Story and photos by COCO ZICKOS
Kaua’i is a magnet for lost fishing nets, but Barbara Wiedner of Surfrider Foundation leads the way in gathering folks to help remove them
Removing a discarded fishing net that’s been tangled between rocks and wedged under the sand may seem like an impossible task, but not to Surfrider Foundation’s Barbara Wiedner.
Discouraged by the number of nets that plague Kaua’i beaches, the California native created Net Patrol as part of the foundation’s Kaua’i chapter, whereby groups of people meet regularly to remove the gnarly debris.
“When you come across a ball of nets, you never think you’re going to make a difference,” says Wiedner, who uses a serrated kitchen knife as her tool. “You just start cutting, and like any problem in life that seems so big, you take it one little piece at a time, you get your friends to help and before you know it, it’s not that big of a problem anymore.”
The strategy recently worked in Anahola, where a team of about eight people gathered to remove fishing nets tightly lodged on the beach. Not only were they able to remove three truckloads of the rubbish, but because of the concerted effort, it only took them one day.
“It was amazing,” says Wiedner.
If nets like these aren’t removed from the shorelines, they become hazardous to marine life. Last year, a sea turtle was discovered at Kealia Beach entangled in fishing net, and scores of marine mammals have endured similar inflictions over the years.
It is truly an honor to work with Barbara,” says Surfrider Foundation’s Gordon LaBedz. “Her program, Net Patrol, has saved countless numbers of defenseless animals. These nets are designed to be killing machines. They have no place on our beaches. Barbara is a true hero.”
Some nets sit on beaches for years, but one large storm can carry them back out to sea, where they pose a threat to not only the reef system, but to all life in the ocean.
The nets largely gravitate toward Eastside beaches like Kealia and Moloaa, and it is unclear from where exactly they originate. What is clear, however, is that they need to be expunged as quickly as possible, and Wiedner is doing everything she can to help make that happen.
“It’s not a job, it’s a passion,” she says about her voluntary work.
Wiedner has been a member of the environmental organization Surfrider Foundation since residing in California. But it wasn’t until she moved to Kaua’i that she became a regular volunteer and in 2006 even helped form the Kaua’i chapter of the nonprofit.
“Starting a new chapter was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been involved with,” says Wiedner.
By 2007, the avid surfer and ocean lover launched Net Patrol. Her idea to arrange regular net removals was born after she participated in a Surfrider Foundation beach cleanup, where a large fishing net was discovered that could not be removed without a team effort.
The first load of nets collected by the organization was eventually discarded at the Kekaha landfill.
“But that’s a precious resource without a lot of room in there,” says Wiedner.
After a few months, Wiedner learned about a trash-to-electricity program in which nets could be shipped to Oahu via Matson and burned at the H-Power facility for electricity. The primary shipment consisted of 4 tons of net in 2009 and by 2012, a shipment of 9 tons was delivered.
While more beneficial than disposing the nets at the Westside landfill, however, Wiedner felt there had to be a better method.
“We wanted people to reuse them before we ship them,” she explains. “The carbon footprint of all that it takes to get them to Oahu is a lot, and it’s not a very clean energy.”
Now, all nets are taken to Restore Kaua’i in Kapaa, where they are available for public use Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The nets can be repurposed in a wide variety of ways, such as for use in gardening or creating fences and railings.
Though Wiedner stays busy enough with Net Patrol, she also is involved in organizing Surfrider’s monthly beach cleanups around the island. In fact, the local chapter was recently awarded a grant of $25,000 (the largest amount given to any environmental group from the four main Hawaiian islands) from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor and remove marine debris. The money will be used to help fund the tuition of two student interns or fellows from Kaua’i Community College, who will monitor marine debris on beaches and coordinate monthly beach cleanups and net removals. Wiedner will continue to serve as a liaison to the public and will supervise the two students.
Surfrider also will use the funding for a variety of other elements, such as truck rentals and spreading awareness about the program through advertising. The all-volunteer organization will need all the help it can get, especially as debris originating from Japan’s tsunami continues to make its way to the island.
The most challenging factor of Wiedner’s service is that there appears to be no end, especially with fishing nets, that are deemed an international issue. Even if legislation were to pass, such as placing tags on all nets so that their original source is known, it would not translate to other countries from which the nets have come.
Still, Wiedner tries not to let the overwhelming situation bring her down. She loves to spend her time in the water, and also enjoys hiking, especially Hoopii Falls trail, and being with her friends, including beau Larry Richardson of the Sea Scouts.
Wiedner moved to the island 12 years ago after visiting regularly for several years. Born and raised in San Francisco, Wiedner majored in physical education at San Diego State University, was a special education teacher for 13 years and worked in social services for the state of California for 20 years.
She still works with kids today and tutors, including a college student who suffered a traumatic brain injury. Wiedner also is a licensed Realtor, and is owner and operator of Mermaid Cleaning Service.
It is remarkable that she finds as much time as she does to volunteer.
“She is a great, happy lady who loves Kaua’i and the ocean so much that she gives lots of her time to keep it as wonderful as it is,” says Surfrider Foundation’s Carl Berg, who leads the organization’s Blue Water Task Force that regularly checks the bacterial levels and safety of water across the island. “It is a real pleasure to work with her on all the Surfrider activities.
“Barbara is the most wonderful example of what Surfrider is about.”
Robert Zelkovsky, Surfrider Foundation Kaua’i chapter chairman, agrees. “Her love and respect for the ocean is very contagious,” he says. “She works and plays hard in the ocean. No matter how busy her schedule is, Barbara will find time to organize a beach cleanup or net patrol, and also to go for a swim or a surf. Surfrider Kaua’i owes a lot to Barbara and her dedication to the health of our ocean. Every organization needs volunteers like Barbara.”
To report discarded nets, call or text Wiedner at 635-2593.
Visit kauai.surfrider.org for more information.