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Field Lab: Finding Flotsam in Hawaii

Megan Lamson from the Hawaii Wildlife Fund shows Professor Chamberlin’s class a map of the area of shoreline they would be beachcombing. From Kaulana Bay, the students headed south equipped with bright orange buckets and protective gloves to collect marine debris along a mile of shoreline before ending at Pinao Bay.

In Professor Jeremiah Chamberlin‚Äôs Writing and Academic Inquiry course, he asks his students to read like writers. On board the MV Explorer, they have been reading Donovan Hohn‚Äôs Moby Duck, a non-fiction book in which the author sets out to explore the disappearance of thousands of bath toys from a container ship in the Pacific Ocean. Hohn’s search for answers takes him across the ocean, deep into the issue of marine debris, and to Hilo, Hawaii, also the first stop for the Spring 2014 voyage.

Before arriving in Hawaii, Chamberlin asked his students to assume the role of carpenter and deconstruct Hohn’s writing techniques to better understand the craft. He tells students to pay particularly close attention to his description of Hilo and the debris-strewn beaches near South Point, where they would soon be visiting. The marine debris, mostly made up of plastics, comes to the Hawaiian Islands via the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where the convergence of ocean currents from the North Pacific Gyre causes trash to accumulate and cycle through the ocean. Currents wash the debris along the southeastern coastline on the windward side of the island.

In Hilo the students disembarked from the MV Explorer to follow in the footsteps of Hohn and to put their observation and research skills into real-life situations. The group met with Bill Gilmartin, founder of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, and one of the characters in Hohn’s book. Gilmartin and his colleagues traveled with the students from Hilo towards the southeastern beaches of the Big Island and explained their efforts to remove and prevent marine debris.

Chamberlin asked his students to measure the distance between their expectations and anticipation. Hohn described coves filled with piles of debris, but when the students arrived, the scene wasn’t what they expected. The section they were to beachcomb was a relatively “clean” beach compared to nearby beaches. The debris, consisting mainly of fragments of plastic, was scattered throughout the sand. If left alone, the small plastic pieces would continue to break apart, but never decompose.

After beachcombing a one mile stretch along the southeast coastline of Ka’≈´ on Hawaii Island, the students had collected fishing nets, oyster spacers, swim suits, lids, caps, bottles, metal, plastic fragments, and other flotsam. They were able to step into the issue of marine debris that they had been introduced to through Hohn’s book and come away with first-hand knowledge to produce their own essays.

Bobbi Ponder from the University of Cincinnati, Lisa Schlosberg from the University of Michigan, and Grecia De la O Abarca from Middlebury College examine a jar of sand collected from nearby Kamilo Beach (left). The jar had been filled with water to allow the plastic to float to the surface, showing that the high ratio of sand to plastic. Catherine Spina from the Hawaii Wildlife Fund displays two nurdles in the palm of her hand (right). Nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets that are used in the creation of larger plastics, but often find their way into the ocean and onto beaches via spills at factories or on container ships.
Marine debris typically comes from land-based sources such as storm runoff, but is also deposited via ocean-based sources such as fishing vessels. Catherine Spina shows a plastic oyster spacer used in aquaculture to Colleen Doohan from Oral Roberts University and Grecia De la O Abarca from Middlebury College.
Bobbi Ponder from the University of Cincinnati examines debris she found along the shoreline. Bobbi was most surprised to find the rubber end of a cane and noted, “I found that the abundance of small plastic was overwhelming. When I think of trash I usually associate it with large bottles and paper.”
The debris found along the shoreline consisted mainly of small fragments of plastic, faded and brittle from time spent in the ocean and sun. The plastic wasn’t confined to the surface layers, but was found underneath the surface of the soil and ensconced below tidal lava rock. The debris that was collected even included items of clothing (left). Professor Chamberlin holds a portion of a fishing net he collected (right). Hawaii Wildlife Fund is able to recycle net debris into electricity by working with various partners in the state.
The students collected two bags of rubbish and one tire, for a total of 63 lbs, from the one mile stretch of shoreline that they covered. The debris that could not be recycled into electricity or used in artist projects would be buried in a landfill. It is estimated that 15-20 tons of marine debris arrives on the shores of southeastern Hawaii every year.
  • Science

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