Nelson:Trash, Politics and Endangered Species in the Sandwich Islands | Pinhead Institute Notes From the Field
by Gisele Nelson
Jul 25, 2007 | 273 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As part of the United States, Hawaii, is really a long distance away from the rest of the country. In fact, it is the most remote place in the world. It is 2,000 miles away from the nearest land, anywhere.  It is also so geographically and culturally different than the U.S. mainland (including Alaska). Fragile and unique, Hawaii is unfortunately home to a frightening number of endangered species. ‘The Islands’ are losing many of their native plants to invasive or non-native species that have found their way to the island either by humans, animals, or wind. Species like sugar cane, pineapple, guava, and mangoes, that we mistake as part of Hawaii’s tropics, are actually choking out native endangered species. Ginger, for example, is an invasive plant that has a beautiful yellow and red bloom with a smell similar to plumeria or gardenia. Ginger grows in large groups and absorbs a lot of water, therefore causing the plants around it to die out.

Environmentally, geographically, and culturally, Hawaii seems to be running into some serious problems. My Pinhead Internship mentor, Bill Gilmartin, is the founder of a conservation nonprofit, The Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, and he is a remarkable and paramount figure in preserving Hawaii’s natural setting. He has spent his life researching Hawksbill turtles and Monk seals and also has worked hard to prevent these two species from becoming extinct. In addition to these great endeavors, he also dedicates a great deal of his time trying to reverse the problems of invasive or non-native species that have reached the islands.

Since arriving on the Big Island this July for my summer Pinhead Internship program, I’ve gotten to do many things including getting to know my host, Bill, tour Volcano National Park, listen to a thesis proposal about turtle foraging at the University of Hawaii, attend one of Hawaii’s public hearings on land management, and, of course, go to the beach. The beach we are visiting though isn’t the type of beach where a person sunbathes in the sand and then surfs after the tan session. The beach we are going to is named Waiohinu. It is a spot where volcanic rock and vegetation meet the sea. Bill is working on getting it to be an official Hawaiian Land Reserve because it has great historical and environmental value. It’s truly a stunning spot on the southeast side of the Big Island. It has a remarkable view and is not often visited by people because it is difficult to access. Bill and I drove a pick-up truck on small dirt roads to get there. Once we reached the beach we drove on volcanic rock entirely along the coast. Taking cautious turns around holes and sharp rocks, it took Bill and I about an hour to drive down a road that was roughly five miles long.

Upon arrival to this remote spot, I noticed stretches of native plants like naupaka and strikingly blue water smashing against the dark volcanic rock. Aside from this panorama, my eyes ran up the shore and ran into numerous piles of trash that had washed up from far at sea. It was a very disappointing sight to disrupt the visions of this gorgeous setting. The garbage comes ashore and accumulates on the tideline. After describing what it took to get to this spot, imagine how hard it was to get it out of there, and then multiply that by about a hundred trips. Bill and I took out a big truckload.  This load hardly made a dent compared to the amount that remained on the beach. Washed up pink, green, and blue plastics are still all around next to huge tangled bundles of net, rope, and fishing line. All of this type of trash is spread way down the coast, as far as I could see. Rummaging through the piles of trash, I found several items including what may have been a laundry soap bottle or a broken buoy, old lighters, shards of plastic, nets, ropes and thousands of other waste products.

Where did it all come from? Bill informed me that sea trash mainly comes from the Pacific rim countries and also from the hundreds of Pacific fishing fleets that carelessly dump their trash overboard. The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated islands in the world because they are surrounded by the greatest amount of water. I can’t imagine all of this debris floating through the Pacific for that distance and that amount of time. This situation is a wakeup call. The frightening thing about this trash is that Hawaii is only a miniscule island “net”, compared to the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean where the greater majority of this junk is still drifting about.  Trash that doesn’t make it to the shore of these islands, is either eaten by marine life or becomes part of the habitat. It is obvious, while examining some of the plastics, that sharks or large fish have taken bites.

At home that night, Bill showed me some books of wildlife photography, Remains of the Rainbow and Archipelago by David Littschwager and Susan Middleton. He flipped to a page of bird skeletons that were lying on the ground and their rib cages were filled with a bundle of small pieces of plastic and various items. None of these items were food. At first, I thought it was supposed to be a symbolic representation of what humans are doing to our world.  But then, I realized, it is not only symbolic, but  that this damage is real and happening right now. Seabirds glean shiny floating objects from the ocean. Their instinct tells them it is food.  They bring these plastic items back to the nest and regurgitate them to their young. The baby bird’s gullet becomes filled with bits of plastic. None of it can be digested. These juvenile birds are starving. From this, we get a sad result of the small white ribcages I saw in the photo,  filled with garbage lying on the ground. It’s a terrible realization of what we’ve done to this planet. Seeing and experiencing this sad truth and then leafing through pictures from books on the same subject, makes you want to do something. The hard part is waiting for more to follow. One would get an entirely different reaction if tourists jumped off their big tour buses and saw trash-strewn beaches.

Even with the clutter on Waiohinu, it’s still a remarkable place, as is the rest of the enchanting Big Island. A current hot topic with the Hawaiian Natives population is receiving support from law enforcement to preserve their native land. I attended a public hearing for the Board of Land and Natural Resources with Bill. At these hearings Bill and others shared proposals for Forest Reserves. Bill specifically came prepared with a testimony to the Waiohinu addition to the forest reserve. Half of the proposals that are brought up at these meetings are similar to Bill’s proposal. The other half of the proposals are incredibly heated subjects brought up by the islanders. They argue that their native land is supposed to always be protected, as something made clear from Constitutions early on in the Hawaiian culture. They become rightfully frustrated with a law enforcement that doesn’t help protect the land and also the lack of communication about the developments going up around them. At the beginning of the hearing, I had little hope that is was going to be interesting as I listened to a speaker dictate from a paper.  It was almost at boring as listening to an SAT proctor.

Unexpectedly, I came out of this meeting gaining an important and unforgettable cultural experience. I also returned from Waiohinu beach with a new perspective on the bitter reality of how much human waste fills our oceans. The two momentous experiences I’ve had, both parallel to the same issue about preservation. Hawaii has a lot to offer and needs a great deal of attention towards matters worth fixing in order to preserve it as the jewel of the Pacific.

Gisele Nelson, a Graduate of Telluride High School in 2007, is interning on the Big Island of Hawaii and will be studying and tracking sea turtles as well as recording occurrences of endangered Hawaiian plant species. Her mentor Bill Gilmartin was responsible for saving the Hawaiian Monk Seal from extinction.  Gisele will be attending University of Vermont this fallm be living in the “green” dorm and continuing to learn about conservation through her studies there.

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