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4,200 pounds of marine debris airlifted from Kaua‘i’s shores by helicopter

LIHU‘E — It’s a bird, it’s a plane — it’s flying garbage?

Surfrider Kaua‘i announced its 12-week annual Operation Airlift program has concluded, as volunteers partnered with Jack Harter Helicopters and Timbers Kaua‘i Ocean Club to fly 2 tons of marine debris out of some of the island’s hardest-to-reach shores.

“We’d like to thank our dedicated volunteers, plus Jack Harter Helicopters and Timbers Kaua‘i Ocean Club, for the success of this year’s Operation Airlift,” said Scott McCubbins, co-coordinator of Surfrider Kaua‘i’s beach cleanup and net patrol. “Plastics, both from commercial fisheries and individual usage, are polluting our oceans and endangering marine life and coral reefs.”

Surfrider Kaua‘i has conducted beach cleanups since its founding in 2006, with a significant rehaul to its operations after the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Tohoku, Japan, sent a litany of debris to the Hawaiian Islands.

Under the organization’s revamped efforts, Surfrider Kaua‘i began counting how much debris it collected, additionally going on targeted net patrols.

At its peak, the team collected up to 10,000 pounds of trash per month — and with all that data, organizers began to better understand where the trash was mostly ending up.

“What we discovered was these big accumulations weren’t coming onto our beaches,” said Surfrider Kaua‘i senior scientist Carl Berg. “They were coming more on the rocky coastlines that are really hard to get to.”

While the team could reach the remote beaches on foot, the amount of debris and treacherous terrain made it difficult — if not impossible — to return with the ‘opala payload.

To avoid this issue altogether, Surfrider Kaua‘i in 2019 began partnering with Jack Harter Helicopters to airlift massive bulk bags of debris away from the coastlines for safe disposal.

“These aren’t little things — you could fit in one,” Berg said. “These are big, heavy, industrial-sized, and we fill them up and haul them out.”

This year, the 12-week Operation Airlift resulted in 11 bulk bags containing more than 4,200 pounds of debris — about as much as an Asian elephant — transported away from Kaua‘i’s shores to Timbers Kaua‘i Ocean Club resort and another private property site, where volunteers removed the bags for recycling and proper disposal.

While it may sound like a lot of trash, Berg said Surfrider’s actually collected less garbage every year since Operation Airlift began, a phenomenon that can be attributed to the Texas-sized Great Pacific Garbage Patch slowly moving farther away from Hawai‘i.

Still, what garbage does make it to Kaua‘i’s waters can have a massive impact on nearby aquatic life.

For one, hard plastics frequently batter the marine ecosystem, causing blunt force injuries to the environment.

“When they’re coming into shore, they’re going to obliterate any coral that they hit, anything that’s living on the rocks or underwater,” Berg said. “With heavy wave action and big waves, they’re just devastating the reef.”

Additionally, nets and ropes floating in the ocean frequently entangle marine animals, such as whales turtles and monk seals, and can also restrict coral reefs’ oxygen intake.

Marine debris doesn’t just affect aquatic life, though — Berg noted that ocean plastics often eventually make their way to humans through the food we eat.

“Little fish eat little pieces (of plastic),” Berg said. “Then bigger fish eat little fish, and that all gets into the food chain, and then we eat it.”

While Surfrider’s Operation Airlift has concluded until spring or summer 2024, beach cleanup efforts on the island continue year-round.

Berg urged anyone visiting Kaua‘i’s shores to bring back more plastic than when they found it.

“If you take a net or rope, that means no turtle is going to be tangled,” he said. “Take an eel trap, no monk seal pup is going to get killed.”

For individuals interested in volunteering with Surfrider Kaua‘i, Berg noted two options. Beach cleanups are less energy-intensive projects that anyone can partake in, while net patrol work requires hiking on rocky coasts and is not designed for children or the elderly.

“All of us can do our part,” Berg said. “Whether it’s a big part like Operation Airlift, or a little part like picking up that plastic and throwing it in the garbage can. It all makes a difference.”

People interested in volunteering can call Surfrider Kaua‘i at 808-635-2593.


Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or
Source: The Garden Island

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