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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:


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.


Containers Overboard

By: Dianna Parker

A Maersk container vessel off the coast of France reportedly lost hundreds of containers in the ocean on February 14 when it encountered high winds and 30-foot waves. Maersk says 85 percent of the containers were empty and told news reporters that the others housed non-hazardous dry goods, including frozen meat.

When containers spill, it’s an interesting reminder that there are many, many sources and types of marine debris. For the most part, it is almost impossible to tell exactly where marine debris originated. No one can say for certain if one plastic bottle on a beach came from a careless sunbather, from an overflowing trash can, or from a fisherman sailing off the coast. In some cases, regular monitoring can help identify local sources if shoreline surveyors see the same type of debris over and over again.

There are those occasions when we can tell almost immediately, and often times they involve container spills. The containers themselves become marine debris (and a hazard to navigation, if they don’t sink to the sea floor). Sometimes the goods inside are so bizarre or unique that they are traceable when we find them, as is the case with sports-themed fly swatters that litter some Alaska coasts. Other notable spills of the past have involved rubber ducks, sneakers, and bags of chips. It’s hard to say whether we’ll ever see the result of this recent spill on beaches, but if frozen meat (or more realistically, the packaging) washes ashore, it’s a safe bet that we’ll know why.

UPDATE – An interesting question: What happens to the containers that sink? We’re reminded that scientists at NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary spent a week last December finding out when they sent an underwater robot 4,000 feet down to check out a container that sank in 2004. They made some interesting discoveries! Check out their photos and mission logs.


What Does $41 million buy in CA?

By: Sherry Lippiatt

At any given time, the California State Legislature typically has a number of proposed bills that aim to address the marine debris issue. One of them, introduced last month by California Assemblymember Mark Stone, would place a $500 fine on the sale of any single-use cigarette filters, or cigarette butts. Cigarette butts are one of the most common marine debris items; over 25 years of the Ocean Conservancy’s one-day annual International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers picked up 52.9 million cigarette butts.

The intent of my post is not to debate the policy itself (or whether or not it will pass). I want to point out a statistic slipped into the bill. According to Stone, the California Department of Transportation estimates that the cost to cleanup cigarettes on roadways in the state is $41 million annually. Let’s repeat that: cleaning up cigarette butts alone costs California an estimated $41 million per year.

Under current CA laws, littering from your vehicle can result in a $1,000 fine and a requirement to spend eight hours cleaning up trash, but it’s clear that this litter is still an issue. Regardless of whether or not you agree with this bill’s approach, preventing cigarette butt litter is going to require creative solutions, increased awareness, and the collective effort of individual consumers, businesses, industry, and policy makers.


Alaska’s Gyre Exhibit Opens This Weekend

By: Asma Mahdi

Gyre: The Plastic Ocean, an innovative and hands-on exhibit on marine debris, opens this weekend at the Anchorage Museum. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud partner on the Gyre project, which brings perspective to the global marine debris problem through art and science. It examines the complex relationship between humans, the ocean, and a culture of consumption, all the way down to how debris affects the pristine Alaska wilderness.

The exhibit takes a close look at the evolution of plastics from its use to advance technology, such as transportation, to its use in everyday disposable items, such as single-use water bottles. The exhibit tells a global marine debris story through the work of artists from around the world. It includes a National Geographic film, documentary photography, hands-on activities, and findings and trash gathered during a 2013 scientific expedition to study marine debris in Alaska.

The exhibit is on view February 7 through September 6 at the Anchorage Museum. It will be repackaged for travel around the United States, but there is no set schedule at this time. In the meantime, here are glimpses of art pieces from this extraordinary exhibit:

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