The Northwest Hawaiian Islands stretch, well, northwest from Kauai, clear to the Midway Atoll, some 1,200 miles away. They are a tropical and subtropical series of legitimate islands, sea stacks, and barely there stretches of sand and rock. They’re the Hawaiian Islands few have heard of, and fewer still have visited.

There is one unfortunately common visitor to these lonely but beautiful islands—plastic debris. Because of the sweeping flows of currents and winds, great quantities of marine debris clutters the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The Great Pacific Garbage Gyre spins like an oceanic trash galaxy all around the islands, and occasionally, a river of trash will meander from the gyre, washing ashore along impossibly remote islands like Nihoa and the Gardner Pinnacles.

Astounding, because these islands are so incredibly far from any urban area, or civilization of any size, really. Nevertheless, plastic bottles, coffee lids, toys, and acres upon acres of plastic fishing nets collect on the islands’ beaches and reefs.


Steven Gnam, a photographer and videographer was contracted by NOAA this past fall for several months to help document through photos and video the pollution and the recovery efforts underway on the islands. While there, Gnam had to learn to SCUBA dive and help with the collection efforts. It was easier for NOAA to hire him as a marine debris technician than it was as a professional photographer, he explained.

Gnam was present on the islands in October when Hurricane Walaka roared through the chain, nearly wiping out and, for a time, completely submerging beneath the sea East Island, part of the French Frigate Shoals section of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. East Island had been an important breeding ground for endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal and green sea turtles.

The islands and their wild inhabitants face an uncertain future with the twin spectres of climate change and pollution looming. Unfair fates for any wild place, but especially cruel and difficult to imagine for areas so far removed from the source of the pollution.


“The remoteness of the islands makes the pollution and what’s happening there even more alarming,” says Gnam. “Something like 50 tons of debris can wash up there in a year.”

Gnam has seen monk seals playing in fishing nets, a dangerous interloper nevertheless turned into a toy, and has helped cut away fishing gear threatening to fatally entangle sea turtles. “Each turtle rescued there represents one-tenth of those struggling in fishing nets that don’t find,” he says.

NOAA’s efforts to clean up debris involved small teams gathering trash from the beaches, water, and reefs, and loading it on container ships for recycling, or to be sent for energy production on Oahu. A small but meaningful step.

Gnam’s photos are below.


Divers survey reticulated reef in Pearl and Hermes Atoll.

NOAA Marine Debris Technicians survey a net, noting how bad it’s fouled the corals, before removing it.

Brown noddies perched on an eroding sea wall on Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals.

NOAA Marine Debris Technician Kristen Kelly holds her breath while slicing through a derelict fishing net while her safety dive partner, Tessa Code looks on.

A Hawaiian monk seal plays with a strand of fishing net–a potential entanglement hazard for the seal.

A debris pile on Tern Island after Hurricane Walaka hit the island.

A Red-footed Booby about to catch a flying fish.

NOAA Marine Debris Techs carefully remove portions of a net wrapped around the fin of a green sea turtle.

A NOAA Marine Debris Tech freediving down to a ghost net caught on a coral reef, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

NOAA divers remove manageable sections of a boat-sized conglomerate net that had had a juvenile Hawaiian monk seal playing in it the day before.

A Brown noddy perches on a dead coral head next to a washed up plastic bottle. Kure Atoll.

A Hawaiian monk seal splashes with another young seal.

Spinner dolphins often swam along the zodiac rafts used to collect marine debris and surfed the bow waves.

The seals adore the nets, unfortunately.

Beautiful, and, if not for the plastic debris, completely unspoiled.

Photos: NOAA Fisheries/Steven Gnam

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