Marine debris threatens Northwestern Hawaiian Islands' (NWHI) coral reef ecosystems. Debris, a contaminant, entangles and kills endangered Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi), coral, and other wildlife. We describe a novel multi-agency effort using divers to systematically survey and remove derelict fishing gear from two NWHI in 1999. 14 t of derelict fishing gear were removed and debris distribution, density, type and fouling level documented at Lisianski Island and Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Reef debris density ranged from 3.4 to 62.2 items/km2. Trawl netting was the most frequent debris type encountered (88%) and represented the greatest debris component recovered by weight (35%), followed by monofilament gillnet (34%), and maritime line (23%). Most debris recovered, 72%, had light or no fouling, suggesting debris may have short oceanic circulation histories. Our study demonstrates that derelict fishing gear poses a persistent threat to the coral reef ecosystems of the Hawaiian Archipelago.