HONOLULU(KHON2) — A million-dollar mission to remove garbage from an important marine sanctuary is underway.

Kevin O’Brien, founder of Papahanaumokuakea Marine Debris Project, and his crew of 16 are preparing for their fifth mission to clean the Papahanaumokuakea Marine Sanctuary in the Northern Pacific, more than 1,000 miles away from Honolulu.

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“There’s the main Hawaiian islands,” O’Brien explained pointing at a map. “Big Island, Kauai — and then we’re headed up here. This little string of tiny dots is Papahanaumokuakea.”

They depart Thursday for the month-long expedition.

According to O’Brien, they’ll likely return with garbage weighing as much as a small commercial jet airplane. He said it will fill three shipping containers and be piled in a huge mountain of garbage on the deck.

Since PMDP was created in 2019, they’ve removed around 400,000 pounds of ghost nets and garbage.

They collected more than 97,000 pounds on their last trip alone, but O’Brien said there’s a lot more work to do.

“If we can bring back 115,000 pounds, plus at least another 115,000 pounds every year, we’ll catch up with the backlog of accumulation,” he said. “And then we’ll be able to keep up with what just keeps rolling in every single year.”

Namele Naipo-Arsiga joined the crew this year as a marine debris technician. She said the experience has been eye-opening.

“I didn’t realize the amount of nets that get collected up at Papahanaumokuakea, and I didn’t realize they covered entire reefs,” Naipo-Arsiga said.

Removing them is challenging. O’Brien said his crew trains for months

With nets in water up to 30 feet deep, they free-dive, cut the nets and pull them into the boats, by hand, to prevent damaging the reefs.

As difficult as it is, they said it’s fulfilling to protect the ocean and endangered marine life.

“Seeing that we can hopefully create change for the future it’s really awesome,” Naipo-Arsiga said.

O’Brien said he created his non-profit organization, solely focused on cleaning the marine sanctuary, after years of visiting the area working for NOAA.

“We just saw the need to do it bigger, the amount of debris that washes into Papahanaumokuakea is off the charts,” he said.

According to O’Brien, the price tag for each clean-up is roughly $1 million, paid for by federal grants and donations.

“It’s a lot of work, it’s expensive, as you might imagine but it’s totally worth it,” said O’Brien.

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Anyone interested in learning more about the project can click here.