By: Sherry Lippiatt
How do scientists and policy makers figure out if efforts to prevent trash from becoming marine debris are working? Ultimately, to evaluate any campaign, or initiative, or policy, we need to see a change in the amount of debris washing ashore or a decrease in the number of particular items, such as plastic bags, in the marine environment or Great Lakes.
This change can be tricky to detect, given that we need a baseline understanding of how much and what types of debris are out there in the first place. Determining a baseline is not as simple as going to the beach once or twice and looking for trash – it requires going back to the same spot over time and recording data in the exact same way. We also need to know how environmental factors, such as winds and coastal currents, impact the way debris moves and builds up on certain shorelines.
To gather this kind of information, the NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) developed standard techniques for assessing debris on shorelines, on water surfaces, at-sea, and in benthic environments, and the guidelines are now available for the public’s use. They were developed over several years, based on literature reviews, discussions with experts, and field testing by the MDP and contractors.
These techniques are the foundation of the Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project (MD-MAP), the MDP’s nationwide marine debris survey effort. The MDP launched the project into high gear following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, recruiting monitors and establishing over 100 sites on the West Coast and in Hawaii and Alaska.
For shoreline monitoring, the MDP benefited from feedback from the more than 40 partner organizations who have been implementing these protocols over the past couple of years. The MDP also expanded the project to the East Coast with some sites around the Chesapeake Bay, where staff originally tested the protocols. Because the MDP is a national program, these techniques are widely applicable so that we can compare data across regions – and even globally.
Since debris problems aren’t the same in every region, those who upload their data into the program’s shoreline monitoring database can customize data cards to include locally-specific debris items. This way, the monitoring guidelines can be used at the local level to evaluate trends in debris types that might not be relevant at the national scale. For example, if a local group regularly releases blue helium balloons for celebrations, monitoring teams on nearby coasts might often see that specific color and type of balloon and want to record it separately from other balloons found across the country.
While it might take a few years to collect enough data that show real trends, regular surveys following standard techniques can provide a wealth of information to scientists and marine debris advocates alike. We can collect real data that shows whether a cigarette butt initiative is working, or if it needs to change. Or, we can know whether debris washing up on a certain shoreline was just a blip from a storm or if it’s a recurring problem there.
The MDP is committed to working with its dedicated network of partners that are implementing shoreline monitoring projects around the nation. This project is essential for knowing what works, so we can take actions that prevent the most severe impacts.
Questions or comments? Email us at MD.firstname.lastname@example.org.