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Debris Removal at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge: Midway Through the Mission

By: Ryan Tabata and Rhonda Suka, Guest Bloggers and Scientists with the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program

 The NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) Coral Reef Ecosystem Program’s (CREP) removal mission in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is already half way through! The removal team has finished its work at Midway Atoll and is headed to Kure Atoll for the next phase of the effort. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for daily updates on this effort, as well as CREP’s interactive daily map.

A beautiful white sand beach with two boats full of bags of debris offshore.

The team is removing marine debris from Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Photo Credit: NOAA PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Program)

We were greeted by Bonin Petrels flying in the night like shooting stars and were shuttled in stretch limo golf carts to our rooms. The following morning, a brilliant orange sunrise unveiled all that is Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The air was dense with the calls of millions of nesting seabirds; the fuzzy brown Laysan Albatross chicks were begging for food between the elaborate dances of the adult birds.

This year, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is one of the locations where the NOAA CREP has sent their marine debris team to remove tens of thousands of pounds of debris, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the NOAA Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Our first day began with a Laysan Albatross slalom course on bicycles. We dodged the chicks on the ground as swooping adults practiced their crash landing techniques. As we arrived at the boat ramp, we found a cute monk seal snoozing, so we adjusted our plans and launched the boat in an alternate location. Being in a National Wildlife Refuge means we have to change our plans for the sleeping natives. Being so immersed with the local wildlife can have its perks though, and a large pod of spinner dolphins would occasionally play alongside our boat and escort us out of the harbor.

Upon arriving on the powdery white sand beaches, we found fishing nets, floats, and an assortment of plastics that had preceded our arrival. Our hearts sank as we painstakingly removed each piece of debris that had washed ashore on this remote island. Although our muscles ached and faces and lips got charred from the sun, our hearts lightened with each 50 pound bag and 500 pound net that was removed, knowing that we were fortunate enough to find and remove these wildlife entanglement hazards before more damage was caused.

Have you ever lost a shoe, an umbrella, or a baseball? Maybe a water bottle, swim fins, or even a bowling ball? They all float and can all end up on shorelines in faraway places. Midway is 1,300 miles from the nearest city (Honolulu) and has collected debris from across the globe. The most harmful debris are the fishing nets that wash up on the shorelines because they are great at catching monk seals, turtles, sea birds, and sharks. These indiscriminate killers can range from hand-sized fragments to behemoths weighing over 20,000 pounds!

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During our eight days of marine debris removal on the beaches of Midway, we collected 15,206 pounds of debris. More than half of that weight was from derelict fishing gear. While the animals may not know why we are stealthily working around them, we are committed to our work, knowing that we can make a difference for the nesting seabirds and 1,300 critically endangered monk seals. Last week we left Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Our next stops include various islands in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to continue our mission. We can all do our part and we hope we have inspired you to make a difference.

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Lobster Trap Debris in the Florida Keys: A Look Back

The NOAA Marine Debris Program 10 year anniversary identity marker.


Over the years of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, there have been many efforts around the country to rid our waters and shores of marine debris. As part of our ten-year anniversary celebration, let’s take a look back at one of those efforts in our Southeast region.


Derelict fishing gear can cause lots of problems, including damaging important and sensitive habitats, ghost fishing, and posing hazards to navigation. Unfortunately, derelict commercial lobster and crab traps are a prominent type of marine debris in the Florida Keys.

Back in 2007, the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s (NCCOS) Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research (CCFHR), funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, partnered with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to research this issue. Using towed-diver surveys, they identified and counted trap debris as well as any other marine debris they encountered in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

A researcher surveys derelict traps during a towed diver survey.

A researcher surveys derelict traps during a towed diver survey. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

From these surveys, they found 1,408 marine debris items, almost 70 percent of which were trap-related debris! This included both ghost traps (which continue to actively fish, trapping and killing marine animals) and non-fishing traps in various stages of degradation. From their data, they estimated that over 85,000 ghost traps and over a million non-fishing traps could be found in the waters of the Florida Keys at that time. They also determined that winds likely play a role in moving derelict traps, since the surveyed trap debris was found in highest densities in coral reef habitats (a place not commonly targeted by fishermen).

Research like this is an important part in the fight against marine debris. This project helps us to understand where trap debris accumulates and thus allows us to more effectively focus removal efforts. For more information on this project, check out this old blog post, the scientific paper published from the study, and the Marine Debris Clearinghouse. For more on research projects supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, check out our website.

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A New Study Looks at Derelict Traps in the Florida Keys

Research is an important part of our fight against marine debris, as it allows us to learn more about the topic and be better able to target and address it in the future. Thanks to a new study by our very own Chief Scientist, Amy Uhrin, we now know a little more about derelict lobster traps and how they impact habitat in the Florida Keys. Read all about it and get the link to the scientific paper in this NOAA Response and Restoration blog post.

A derelict lobster trap frame with bio-fouling (most of the side slats are missing) sits on mixed seagrass and hard-bottom habitat.

Check out the blog post on NOAA’s Response and Restoration blog for a detailed look at this exciting study. Here, a derelict lobster trap frame with bio-fouling (most of the side slats are missing) sits on mixed seagrass and hard-bottom habitat. (NOAA)

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Exciting Things Are Happening in the Southeast!

What do microplastics, nesting sea turtles, derelict crab trap floats, local fishermen, and whale guts have in common? They’re all part of some of the exciting projects going on in the Southeast region to fight marine debris! There’s lots going on in the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s (MDP) Southeast region right now, check out a quick glimpse at some of these projects supported by the MDP:

Starting down in Florida, Sea Grant is creating a network of citizen scientists to test water samples for microplastics and using that information to educate Floridians about plastic debris. Check out this project here.

The Coastal Cleanup Corporation is also working to improve the marine debris issue in Florida by removing marine debris from sea turtle nesting beaches, efforts that have been found to make a big difference in the past! Check out this project here.

Moving up the coast to South Carolina, the Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), with the support of Fishing for Energy partners, is working to prevent the creation of derelict crab pots by field testing some sweet float rigging designs and educating recreational boaters about how to avoid trap lines. Check out this project here.

Continuing on to North Carolina, the North Carolina Coastal Federation is working with local fishermen and other partners to implement a crab pot recovery program, with the goal of creating a self-sustaining, long-term, fishermen-led program! Check out this project here.

The University of North Carolina Wilmington is also focusing on marine debris in North Carolina by educating students about the subject using hands-on lessons inside a life-sized inflatable whale classroom! Yes, they are going inside an inflatable whale, checking out its guts, and discussing how marine debris impacts animals. Check out this project here.

So many exciting things are happening in the Southeast region this year! Stay tuned to the NOAA Marine Debris Program website and this blog for updates on projects in this region and throughout the country.

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Let’s Celebrate Earth Day!

Today is Earth Day and what better time to think about the impact we each have on our planet?

We’ve been talking about garbage patches this week and what we can do to fight them. The ongoing influx of marine debris into these garbage patches is what we need to address. To do this, we can each think about how we personally contribute to environmental problems like marine debris, take steps to prevent it, and get involved in cleaning up the debris that litters our communities and shores.

Volunteers sort through the sand to find debris. (Photo Credit: SOLVE)

Celebrate Earth Day by participating in a cleanup event! (Photo Credit: SOLVE)

This Earth Day, celebrate our planet by getting involved in a cleanup near you! There are countless opportunities around the country both today and this weekend to get involved in cleaning our shores and fighting marine debris. Here’s a small sampling of events you can get involved in this Earth Day:

Friday, April 22nd:

Host: Wells Reserve; Where: Laudholm, ME

Saturday, April 23rd:

Host: Alliance for the Great Lakes; Where: Memorial Drive Wayside Beach – North, Two Rivers, WI

Host: Alliance for the Great Lakes; Where: Point Gratiot Beach, Dunkirk, NY

Host: Anacostia Watershed Society; Where: Anacostia Watershed, MD & Washington DC

Host: CoastSavers; Where: Various locations, WA

Host: Concerned Citizens of Montauk; Where: Montauk, NY

Host: Grassroots Garbage Gang; Where: Long Beach Peninsula, WA

Host: Malama Na `Apapa (email for more info); Where: Koloa Landing, HI

Host: Partnership for Providence Parks; Where: Providence, RI

Host: Seacoast Science Center; Where: Rye, NH

Host: SOLVE; Where: Tillamook Bay, Bay City, OR

Host: Texas Adopt-a-Beach ; Where: Various locations, TX

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The Truth About Garbage Patches

You’ve likely heard the term “garbage patch” many times and it’s possible that this is what comes to mind:

A thick mass of marine debris floating at the surface of the water.

A thick, floating mass of marine debris is what most people picture when they think of the garbage patch. However, this is actually pretty inaccurate. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Although this is what most people picture when they think of a “garbage patch,” that’s actually pretty inaccurate. Let’s set the record straight and get to the truth about garbage patches.

First off, garbage patches have been wildly misrepresented in the media in the past, causing confusion on the subject and leading many to believe that there is a large “island of trash” in the Pacific Ocean—at least the size of Texas!— that you can walk around on. This is extremely far from reality.

To start, when people talk about “the garbage patch,” they are usually referring to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean—one of many garbage patches located throughout our global ocean. These garbage patches are formed as a result of rotating ocean currents called “gyres,” which pull debris into their center, creating areas with higher concentrations of marine debris. Because currents like these are dynamic, the size of these concentrated areas is constantly changing, making it extremely difficult to estimate the size of garbage patches. To learn more about ocean currents and the way they move debris, check out our webpage on how debris accumulates.

A diagram of ocean currents and their relative location in relation to garbage patches.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the “Subtropical Convergence Zone,” as seen in this diagram, is one of many garbage patches located throughout our global ocean. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Secondly, there is no “island of trash” and you definitely can’t walk on the garbage patch. In reality, garbage patches are made up of lots of types of debris. Although you may find larger debris items floating on the surface of the water such as plastic bottles or derelict fishing nets, the majority of debris found in garbage patches is microplastics. These small plastic pieces (less than 5mm in size) are often formed from larger plastic that has broken down into smaller and smaller fragments due to exposure to the elements (plastic never truly breaks down, it just breaks into ever-smaller pieces), but can also come from products that include plastic manufactured at that size (microbeads) or from synthetic fabric that has gone through the washing machine (microfibers).

Not only is the majority of garbage patch debris extremely small, but it’s also not all located on the surface. Debris is found on the surface, throughout the water column, and all the way down to the seafloor. You can picture it more like pepper flakes swirling around in soup rather than a floating mass at the top. For these reasons, it’s actually possible to sail through a garbage patch (yes, even the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) and not even realize it!

A clean-looking, open ocean.

It’s possible to sail right through a garbage patch without even realizing it! (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Even though the above scene looks alright, it actually includes high concentrations of marine debris. This debris, even the small stuff, can have many harmful impacts on us and our environment. The question that usually comes up next is “why can’t we just go and clean up the garbage patch?!” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Open ocean cleanups are extremely difficult. Logistically, the large size and dynamic nature of the garbage patches, as well as the fact that they include debris all the way from the surface to the seafloor, makes this type of cleanup impractical, extremely costly, and really, almost impossible. Not only are there logistical concerns, but the abundance of marine life that calls these areas home can be substantially negatively impacted. We have to think, “Are we doing more harm than good?”

Because of the difficulties of directly cleaning up garbage patches, we instead focus on cleaning up our shorelines and on prevention, which is the highest priority. If we don’t stop marine debris at its source, we’ll just be cleaning it up forever! We can each contribute to these efforts by remembering to reuse, reduce, and recycle. If we each worked to reduce our impact, think what a difference we would make!

For more information on garbage patches, check out our website. You may also be interested in some of our other blog posts on the subject (check out this post and this post). In addition, stay tuned to our social media this week as we continue to talk about the garbage patch and highlight some of the cool products we have to help you learn all about it!

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NOAA’s 2016 Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Removal Mission Sets Sail

Every year, multiple NOAA offices collaborate to support a marine debris removal effort in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), located in the remote and mostly uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Due to the PMNM’s location in relation to the North Pacific Gyre and ocean currents, this area is often highly afflicted with marine debris and these efforts are greatly needed. This year, the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) Coral Reef Ecosystem Program of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the NOAA Marine Debris Program, and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries have organized and supported an effort to clean Midway, Kure, and Pearl and Hermes Atolls, Lisianski and Laysan Islands, and the French Frigate Shoals. The 2016 mission launched on Tuesday, April 12th, and will work to remove marine debris for a month, until the mission ends on May 13th. Stay tuned to our blog for details about the trip, as well as the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program’s interactive daily map, and check out our social media, where you can find daily updates on this exciting effort!

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