Carly is the program coordinator at a marine conservation organization in Hawaii. She works on the front lines of the island chain’s battle against marine debris.
How long have you been studying the marine environment for? And what is your field of study?
I’ve been studying the marine environment for around 3 years. Most of my work has been focused on marine debris and the impacts it has on coastal environments.
What made you want to become a marine scientist?
I was always interested in conservation, even as a young child.
When I was completing my undergrad degree, I decided to focus on the marine environment and coastal systems. I always knew that I wanted to learn more about water conservation so I had taken classes in freshwater ecology and marine ecology – the marine ecology classes are what stuck.
I ended up receiving a minor in Marine Science and then ultimately going on to get my master’s degree in Marine Conservation. I believe water is the most important resource that we have on this planet – especially since it covers more than 70 percent of it.
Having a general background in Conservation Biology is something that allowed me to see how all the different pieces of natural systems are interconnected, and how each plays its own vital role.
Reefs were the first thing that caught my attention as they play so many different and valuable roles in the marine environment. Originally I wanted to study the way that pollution impacted reefs. There are a ton of studies on how temperature and pH affect reefs but not too many on pollution. I became focussed on how water quality could impact reefs and what can be done to try and mitigate some of the damage being caused by degrading water quality.
Receiving my Master’s from Stony Brook limited me in that sense because almost no one at the college could help me look at how corals were being impacted by pollution. I ended up working on marine debris. While this isn’t what I originally wanted to concentrate on, it does impact every beach in the world and so seemed like something i could and should focus on.
I am still motivated by the idea of protecting reefs, and I have taken a more focused approach by helping to remove plastics from the beaches to ensure that they aren’t making their way back into the oceans.
How have you seen the marine environment that you study change in your lifetime? Both in general and in the context of your research? And how do you think this compares to the larger timescale?
The issue of marine debris has definitely grown in my lifetime, mainly because the amount of plastic being used and produced every year is increasing. Plastics weren’t commonly used until the 1950s and 1960s – so it wasn’t until then that the disposable culture we now live in became so prevalent.
The amount of plastic debris in the environment directly correlates with the lifestyle of convenience that everyone now has. This issue is not going to go away or stop anytime soon – plastic has become too ubiquitous in our society, and people have become attached to our throw-away culture.
What do you think is the biggest threat to Hawaii’s waters and ocean? And why?
No one threat is more significant than the other, each threat is having its own detrimental impacts.
Climate change is a pervasive threat for every island, especially one where most of the population lives along the coastline. Climate change is showing itself through sea level rise, which is devastating local beaches and native aquaculture practices in Hawaii. In the last year the median high tide mark has risen around 6 inches which is insane. This is creating the need for more sea walls and infrastructure to be able to combat the rising tides, leading to the next issue, namely development.
In Hawaii, on Oahu specifically, many of the wetlands are dredged and used for resorts and high-end housing; these wetlands historically helped to mitigate floods caused by storms in the mountains. Adding this infrastructure also increases the pollution on the island through run off and also adds to the overall number of people on the island.
Pollution from tourists is a huge issue. Millions of people every year are coming to vacation and are exploiting the throw-away culture, lathering up with sunscreen. All of the single use items they’re consuming and the chemicals they’re putting on their bodies are making their way to the oceans.
The biggest threat to the oceans is in our lifestyle and the choices we make every day. The issues changing our environment, they all lead back to the human population and our cultures and how we’re treating the natural world.
What do you think could be done (if anything) to better manage Hawaii’s marine environment?
Managing Hawaii’s marine environment will take global initiatives mainly because of the amount of tourists that visit each year, and the amount of plastic that’s washing up on shore from around the globe. Eliminating single use plastics from the state, including polystyrene, and educating locals and visitors about the state of the ocean will help, but overall it is a global problem.
The issues that Hawaii is facing can almost be divided based on which side of the islands you are on. On the windward side of the islands you are getting more global debris that has been traveling around the ocean in the North Pacific Gyre, in Oahu there’s moderate tourist debris and chemical pollution.
On the leeward side of the islands it’s mostly “picnic” trash that is left on the beach. Meaning trash that is just left by people either in the streets or directly on the beaches, and in Oahu you will find much more tourist debris and chemical pollution.
I think the two sides of each island will need to be assessed and addressed differently and that there isn’t really one correct way to manage the situations that the ocean is facing. Changing the global view of the environment and how to treat it and how to deal with our waste would have a huge positive impact on the state of Hawaii’s oceans.
What’s one everyday thing that you think everyday people could do better to conserve the marine environment?
If you see trash on the ground, just pick it up and find a garbage can that’s not over flowing. Trash that’s left on the street or in parks can ultimately make its way into any waterway, and all water leads to the ocean.
It’s honestly the easiest thing to do and it can go kind of viral – once people notice others picking up trash they’re likely to start picking it up themselves. And once an area is clean it tends to stay clean because people are more reluctant to throw their trash in a clean area.
How I Sea is a neweffort by The TerraMar Project to dive into the minds of our global ocean community. We highlight opinions on conservation issues such as: marine pollution, overfishing, drilling, climate change, marine protected areas, scientific discoveries, and much more. Stay tuned for more.
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Photo: Ellmax Photos