NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

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First-Ever Great Lakes Marine Debris Action Plan Released

By: Sarah Lowe

Last year, the Great Lakes made headlines after researchers found large concentrations of microplastics in them, in some cases in larger quantities than reported in the ocean. While this was news to some people – marine debris in the Great Lakes?! – plastics and other litter, abandoned vessels, and derelict fishing gear have been a long-standing problem for the world’s largest surface freshwater source.

The Great Lakes community recognized the marine debris issue and has been working for the past three years to tackle it. Today, on their behalf, the NOAA Marine Debris Program unveils the Great Lakes Land-based Marine Debris Action Plan —the first of its kind for the region.

The action plan provides scientists, governments, stakeholders, and decision makers a road map for strategic progress to see that the Great Lakes, its coasts, people, and wildlife are free from the impacts of marine debris. It centers around a mission to combat debris through an increased understanding of the problem, preventative actions, reductions in impacts, education and outreach, and collaborative efforts from diverse groups.

Marine debris is more commonly thought of as an ocean problem, but the Great Lakes region, with its complex system of habitats, wetlands, rivers, and tributaries, is also affected. This plan focuses on debris generated on land, which is often blown, swept, or washed out into the lakes. It comes from littering, dumping in rivers and streams, storm water discharges, poor waste management practices, and industrial losses during production, transportation, and processing.

The plan encompasses work that dedicated partners, including the NOAA Marine Debris Program, will undertake in the next five years (2014-2019).  Due to the complexity of marine debris issues, there is a role for everyone in the implementation of this plan, including the private citizen who picks up litter from our beaches and watersheds; federal, state, county, and local government agencies that are mandated to address the threat of marine debris; private businesses and industry that get involved to serve their communities; and nongovernmental and academic organizations that support a wide range of activities like cleanup, research, education, and outreach.

To view the plan, visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.


Scientists Found Microplastics in Arctic Sea Ice

By: Dianna Parker

Arctic sea ice regularly makes the news because, well, it’s declining to record lows, but this month scientists discovered another alarming observation. According to a new study, microplastics were found frozen in the ice, and there are a lot of them.

Rachel Obbard, an engineering professor at Dartmouth, and her colleagues wrote in the journal Earth’s Future that, “Arctic sea ice from remote locations contains concentrations of microplastics at least two orders of magnitude greater than those that have been previously reported in highly contaminated surface waters, such as those of the Pacific Gyre.”

That leaves us wondering: if Arctic sea ice acts as a “sink” for microplastics, what will happen when the ice melts and what are the potential ecosystem impacts?


Thousands of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs lost each year in derelict pots

By: Donna Marie Bilkovic, Guest blogger

Humans have been fishing the world’s estuaries and oceans for thousands of years. While techniques have changed over time, the availability of synthetic materials, such as plastics, has dramatically improved the efficiency, durability, and lifespan of our fishing gear. An unfortunate byproduct of these improvements, along with intensified fishing, has been an increase in the quantity and persistence of derelict fishing gear in our waters.

Derelict fishing gear possesses a long-list of unsavory traits and can last for multiple years. They damage habitat, trap and kill numerous animals including threatened, endangered, and economically important species, and pose safety hazards.

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The Chesapeake Bay supports several important finfish and shellfish fisheries that use a wide array of fishing gear including crab pots, eel pots, oyster hand tongs, gill nets, fyke nets, and purse seines. Of these, blue crab pots are by far the most abundant form of derelict fishing gear found in Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay. There are close to 800,000 commercial crab pots licensed in the Bay and about 20 percent are estimated to be lost every year. Commercial fishers removed about 32,000 lost and abandoned blue crab pots from 3,300 km2 of Virginia’s Bay bottom over four consecutive winters through the Blue Crab Fishery Resource Disaster Relief Plan, a program funded through NOAA in response to the declaration of a commercial blue crab fishery failure in Chesapeake Bay in 2008. In those pots, 40 species of invertebrates, fish, birds, and mammals and over 31,000 animals were captured. Because pots were recovered during the cold winter months, when most animals are less active or may not be present, we suspect that the total number of species and animals captured in lost pots to be much higher.

Map of the Chesapeake Bay identifying hot spots with high density clusters of lost pots in several general areas including Tangier Island, lower York River, and Eastern Shore tidal creeks.

Map of the Chesapeake Bay identifying hot spots with high density clusters of lost pots in several general areas including Tangier Island, lower York River, and Eastern Shore tidal creeks.

The target species, blue crab, experiences the highest mortality from lost pots. We estimated 900,000 blue crabs are killed each year in derelict pots in Virginia, which could mean a $300,000 potential annual economic loss to the fishery. Blue crabs are not alone, important fishery species also captured and killed were Atlantic croaker, black sea bass, American eel, white perch, and catfish.

It is not all bad news. While the derelict pots were widely distributed in the Bay, there were notable hotspot areas with high density clusters of pots. These areas can be targeted for derelict gear removal and enforcement of existing regulations that require the removal of all gear during the closed fishing season in winter months. Other solutions include better educating vessel operators on derelict gear impacts and gear avoidance techniques and the application of innovative biodegradable escape mechanisms to disarm lost gear and prevent needless mortality. For more information, see our new article in Marine Pollution Bulletin: Derelict fishing gear in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia: Spatial patterns and implications for marine fauna. You can also visit the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s website.

Donna Marie Bilkovic is a Research Assistant Professor at Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Center for Coastal Resources Management.

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It’s a trap!

By: Courtney Arthur

Fishing traps, often used to catch crustaceans such as lobsters and crabs, may be abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded in the marine environment. This type of derelict fishing gear is important to consider due to its widespread nature, persistence for long periods of time, and impacts that include “ghost fishing” and damage to sensitive marine habitats. Since these traps sit on the ocean floor, they are often forgotten about as a type of marine debris.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program took a regional approach in funding derelict trap research in locations across the country. We were interested to know how many traps were out there, if they were “ghost fishing,” and how the traps were impacting habitat and fisheries. Three scientists led studies in Virginia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Florida Keys, and they will share their stories about derelict fishing gear and its impacts here on our blog in the coming weeks.

There’s also a significant amount of trap removal work going on across the country (e.g. North Carolina!), so we’ll also share success stories from partners. To kick us off, here’s some good news we recently heard from Timothy W. Jones, Aquatic Preserve Manager at St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve in Florida:

This spring, the St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve staff removed approximately 640 pounds of marine debris, including 60 derelict crab traps from the St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve in a single day.

Once discarded or lost, a blue crab trap can remain in the environment for over a decade, continuing to trap marine life. Blue crabs, stone crabs, diamondback terrapins, and fish are among the marine life unintentionally captured. The staff discovered a deceased diamondback terrapin in one derelict crab trap, an unfortunate reality when dealing with derelict traps. Fortunately, they also found and returned a mangrove snapper and two blue crabs that were still alive. Once collected, the derelict traps are crushed down and brought back to land for disposal.

The Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve, Florida’s largest aquatic preserve, which protects over 900,000 acres of submerged land, is supported by NOAA’s Coastal Zone Management Program and is home to mullet, sea trout, redfish, shrimp, oysters, scallops, manatee, osprey, dolphins, and sea turtles. Preventing derelict fishing gear from entangling and trapping these valuable species, and keeping their habitat free of degradation and damage is essential to their success.

Stay tuned for more!



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New Journal Article on Plastics in the Marine Environment

By: Courtney Arthur

The NOAA Marine Debris Program recently co-authored a column in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. This edition pulls together perspectives from academia, industry, and government on the topic of plastics in the marine environment.

“The widespread occurrence of plastics in the marine environment has resulted in a range of concerns about potential negative effects, and many suggestions have been made about how best to tackle these problems. Science on the issue is developing rapidly, which prompts us to examine the current state of knowledge from 3 perspectives. Here we consider the extent to which we are able to bridge the gap between the sometimes controversial views on the problem of plastic debris in our environment.”

One main point of agreement across the board was the evolving role of marine plastics in the transfer of persistent organic pollutants to organisms. You can read the full column here:

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MDP Launches New Prevention Partnerships and Research Initiatives

By: Nancy Wallace

Education, outreach, and research are major cornerstones of our program’s efforts to prevent marine debris, one of the biggest threats oceans face today.  That’s why I am proud to announce that the NOAA Marine Debris Program has provided $949,512 in grants to launch 11 new initiatives with groups across the country on projects ranging from curriculum development and teacher workshops, to museum displays, to plastics research.

Eight groups received funding last month to work with the MDP on education and outreach initiatives through our prevention, education, and outreach partnership grants. Three groups received funding to study microplastics as part of our research grant opportunity. They are:

Prevention, Education, and Outreach Partnerships

  • The Sea Research Foundation to educate teen audiences in Connecticut about marine debris and provide opportunities for the teens to share their work on marine debris with peers through the “Teen Marine Debris Initiative.”($20,715)
  • Oregon State University to create a comprehensive marine debris curriculum and hands-on activities for Oregon’s 4th-12th grade students. ($56,880)
  • Anchorage Museum Association to create an exhibit that informs visitors about marine plastics through science and art using marine debris collected off the Alaskan coast. ($65,000)
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation to provide California’s K-12 teachers with an in-depth overview of marine debris problems and solutions, along with tools for integrating marine debris lessons into classrooms through three ocean plastic pollution summits for teachers. ($52,306)
  • Ocean Conservancy to expand the educational and outreach components of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas initiative and increase hands-on experiential learning activities nationwide that advance solutions to marine debris through the Talking Trash and Taking Action campaign. ($100,000)
  • Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean to educate youth on marine debris at schools and dockside locations on the East and West Coasts with camps, museums, community centers and waterfront organizations, using a remotely operated vehicle and STEM-education curriculum and activities. ($50,000)
  • University of Georgia to conduct shoreline surveys and cleanups with students and use the data to educate the general public, students, and teachers in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia on marine debris; the project leads will also develop a traveling museum exhibit. ($63,920)
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to launch a campaign focusing on behavior change, based on 10 years of research, on the environmental impacts of lost traps from South Florida’s lobster fishery. ($49,443)

Research Grants

  • Regents of the University of California, Davis to explore how microplastics contaminated with absorbed chemicals impact species that ingest them, as well as the likelihood of microplastic particles and chemicals to be transferred to a higher trophic level. ($200,000)
  • Sea Education Association to explore how animal behavior influences the ingestion of potentially harmful microplastic particles. ($117,751)
  • Virginia Institute of Marine Science to determine which factors, such as temperature and pH, are important influences on the way chemicals and plastics interact in the environment. ($173,497)

The MDP places a very high value on partnerships. The marine debris problem cannot be solved by any one group or person alone and there is a great deal of innovative and dedicated work going on across the country. That’s why we are so excited to team up with them; our partners in research will help us answer questions about marine debris impacts, and our partners in education can help us make sure those impacts never happen in the first place.

We look forward to seeing how these projects progress over this first year. Stay tuned for in-depth information on each effort, and keep an eye on our website and blog for photos, updates from the project leads, and more.


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