevent the world's trash from damaging the corals and littering the shores.
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