PMDP Marine Debris Cleanup Mission

16 Day Mission on Tern Island

Kevin O’Brien recently returned from 16 days at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. We had coffee together and had the privilege of hearing him speak about the mission to remove wildlife hazards posed by the 2018 hurricane Walaka on Tern Island in Lalo, the French Frigate Shoals.

For those that may not be familiar with the area, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is the single largest conservation area under the U.S. flag and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. It was inscribed as a mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Site. It is located northwest of the Hawaiian islands and covers an area of 582,578 square miles.

Kevin left his position at NOAA to found Papahānaumokuākea Marine Debris Project (PMDP). PMDP is a non profit organization that serves as the focal point for the collaboration between the managing agencies of Papahānaumokuākea and the community. Its goal is to clean the ocean and shorelines of plastics, and to remove derelict fishing nets from the reefs that spell entanglement hazards for birds, seals and turtles.

Planning a cleanup mission of this scale, and to such a remote place is not only logistically difficult but also very expensive. And doing it during a pandemic makes it that much more challenging.

PMDP Clean Up Mission Boat

The strategy for this mission was to pull resources together to make it possible. The PMDP were able to piggy back on a charter vessel contracted by USFWS to re-supply Midway Atoll. The 11 person crew was able to catch a ride to be dropped off at Tern Island on the way for 10 days until the return of the vessel.

Hawaiian Monk Seal

The goal of this mission was bit different from previous missions that mainly focused on removing derelict fishing nets and plastics. This time, the goal was to remove the wildlife hazards posed by the debris of hurricane Walaka. In October of 2018, Walaka passed well south of the main Hawaiian islands as a weak storm, but as it moved west, Walaka rapidly intensified and struck the area as a category 3 hurricane. Since the storm, the hurricane debris cluttering Tern Island has posed a major hazard to wildlife, routinely entangling and entrapping green sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, and seabirds.

Tern Island Storm Surge
Tern Island was a U.S. Navy airfield in World War II. Storm surge scattered debris from the island’s relic infrastructure all across, cluttering large areas of Tern Island for the last two years. The surges also caused extensive additional erosion of its shoreline areas, further exposing finger-like remnants of a rusting WWII-era corrugated steel sea-wall. When you are a 300 lb Hawaiian monk seal, agility is not your strong point. The steel sea wall like fence would routinely trap monk seals and sea turtles on the beach or in small pools of water during tidal shifts.

WWII Steel Wall

The PMDP/USFWS team goal was to eliminate as many of these hazards as possible during their 10-day stay on the island.

Hawaiian Sea Birds

Who needs an alarm clock when you have hundreds of early birds?

The team of 11 were dropped off at Tern Island on October 22 where they camped and worked for 10 days. The days would start with a wake up call of hundreds of wedge-tailed shearwaters and brown noddys who croaked their pre-dawn songs, followed by big cups of coffee and breakfast in the cook tent.

Marine Debris Clean Up

After Hawaiian protocol, led by two of the crew, the team split into groups to tackle the various removal projects of the day. Lumber was cut, piled, and bagged. Scrap metal was chopped and palletized. Plastics and fishing nets were pulled from the beaches. Concrete slabs were demolished. And, sections of steel seawall were strategically cut out to provide escape pathways for turtles and seals, which they started using right away.

Marine Debris Clean Up Mission Garbage Bags

After ten hot, sweaty, dirty, but satisfying days, the ship returned to collect the team and the 82,600 pounds of debris and fishnets they had collected.

Off to the next one..
When we saw Kevin shortly after his return, he was happy with the success of the mission, still tired but already knee deep into the planning of the April 2021 mission. This mission will focus on cleanup of ocean plastics from the shorelines and derelict fishing nets from some of the other islands and atolls within Papahānaumokuākea.

1% of all revenue from your Sea Salts of Hawaii and Kona Sea Salt purchase goes to support PMDP Hawaii. If you would like to support them as well, or are thinking of adopting a give back partner for your business – or even if you are just looking for a cool t-shirt, please visit

Marine Debris Trash Collection