NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

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Marine Debris in New York City’s Backyard

By: Lisa Scheppke, Guest Blogger

When people think about New York City, a rich and diverse wildlife habitat is not usually what comes to mind. However, NYC is home to Jamaica Bay, a unique intact estuarine ecosystem consisting of 25,000 acres of salt marshes, intertidal flats and upland forests. 330 species of birds, 70 species of butterflies and over 100 species of finfish, breed, spend the winter in, or use the area as a vital migratory stopover. Situated in both Brooklyn and Queens, Jamaica Bay has an abundance of shellfish and benthic fauna and is visited by the federally-listed endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the federally-listed threatened loggerhead turtle and the largest population of diamondback terrapins in the Northeast. Fishermen, boaters, birders, bicyclists and nature lovers come from across the five boroughs and beyond to enjoy this incredible natural resource.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the ecology of the bay has faced challenges from several factors, including dumping, over-development, pollution and a lack of awareness of its rich resources. As a result, the bay’s valuable tidal salt marshes are declining at an alarming rate. In addition to the pre-existing marine debris issues in Jamaica Bay, Hurricane Sandy brought up to six feet of flooding throughout the surrounding communities, along with an overwhelming amount of large marine debris, including boats, docks, pilings and construction debris. Pollutants from derelict vessels were released into the water and marshes and essential aquatic habitats were damaged by large marine debris compacting sediments and smothering vegetation.

Public awareness is on the rise, however, and community groups and citizens have banded together to advocate for the protection and restoration of the bay. Educational outreach and an open dialogue with the community have been key components of our large marine debris removal project, Jamaica Bay Clean Sweep. With generous support from the NOAA Restoration Center and the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the American Littoral Society spearheaded the removal of 60 items of large marine debris in the Floyd Bennett Field area of Jamaica Bay over the last two years. Thirty-six metric tons were disposed of with the assistance of the Department of Sanitation and the National Park Service.

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Public engagement has been critical to the success of this project, with 840 dedicated volunteers contributing 4,658 hours of their time to remove 270 cubic yards of smaller debris from the shorelines of the bay. Community presentations and the distribution of informational brochures have enlightened the public about safe and legal disposal alternatives for unwanted boats.

The American Littoral Society is currently continuing its public engagement and restoration efforts by removing debris from the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge with support from NOAA  in partnership with Restore America’s Estuaries.

Lisa Scheppke is the Habitat Restoration Project Coordinator for the American Littoral Society. Cathy Sohn, Director of External Affairs for the American Littoral Society, contributed.


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Join in Spring Cleaning this April

By: NOAA Marine Debris Program staff


April is Earth Month, so what better way to celebrate than helping out our oceans and Great Lakes with spring cleaning? Organizations across the country are holding coastal cleanups this month, so come one, come all, and get involved. For example, our staff in the mid-Atlantic will join The Alice Ferguson Foundation  on April 5 in the 26th Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup, an effort that has engaged over 128,000 volunteers and removed 6.5 million pounds of trash over the last twenty-five years.

Last year, 14,586 volunteers at 633 sites collected 624,000 lbs. of debris in Washington, DC, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, including:

-          193,800 beverage containers

-          27,400 cigarette butts

-          27,200 plastic bags

-          1,314 tires

We in the NOAA Marine Debris Program encourage you to go to these cleanups and see first-hand the impact marine debris has on our coasts. We’ve highlighted a few across the country on our website. We can also help you find a cleanup  near you or give you tips on how to start your own. Just email us at

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Restoring Cultural Heritage at Indian Island

By: Sherry Lippiatt

It was a devastating and defining event in the history of the indigenous Wiyot people. Under the cover of darkness on February 26, 1860, a massacre, by non-native settlers claimed 200 Wiyot at the Indian Island village of Tuluwat in Humboldt Bay, California. In the 150 years since the massacre, Tuluwat has been subsequently been diked and drained for agricultural use, used as a dry-dock boat facility, subjected to decades of toxic chemical and waste disposal, and disturbed by amateur archaeological investigations. In 2000, the Wiyot purchased back the 1.5 acre site at Tuluwat, and four years later, the city of Eureka gave the tribe another 60 acres of Indian Island.

What does this have to do with marine debris? Since recovering ownership of this sacred site, the tribe has overseen significant cleanup and restoration efforts as part of the Indian Island Cultural and Environmental Restoration Project (IICERP). Last year, through NOAA’s Restoration Center community-based marine debris removal program, the Wiyot received funding to remove the last remnant debris at Tuluwat. With NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) support, large marine railways, dock pilings, and pieces of dilapidated buildings will be removed. The project site sits atop an ancient midden – or shell mound – full of remnants of meals, tools, and ceremonies, as well as many burial sites. The surrounding vast area of salt marsh is not only a sacred place with religious and cultural significance to the Wiyot, but it is home to ecologically important fish habitat and eel grass beds. The MDP is pleased to have this opportunity to support the Wiyot and help restore this special place.

The ultimate goal of the IICERP is to restore the annual World Renewal Ceremony on Indian Island. This year, for the first time in more than 150 years, the Wiyot will dance at Tuluwat from March 28-30 to celebrate new beginnings and the healing process of not only the island, but the tribe itself. Soon after the ceremony, contractors will begin removing of some of the last remaining debris, restoring the geographic and ceremonial center of the Wiyot universe.


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Not Your Average Homework: High School Students Help Clean Up Tsunami Debris in Alaska

By Margot O’Connell, Guest Blogger

Students from Pacific High School in Sitka, Alaska have teamed up with the marine debris crew at the Sitka Sound Science Center to work as part of our NOAA tsunami marine debris community cleanup project. During their student orientation camping trip in September, we took them out to a beach on Biorka Island near Sitka, where they surveyed the shoreline using the NOAA marine debris protocol and cleaned up everything that they found.

The people of Japan experienced a great human tragedy, and in a way, many of the students at this alternative high school have found that picking up tsunami debris is a metaphor for their own lives. They have faced challenges such as homelessness, family problems, addiction, and the death of a fellow student this year. Basically, they’re more than familiar with the concept of “picking up the pieces” and are using this experience as basis for understanding the magnitude of Japan’s tragedy.

The students spent the rest of their camping trip discussing what that they found and what the tsunami meant for the people of Japan, as well as how the aftermath of the tsunami debris is affecting the rest of the world (in addition to the usual talk of homework and plans for the coming year).

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The trip was a great success, and the kids from Pacific High decided that they didn’t want to stop there. They are continuing to work with the Sitka Sound Science Center and plan on doing another cleanup next September and comparing their results. With the help of their art teacher Heather Bauscher, they have also designed and built an art installation made out of the debris they collected to adorn the halls of their brand new school building. The installation pays tribute to the victims of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Lisa Busch, the director of SSSC, will help them put together a radio segment about the work that they have done, which will air on Alaska Public Radio. The project has been an amazing experience so far for both the students and the Sitka Sound Science Center crew. We look forward to seeing all the great work that these kids will do over the coming year!

Margot O’Connell is the Sitka Sound Science Center’s marine debris coordinator.

Sitka Sound Science Center Marine Debris Coordinator. – See more at:

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By: Jeff Kirschner, Guest Blogger

I was pushing my two kids in a double-stroller through the Oakland hills in California, and as we rolled alongside a winding creek, my daughter noticed a plastic tub of kitty litter in the water.

“Daddeeeeee,” she said in a puzzled voice. “That doesn’t go there.”

Sure, I’d seen litter before. But that moment, witnessed through a child’s eyes, opened mine. I began to notice litter everywhere: sidewalks, streets, and playgrounds. And I live in the San Francisco Bay area, a place that prides itself on being eco-conscious and environmentally friendly.

Then I remembered a lesson I learned as a kid at summer camp. Just before our parents visited, our camp director would instruct each of us to pick up five pieces of trash. 200 kids x 5 pieces per kid = a cleaner camp.

So why not apply that same crowd-sourced model to the entire planet? And leverage technology to do it.

That’s when Litterati was born. The vision is a litter-free world. Here’s how it works.

1. Find a piece of litter.

2. Photograph it with Instagram.

3. Add the hashtag “#litterati”

4. Throw away the litter.

At first it was just me. Each day I’d photograph 10 pieces of litter. I found that Instagram’s artistic element made finding trash rather enjoyable. Dare I say, some of the photos are even beautiful. I also realized that I was documenting my personal impact on cleaning the earth.

Pretty soon, more folks began participating and started contributing to the Digital Landfill – a photo gallery of all the litter that had been picked up and properly disposed of or recycled. Coffee cups, soda cans, plastic bags, and worse. A small, yet ever-growing community had quickly gathered a sizable haul.

The Morning Paper. November 2013.

The Morning Paper. Credit:, November 2013.

And with GPS, images of the picked-up litter appear on a global map displaying how we are truly all connected.

Trends began to emerge, revealing which items and brands all too often end up as litter. It also became evident which neighborhoods get littered again and again.

It’s powerful information that could lead to change. After all, people don’t want their community littered. A solution could be as simple as a well-placed trash can. Certainly businesses don’t want their brands synonymous with litter – maybe there are changes they could make.

First, it’s our turn. Look for litter, snap a photo, and become part of the solution.

Join the Litterati. Our planet will thank you.

 Jeff Kirschner is the founder of Litterati, a crowd-sourcing effort to build a photo database of litter and raise awareness for a clean planet. 


Where Are We Now? Tsunami Debris Three Years Later

By: Nancy Wallace, Marine Debris Program Director

Last month, six high school students from California visited Rikuzentakata, a city in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture that was nearly destroyed three years ago today by a massive earthquake and tsunami. On the agenda was a visit to Takata High School and its 20-foot boat, now home again after several years and a long voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

The boat, which Takata High School used for marine science lessons, washed away during the tsunami and landed in Crescent City, California in April 2013. The Del Norte High School students, with the help of their teachers, restored the boat and worked alongside Del Norte County and various groups to return it to Japan.

This tremendous story – a bright spot in an on-going human tragedy – is about friendship, cooperation, and bonds across an enormous ocean. For us in the NOAA Marine Debris Program, it’s also a reflection of the partnerships that have formed between responders here in the U.S. and our remarkable counterparts in Japan, as we enter the third year of addressing debris items that wash ashore.

Where are we now?

On these major commemorative days, we’re often asked the big questions. “What is happening with the debris?” and “Was this what you expected?” Here’s what we know:

Debris from the tsunami is still washing ashore in the United States, but the amount is less than what we saw in previous years. Its arrival is widely scattered and unpredictable, in terms of what, when, and where, as it has been since the first piece of confirmed debris – a 170-foot squid vessel – showed up off the coast of British Columbia in March 2012.

We expect this pattern to continue, until the debris eventually blends in with the marine debris that plagues our ocean every day. The remaining tsunami debris is not in a mass, so the dispersed items could swirl around with currents for years before reaching land. Or, they could sink, as much of it has likely already done.

Over the past several years, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia have all seen varying amounts and types of debris gradually wash ashore. In some cases, near-identical pieces of debris washed up in different states months apart. NOAA has received nearly 2,000 debris reports to our email address, and as of today, we have confirmed 41 of those items to be tsunami debris, including vessels, buoys, sports balls, signs, canisters, floating piers, and a motorcycle in a shipping container. While there is likely much more tsunami debris out there, it’s very difficult to tell where debris comes from without unique identifying information. If a piece of debris is suspected to be from the tsunami, NOAA works with the Japanese government to identify these items if possible.

As to whether or not this is what we expected, it’s safe to say yes – for the most part. I wrote two years ago, when we were first faced with this unprecedented situation, that we believed highly buoyant items would be the most likely to survive a trip across the ocean. That’s what we have seen. Since we did not know exactly what those items were or where they were, we prepared for all scenarios along with our state partners.

Bonds forged for the future

What we perhaps did not realize, as we geared up our initial response, was how deep the partnerships between all stakeholders would become. As months went by and debris washed up piece by piece, the scenarios and plans turned to real action. The action became more routine and the coordination more efficient. What has happened, in the three years we have worked on this issue, is that we now have a solid network of marine debris responders in our Pacific states.

Marine debris has always been a hot issue in this region, and groups from every corner of every state have worked on keeping debris out of the ocean for decades. This is the foundation for response when we experience significant, severe marine debris events from natural disasters. Federal partners, state and local agencies, tribes, academics, and even beachgoers have had a place in it. The unprecedented is now precedent.

The Government of Japan and its consulates have been key partners, and we are grateful for the support they have lent us, even as they work to rebuild what was lost. NOAA alone does not have the resources to launch a large-scale removal effort, but with the generous support of Japan, the cleanup can continue. The friendship and cooperation we have established will certainly play a role down the road as we continue to examine the larger marine debris issue.

As the students from Del Norte High School found out, the ocean does not separate us from each other – it connects us – and that can be an advantage.  The NOAA Marine Debris Program will continue to leverage this strong network and apply lessons learned as we move forward in the years to come.

For more information about tsunami debris, please visit

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This Ain’t Our First (Crab Trap) Rodeo

By: Kim Albins

Louisiana’s 2014 Derelict Crab Trap Rodeo, an effort to round up derelict and abandoned crab traps, was a success!

According to Marty Bourgeois of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the weather for this year’s Louisiana Crab Trap Rodeo could not have been better. The warm temperatures and calm sea conditions made it possible for volunteers to remove 1,051 traps during this annual single-day clean-up event.  Over 100 volunteers and 16 boats participated in this year’s rodeo, which was held in Terrebonne Basin on February 15, 2014.  In addition to the derelict crab traps, volunteers also removed tires, a gill net, and trawl net webbing.  Keep posted on upcoming Louisiana Crab Trap Rodeos at

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Marine Debris Action in the Great Lakes

By: Sarah Opfer

Great Lakes Day is this week in Washington, D.C., an annual event when stakeholders from the region come to the nation’s capital to talk about Great Lakes issues and priorities for protecting them. Here at NOAA, we’ve been hard at work developing the first-ever marine debris action plan for the Lakes, so this seems like an appropriate time to talk about how marine debris is impacting these enormous, salt-free natural resources.

The major issues we’ve identified in the Great Lakes are land-based debris (litter), abandoned monofilament fishing line, and sawmill debris from historic sawmills. You also may have heard in the news recently that a study by a team of researchers from 5 Gyres and SUNY Fredonia found high concentrations of microplastics, primarily “microbeads” from cosmetics, in the Great Lakes.

In 2012, volunteers with the Adopt-a-Beach™ program in the Great Lakes collected 42,351 pounds of trash and other debris from the coastal areas they visited. This debris poses very real entanglement or ingestion threats to the seagulls, great blue heron, walleye, and perch that live in and depend on the lakes. The Lakes are also a popular recreation and tourist destination and sustain an approximate $4 billion recreational fishing industry – that means marine debris puts the economy at risk, too.

By definition, the word “marine” refers to the sea, so it’s not surprising that there’s some confusion when we talk about marine debris and the Great Lakes. Let’s clear up this collective “huh?” before we move on:

The legal, written-into-law definition of marine debris is, “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.” So while we know that the Great Lakes are not “marine,” this is the term we operate under. Semantics aside, the debris problem in the Lakes is still very real, and we are working toward solutions every day.

Last month, the NOAA Marine Debris Program wrapped up its final workshop to develop a plan to address litter and other land-based debris, along with partners Alliance for the Great Lakes and Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve. This action-oriented plan brings federal, state, and local stakeholders together under common goals to keep this debris out of the Great Lakes. The plan is still a draft, but we’ll be working hard over the next few months to finalize all the input and get started on the actions.

We’ll be sure to keep you in the loop, but in the meantime, on these Great Lakes Days, recommit to reducing your waste, reusing what you can, and recycling. Keep the Great Lakes clean and healthy.


Congratulations, 2014 Art Contest Winners

We are proud to present the winners of our 2014 Keep the Sea Free of Debris! art contest. These 13 works of art, which we chose from hundreds of submissions, will be featured in our 2015 Marine Debris Calendar later this year.

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Each year, the NOAA Marine Debris Program holds the Keep the Sea Free of Debris! art contest to help raise awareness among K-8 students about one of the most significant problems our oceans face today. The resulting calendar, with the winning artwork, will help remind us every day how important it is for us to be responsible stewards of the ocean.

Thank you to all the students and schools that participated in this year’s contest!


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