KAHULUI, Maui — The heat from the helicopter radiated off the ocean surface as Go Fly Maui pilot Nick Moran hovered in position over a roughly 400-pound “ghost net.”
Farrell, executive director of the ocean stewardship nonprofit Love The Sea, snagged the net on a second pass and detached the line. With the beacon transmitting its precise location, the helicopter returned to Kahului. A satisfying end to a nearly three-hour search that was actually for a much larger ghost net reported a few days earlier.
Go Fly Maui pilot Nick Moran, left, and Love The Sea Executive Director Campbell Farrell look in the waters off Molokini for a reported ghost net so they can attach the GPS beacon to it for a boat to then come pick up.
That weekend, a boat would use the GPS beacon to track the net and haul it safely to shore. The net and the mess of plastics tangled inside it will eventually be burned for electricity.
While the larger net — estimated about 16 times bigger — remains out there somewhere, Farrell and nonprofit partners plan to use this effort to help convince potential private and public funders that this helicopter-assisted method of finding and tagging such nets can significantly limit the damage they do.
Ghost nets, which get their name because they continue catching fish long after they are discarded, are a worldwide problem. They entangle wildlife, ensnare boat propellers, crush coral reefs and can wash ashore in areas that are hard to reach or that make removal challenging and even more expensive than hiring a helicopter.
The nets are largely from abandoned or lost commercial fishing gear. While technologies exist for the fishermen to track and recover their own gear with relatively inexpensive transponders, it’s usually not financially worth it to them. More money can be made fishing instead.
Since fishing nets are now mostly made of plastic and other materials that can take hundreds of years to degrade, they can drift at sea for decades and travel thousands of miles — potentially wreaking havoc on wildlife all the while.
“It’s exponentially easier to get out there with a boat and bring back these nets than 100 volunteers breaking their backs removing them on beaches,” he said.
Mary Crowley, executive director of the California-based Ocean Voyages Institute, is another key partner, along with Oriana Kalama from Ocean Defender Adventures and Jennifer Lynch, director of Hawaii Pacific University’s Center for Marine Debris Research.
Ocean Voyages Institute conducted a cleanup expedition in 2019, working with the sailing cargo ship KWAI, that removed more than 84,000 pounds of nets and consumer debris from the North Pacific Gyre — home of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — before it found its way to the Hawaiian Islands. The group removed 12,000 pounds of ghost nets from Kaneohe Bay last year.