NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

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Help Protect Endangered Species by Reducing Marine Debris

Marine debris impacts a variety of wildlife that rely on the ocean and Great Lakes for food and/or habitat. Unfortunately, this includes many animals that are protected under the Endangered Species Act, including species of seals, turtles, whales, and even corals. Even if these endangered species are located within a protected area or far from people, they can still be impacted by this human-created problem, which travels the world’s ocean with the currents. For example, the Papahānuamokuākea Marine National Monument provides one of the last remaining refuges for the Hawaiian monk seal. Although it is extremely remote and far from large human populations, it is still heavily impacted by marine debris, which finds its way to the shores of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands due to their location in relation to the currents of the Pacific Ocean.

Animals, including endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal, can be impacted by debris in a variety of ways. They can become entangled in items like derelict fishing nets, or mistake trash for food and ingest it. All seven species of sea turtles have been found to eat marine debris—especially plastic bags, which can look a lot like jellyfish, sea turtles’ favorite snack. Heavy fishing gear and other debris can also damage or smother corals and important habitats.

Luckily, we can help protect endangered and threatened species by paying more attention to how we might be contributing to this problem. Marine debris is entirely caused by humans, but that means that people have the power to solve the problem, too! For instance, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, NOAA crews have worked to remove 935 tons of marine debris since 1996! We can all help by following the “3Rs” to reduce the amount of single-use items we use, reuse items when possible, and recycle when we can. Spread the word to others so that they can help, too! Preventing marine debris is the ultimate solution to the problem, but to help address the stuff that’s already out there, join a cleanup near you or start one yourself using the Marine Debris Tracker app! We can all be a part of the solution to marine debris and part of the effort to protect our endangered and threatened species.

Happy Endangered Species Day!

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Impacts of Marine Debris: the Struggle for Marine Animals

A plastic bag may look flimsy, but in a fight against a sea turtle, it often wins. Unfortunately, the marine debris that we find floating in our oceans and waterways all too often impacts marine life.

There are many ways that marine debris can impact marine animals. For instance, the accidental ingestion of debris is a big problem! Animals may unintentionally eat debris along with their meal, or intentionally ingest trash due to its resemblance to real food. For example, a plastic bag can win a fight with a sea turtle using its resemblance to a jellyfish when it’s floating in the water. Jellyfish are a favorite snack of sea turtles and the plastic bag is often swallowed before the turtle knows the difference. Since plastic is not real food, the turtle is not getting the nutrients it needs, and once that plastic is in its gut, it can sometimes get stuck there, making the turtle very sick. All sea turtle species eat debris and unfortunately, turtles aren’t the only animals that mistake plastic for food. Many marine animals ingest marine debris. This is an especially big problem in seabirds. A recent study by Wilcox et al. estimated that 90% of seabirds have ingested plastic and predicted that number would increase substantially by 2050.


Unfortunately, the impact of marine debris doesn’t stop there. Entanglement and ghostfishing also pose a threat. Marine life can get entangled in marine debris such as plastic bands or fishing line. For an animal, this is a situation that can range from slightly uncomfortable to lethal. Derelict fishing gear such as nets and crab pots can also be a big problem. These materials can continue to capture marine life but no longer have a person responsible for setting captured animals free. This is called “ghostfishing.”


Marine debris can also harm animals indirectly by impacting their habitat. Large or heavy debris can smother or crush sensitive habitats, such as coral reefs and sea grass. Non-native species can also hitch a ride on marine debris from one region to another. This might simply sound like a convenient way to travel, but invasive species can wreak havoc on an ecosystem by depleting food sources or destroying habitat.


Don’t like the sound of all this? Let’s change it! It might seem hopeless, but it’s not. There are many ways to reduce this threat, such as improving waste management techniques and disposing of trash items properly, but we need your help! Remember to reduce, reuse, and recycle to decrease the amount of trash that is adding to our marine debris problem. Help with a cleanup in your area—the 30th International Coastal Cleanup is Saturday, September 19th, and there are cleanup locations all over the country. If everyone made an effort, think of the difference it would make! It’s up to us.

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Northeast Region: Marine Debris Removal

By: Leah Henry

Hofstra University, Long Beach School District, and Long Island Volunteer Center spearheaded a  successful cleanup last fall with support from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. And they inspired additional well-attended volunteer events throughout the spring of 2015. The project laid the grown work by  repairing existing structures (boardwalks, stairs, and bridges), which then provided access to the marsh for subsequent debris removals. Volunteers invested thousands of hours in removing over 45 tons of debris.

In American Littoral Society’s (ALS) marine debris removal pilot project they targeted saltmarsh and intertidal flats to improve essential fish habitat and help prevent future marine debris accumulation. ALS is developing a new marine debris reduction outreach program for local communities, a more compelling way to present the data collected, and they are implementing a proven marine debris reduction certification program to encourage debris reduction in local waterways.

And with support from NOAA MDP Cornell University Cooperative Extension (CCE) and its partners remove derelict fishing gear from deep waters of the Long Island Sound in New York. In addition to removing gear, CCE assesses and quantifies the extent and distribution of derelict lobster gear. CCE technicians record the condition of bycatch ensnared in traps and create composite Geographic Information System data layers and maps of areas cleared of the traps. The salvageable derelict traps are returned when possible, and the rest are recycled.


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Is Beach Litter Rerouting Your Summer Vacation?

By: Leah Henry

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Debris on beaches is unsightly! And like the residents in the NOAA Marine Debris Program-funded economics study in Orange County, California, you too might be deterred by beaches with high levels of marine debris and that concern may influence which beaches you visit. In this study, led by Industrial Economics Inc., we discover how marine debris influences decisions to go to the beach and what it may cost.

Southern California residents lose millions of dollars each year avoiding littered, local beaches in favor of choosing cleaner beaches that are farther away. By reducing marine debris by 25 percent at beaches in and near California’s Orange County could save residents roughly $32 million over three summer months by decreasing travel distances to enjoy the beach. Reducing marine debris on beaches can prevent financial loss and provide economic benefits to residents and given the enormous popularity of beach recreation throughout the United States, the magnitude of recreational economic losses associated with marine debris has the potential to be substantial.

For more information and to download the study, please visit our website. 

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Microplastics Found in Chesapeake Bay Surface Water Samples

By: Leah Henry

In partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Oxford Labthe NOAA Marine Debris Program collected surface water samples from four tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, using the techniques described in the document, “Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment: Recommendations for Monitoring Debris Trends in the Marine Environment,” and found microplastics in 59 of 60 samples.

Though the impacts of these tiny plastic particles (smaller than 5.0 mm in size) on wildlife and the environment is unknown, many ongoing studies are hoping to soon answer those important questions.

University of Maryland Professor Dr. Lance Yonkos was not surprised by what they found in the bay. As the lead author of this study, Yonkos’ take home message is one of prevention, “If we want to reduce microplastics in the oceans we need to limit their release at the source.” Find out more from the Photo Essay: Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay.

All Photos by Will Parson, courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program.

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New Laboratory Methods: How to Analyze Microplastics in the Marine Environment

By: NOAA Marine Debris Program Staff

noaa_microplastics_methods_manual (1)Plastics are often the main type of debris found in oceans, rivers, lakes as well as on surrounding riverbanks and shorelines and those plastics however big or small can enter the environment from a multitude of sources. These plastics can eventually degrade into smaller and smaller pieces and with that in mind the NOAA Marine Debris Program releases the Laboratory Methods for the Analysis of Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Recommendations for quantifying synthetic particles in waters and sediments.

This methods manual outlines step-by-step instructions on how to quantify microplastics in marine environmental samples, and how to streamline terminology and approaches. Depending on each study’s aim and the environmental collection techniques, these methods can be used to calculate concentrations of microplastics.

Please follow this link to download a copy of the Microplastics Methods Manual:


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Mid-Atlantic Region: Marine Debris Research

By: Leah Henry

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has been working to better understand the impacts of derelict fishing gear and other types of marine debris to our ocean and Great Lakes, here are a few of our Mid-Atlantic marine debris research efforts:

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center evaluates existing crab pot bycatch reduction technology, solicits technology feedback from local watermen, and creates a Chesapeake Bay-wide conversation to develop ghost pot solutions as part of a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Fishing for Energy program and with funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program.  To learn more about this project visit our website.

Virginia Institute of Marine Science employs commercial watermen to compare catch rates of peeler pots outfitted with biodegradable escape panels to those with standard panels as part of a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Fishing for Energy program and with funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. Preliminary results suggest no adverse effect of biodegradable panels on peeler pot crab catch. To learn more about this project visit our website.

Global Science & Technology Inc. contracts with the NOAA Marine Debris Program in partnership with Versar, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and CSS-Dynamac to investigate the physical, biological, and socio-economic impacts of derelict fishing gear (DFG) in the Chesapeake Bay through a Regional Impact Assessment.  This project will develop an operational model, conduct a bay-wide impact assessment of derelict fishing gear, and create a framework guidance document for use in other regions. To learn more about this project visit our website.