Protecting Sharks and Plastic Free Parks


On World Oceans Day June 8, 2022, Department of the Interior Secretary Deborah Haaland announced its plan to phase out single-use plastic on federal lands, including national parks by 2032. Herself of Native American descent, Ms. Haaland acknowledged and emphasized the importance of caring for nature and lands to native peoples, and by extension those of us who follow.

In 1791, King Kamehameha I built the heiau (Hawaiian temple) on the hill of the whale, overlooking Pelekane Bay adjacent to Kawaihae harbor. The Pu’ukohola Heiau is a sacred site, and a national park. Inside the bay is Hale o Kapuni Heiau (the Shark Temple), submerged just offshore in the Bay below. Remnants of this Hawaiian temple are now completely underwater and is named for the black tipped reef sharks that are frequently seen swimming here. Also seen swimming are plastic bottles and other marine debris blown from the land or discarded by careless visitors. Plastic pollution is an ever-growing problem in our National Parks and in the world ocean, having severe impact on aquatic ecosystems and the health of wildlife. It is estimated that over 10 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the oceans each year, and over 80% of that comes from near shore sources. Much of that is single use plastic and although emblazoned with the 3 arrow recycle circle, these plastics were never intended by the manufacturers to be recycled.

A 2022 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development states that of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than 10 per cent has been recycled. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, less than 30% of plastic bottles are recycled in the U.S., despite being the highest grade plastic and most easily recyclable. Most are “downcycled,” also known as open-loop recycling, downcycling occurs when a material is remade into an item of lower quality to be used again, but unrecyclable afterwards. Thus, the blue bins we blithely pitch our water bottles into at our homes and in our parks are a blue smokescreen. The solution is to use less, and to catalyze this there is a movement to ban single use bottles in our national parks.

On Oct 8, 2021 the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act was re-introduced by U.S. Representative Mike Quigley to ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles in national park facilities. In 2022, the non-profit Oceana released a nationwide poll indicating 82% of American voters would support a decision by the National Park Service to stop selling and distributing single-use plastic at national parks. 83% agree that it is important that national parks remain free of plastic trash, and 76% agree that single-use plastic items have no place in national parks. In the interim, Shark Stewards is joining a coalition to cleanup and identify the most common brands in coastal waterways and in our National Parks. On July 9, in Hawai’i we are joining 5 Gyres and Keep Puako Beautiful and other NGOS mobilizing volunteers with native youth and local non-profits to help clean and categorize waste, documenting plastic pollution at the U.S. National Park. Data from the Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz will reveal which items/companies are the worst offenders in our national parks, which can help advocates and the Department of the Interior determine where to focus their efforts. Large manufacturers have passed on the responsibility and the burden of cost onto the consumers. Cataloguing brands in our National Parks will help return the responsibility onto the manufacturers and support a lawsuit by Earth Island Advocates with Shark Stewards to hold manufacturers responsible for ocean pollution.

For over one thousand years the Hawaiian People, the Kanaka Maoli, were the original stewards of the Aina and Moana, the land and waters of Hawai’i and the connection between them. Removing plastic from this sacred place at Pu’ukohola Heiau will teach us to rebuild reverence among park and beach visitors and help lead the Plastic Free Parks movement.

Through beach cleanups and direct engagement with the community, we have an opportunity to teach youth and to connect to native cultures and help restore the health of the land and the ocean. Through honoring the legacy of indigenous stewardship and joining our efforts we will ensure that generations to come will inherit a just, healthier, and more sustainable future.