The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

March 12, 2009

Katie Woollven: Plastic Warrior Extraordinaire

Katie Woollven is a reader of this blog who contacted me in January to say she’d begun her own No Plastic For A Year Project. What’s more, she’s been working in Hawaii for the Hawaii Wildlife Fund’s Marine Debris Project, gathering up marine garbage, mostly plastic fishing nets.

This is a guest post from Katie, written last month, describing that project.

About 2 weeks after I met Megan Lamson, she had me lined up with a job doing exactly what I’m interested in. It’s with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund’s Marine Debris Project, and I’m helping her organize beach clean-ups near South Point.

These are not your typical beach clean-ups. My first one was in November and we picked up 5 TONS of garbage, mostly abandoned fishing gear. We have a truck with a winch to haul up the tangled mess of nets that wash up on shore. Each net-ball can weigh a ton, and can take 30 minutes to winch into the truck. The rope gets caught and tangled in the sharp lava rocks, and when we drag the net-ball up to the truck it leaves a trail of plastic pieces behind.

Why don’t we just drive the truck closer to each pile? All our clean-ups are down by South Point and Green Sands. It is a crazy 4 wheel drive road, and everything is pretty rugged down there. We get as close as we can, and I’m amazed at how much weight we manage to drag across the rocky beach.

(Me and Bill Gillmarten, loading up nets into the truck for November’s clean-up)

A few years ago NOAA did some aerial maps of marine debris in Hawaii. Basically 2 people flew around in a helicopter and marked down each time they saw these giant nets on the beach. This is the map for the Big Island, and you can see that most of the marks are near South Point- that’s where the currents spit out the most debris.

The whole Hawaiian Islands archipelago acts as a comb, and sifts out lots of marine debris from the Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre. This is a huge issue for Hawaii. Only a small fraction of the nets that we collect are actually used by Hawaiian fishermen… the rest travel here from other countries.

Part of my job is to try to figure out where all these nets are coming from. This weekend was my first attempt at sampling the nets. Just looking at this pile of nets was enough to make me question my sanity in accepting this challenge. We tried several different methods, involving untangling, photographing, measuring, and cutting nets. There are net ID guides where you can theoretically match up a sample of net you find with the ones in the book, based on color, mesh size, twine diameter, and other variables.

(Megan and Stacey taking samples of a gillnet. The bouy lines may help determine origin.)

(Stacey with a Fish Aggregating Device. These are left at the ocean surface, and the location is marked. Fish are attracted to the structure, and then a single fisherman knows exactly where to keep fishing.)

(Isabel, untangling nets)

(The Debris Divas! We have to wear masks so we don’t breath in thousands of tiny plastic particles from the nets.)

It gets really complicated when you have a trawl net that changes mesh size several times from the front to back. If you’re looking at a fragment piece of net, it can be nearly impossible to tell exactly what fishery it was used for. Each tangled ball of nets represents several fisheries. I read one report of a Humpback whale that was entangled in 22 different kinds of nets.

We will try to ID the samples we took this weekend, but I anticipate challenges. However, we also plan to use the samples for education in classrooms, to make a poster of different net types to show volunteers at future beach clean-ups, and there is a possibility of future chemical analysis.

After we finished sampling we had to load all the nets into a huge Matson shipping container. We are sending them to Oahu to be burned as electricity in a power plant. My estimate is that our container full of nets will produce enough electricity to power 20 homes for 1 year.

(Our Matson container before we started loading… that’s a lot of space!)

(Me and Bill after the first load.)

The task of loading a shipping container with nets would best be carried out with a magic wand. Without this essential tool, it is backbreaking and dangerous work. Megan’s friend volunteered to load nets with his tractor, and we had a pulley system rigged up to the truck to pull each load of nets to the back of the container.

(Watch the tractor swinging nets overhead, watch the truck so it doesn’t run you over, watch for instructions from Isabel so no one gets squished in the Matson, don’t let your fingers get caught in the line…)

Each time a potentially mouse-infested load was dropped into the Matson, we tied a rope to the front of the truck, hooked the pinchers into the nets, and drove the truck backwards. Nets were swinging around overhead, the truck was driving back and forth, we all tried to watch what was going on so that no one would get eaten by a giant net monster.

Poor Isabel (our fabulous intern) was trapped in the container almost all day, making sure the pulley was working. She said as the container filled up and J.D. brought in new piles, each time it would be pitch black for a few seconds. She couldn’t see anything and just hoped that she wouldn’t be smothered.

(Do you SEE Isabel inside the container?! It freaked me out to be up there, but she expertly hooked the pinchers into the nets and made sure the pulley was working.)

2 days later, my back is hurting and I have a big bruise on my leg from the pinchers. But more importantly, I am inspired to learn more about past marine debris projects on the islands. I’m trying to think of more effective ways to sample, and I want to see if we can determine where all these nets came from. We have an unofficial clean-up in a few weeks, and I can’t wait to go back.


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14 years ago

To the anonymous that said “Great work. I just wish they weren’t incinerating that plastic, spewing toxic exhaust over the islands and ocean.”

This is from a patent for a high tech invention for generating electricity from plastic waste:

“Through the use of oxygen, there is always a risk of dangerous organic chlorine compounds being formed.”

This is from a fact sheet for fire fighters:

“Decomposition and combustion products include carbon monoxide, carbon
dioxide, carbon (soot), formaldehyde, and acrolein.”


“The short term exposure to polypropylene by all routes is considered to be practically non-harmful.”

The patented process gets around this problem, but I suspect the generator in Hawaii might have been more conventional.

I guess the important thing to note is that leaving the plastic as is in the environment means that it would all eventually break down into tiny fragments that can then enter the food chain. Burning it converts most of it into water vapor, CO2 and energy. Keep in mind that Hawaii would have burned something else to make that energy anyway (diesel?)

14 years ago

I feel quite Wayne’s World about you “we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy”. Every time I go to the beach I pick up 20 pieces of plastic. My husband is always finding fishing wire that he picks up. If every single person picked up trash when he or she went to the beach, it would be amazing!

John Costigane
14 years ago

Hi Beth,

Well done to the gals in Hawaii. Finding out the source of nets is very worthwhile. Maybe they should be clearly marked for country or company, to provide an audit trail.

This is a good topic, highlighting unthinking, unsustainable practices.

Citizen Green
14 years ago

What a great guest post! My son did similar work a couple of years ago with NOAA, but it was in the waters along the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. A small boat would pull divers across shallow water as they looked down for rogue nets. When nets were spotted, they were loaded onto a ship and taken to Honolulu to be incinerated for electricity. NOAA workers would collect data such as weight and type of net. The nets do a lot of damage to coral reefs plus they continue to catch animals even though a human is not using them. I hope Katie and her crew keep up this difficult job. It’s such a good thing to do.

14 years ago

Great work. I just wish they weren’t incinerating that plastic, spewing toxic exhaust over the islands and ocean.

Quiet Little Life
14 years ago

I was going to buy some netting to trellis my green beans this summer, now I’m thinking that maybe some of the local fishing boats might have old nets they’d be interested in finding a new home for.

Anyone know if this would work?

14 years ago

What do they do with the nets after cleaning the beaches? Re-use would be so easy- fish nets make wonderful decoration on porches and such!

Natalie U
14 years ago

Thanks for sharing a new to me blog about plastic cleanup/reduction. That’s some fantastic work! Here’s another blog I found that everyone might enjoy:
I think it’s new!?

Condo Blues
14 years ago

The saddest thing about those pictures is that most of that plastic waste is fishing nets. Think of all of the wildlife that gets trapped in those cast off things!

14 years ago

Just wanted you to know that I nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger award. You can pick it up and see the other winners. The way this award works is to pay it forward to 10 others. Congrats, well deserved of course, now it’s your turn to choose the winners –

14 years ago

What an excellent post. I’m glad you included pictures, because so often we think of these problems as abstract. The pictures helped to ground everything for me!

Now all I need to do is convince my fiance that we should go to Hawaii for our honeymoon, and sneak helping Katie on the agenda. What an excellent way to live our beliefs.

14 years ago

What a great effort for a heartbreaking problem. No more ocean caught fish for me!

14 years ago

Great news! I contacted Hawaiian Airlines and they agreed to do a vacation package to help out Katie.

It’s included at the lower right of their online page for vacation packages as you can see here

14 years ago

I see so many 4×4 pickups being driven on city streets completely empty, never to use their capability. It’s great to see one being used to do some very good work.

How about a nickname for Katie – “PeeWee” (PWE – Plastic Warrior Extraordinaire)?