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New Report: Detecting Marine Debris At Sea

By: Marine Debris Program staff

Imagine this common scenario: you’re looking into the horizon over the ocean, and you have just spotted an object in the distance. It’s faint and you know something is there, but you can’t quite make out what it is. Chances are, unless you get closer, you may never know exactly what you saw.

This is just one of many challenges scientists and responders face when detecting marine debris in the open ocean, according to a report published today by the NOAA Marine Debris Program. The report is a review of the debris detection efforts that took place in the years following the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, as well as valuable lessons for the future of marine debris detection.

Federal, state, and local partners focused on finding JTMD through several detection methods, including observations from aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems, vessels, shoreline observers, and satellites. NOAA paired detection with modeling in order to focus detection resources on areas where the debris was most likely to be located, given the large area of ocean where the debris dispersed.

A boat from Japan observed by mariners in the North Pacific is towed to land. Credit: P. Grillo.

A boat from Japan observed by mariners in the North Pacific is towed to land. Credit: P. Grillo.

While there was significant involvement and engagement from the public and agencies at the federal, state and local level in finding JTMD, many of the lessons-learned illustrated the significant challenges and limitations that come into play when searching for diverse objects in a very large area of the ocean. The report explores each detection method used during the response, as well as the limitations of each method and possible actions to overcome the limitations.

Because of the extensive efforts and renewed interest in at-sea detection during the response, the marine debris community learned more about marine debris’ behavior and movement and has advanced the state of knowledge on detection of debris at-sea.

Read the full report.


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Evaluating Techniques to Reduce Crab Trap Float Loss in South Carolina

By: Sarah Latshaw

Boat strikes, which can destroy floats and cut crab trap lines, can lead to derelict crab traps. Derelict crab traps – crabs traps that become lost or abandoned – are a threat to wildlife, can degrade habitat, and become a navigation hazard. These traps may “ghost fish” for years, capturing and killing prey like crabs, diamondback terrapins, and many fish species. Many groups have worked to reduce the number of derelict crab traps through removal efforts, but some projects – like the one I observed – aim to prevent crab traps from becoming derelict in the first place.

As a former field biologist, I was excited to get out of the office to check out the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) study on crab trap float loss. Supported by funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the goal of this study is to identify the float rigging designs that can prevent loss of crab traps from boat strikes, as well as conduct surveys to better understand a commercial crabber’s trap loss rate.

Often teased as being over prepared – I decided to pack light instead for the supposedly warm, sunny day out on the water. Soon after hopping on the boat, however, the downpour began. We motored back to the marina and took shelter until the rain slowed. While the researchers pulled out their rain coats and pants I, kicking myself for leaving my gear behind, embarrassingly donned a clear, plastic $2 poncho I found in my car. Rookie mistake for an old-hand.

Once the rain slacked off, we headed to the research site on the Stono River near Charleston, SC to test the durability of the crab trap floats riggings the researchers assembled. Some floats were round and made of polystyrene foam that seems to explode into pieces when hit by a boat propeller. (Don’t worry, the biologists work diligently to remove all float debris from the river).   Other floats were the shape of bullets and made of a spongy-type foam that seems to slice apart but not explode when hit by a boat propeller. Additionally, some float configurations had PVC to protect the line added above the float or below the float, and some had no PVC at all.

So what float configuration works best at preventing lost traps? That’s exactly what researchers at the SCDNR are trying to figure out. During my visit SCDNR evaluated multiple float configurations, by attaching each float rigging to a 10 lb. weight and then running over it with their boat at high speed. Every time the researchers ran over a buoy, they documented damage to the float and line.  They continued to run over the floats (and documenting the damage) until each float had been run over 30 times, or until the float was no longer functional or attached to the line.  Any debris left by the float was immediately cleaned up.

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From their findings, SCDNR researchers will produce recommendations for recreation and commercial crabbers on float configurations that reduce crab trap loss.  Moreover, results from the survey will help characterize the annual crab trap loss rates in South Carolina.  The project is ongoing – stay tuned for results from their findings in the coming year.


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New economic study shows marine debris costs California residents millions of dollars

By: NOAA Marine Debris Program staff

Southern California residents lose millions of dollars each year avoiding littered, local beaches in favor of choosing cleaner beaches that are farther away and may cost more to reach, according to a new NOAA-funded Marine Debris Program economics study.

Reducing marine debris even by 25 percent at beaches in and near California’s Orange County could save residents roughly $32 million during three months in the summer by not having to travel longer distances to other beaches.

The study, led by Industrial Economics Inc., known as IEc, is the first of its kind to look at how marine debris influences decisions to go to the beach and what it may cost. 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.

We found that:

  • Orange County residents are concerned about marine debris, and it significantly influences their decisions to go to the beach. No marine debris on the beach and good water quality are the two most important beach characteristics to them.
  • Avoiding littered beaches costs Orange County residents millions of dollars each year.
  • Reducing marine debris on beaches can prevent financial loss and provide economic benefits to residents.

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

Which beach characteristics are important to OC residents, by percent. MD-econ_graphic1__large


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Announcing Marine Debris State of the Science Reports

By: Asma Mahdi

The NOAA Marine Debris Program, in partnership with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, is undertaking an effort to assess the state of marine debris science. We have started off with two reports on marine debris entanglements and ingestion. The reports are results of a rigorous research synthesis and highlight debris impacts to marine wildlife, including whales, seals, turtles, and birds.

These reports will help the Marine Debris Program better understand debris impacts and identify knowledge gaps, so we can forge forward to find solutions through further research and targeted prevention and reduction activities. Visit the www.MarineDebris.noaa.gov to download a copy of the full reports.


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Phantom Menace: Derelict Traps in Florida Keys and U.S. Virgin Islands

Guest Blogger: Gabrielle Renchen, Biological Scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

In an effort to understand regional derelict trap issues, two projects with recently published papers were funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Traps become marine debris as they are lost or abandoned, and are then usually referred to as ‘derelict’. The impacts of derelict fishing traps are three fold. (1) Derelict traps can continue to ensnare and kill fish and other organisms. Fish that die in derelict traps won’t be part of the harvestable catch for fishermen, and won’t reproduce in the future. (2) Derelict traps are lost to the fishermen, who will need to replace every lost trap.  (3) Derelict traps damage the habitat, which can negatively impact where the fish live and eat.

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Florida Keys’ Derelict Lobster Traps

What typically comes to mind when you think of the Florida Keys?  Beautiful blue waters, coral reefs, fish, and other amazing marine life… but there’s something else lurking below: marine debris! In addition to metal cans, glass bottles, and monofilament fishing line, lobster traps are the Florida Keys’ prominent type of marine debris. A team of scientists from NOAA’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research (Amy Uhrin), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (Tom Matthews) and the Keys Marine Laboratory (Cindy Lewis), conducted surveys to identify and count lobster trap debris and other types of marine debris. These surveys consisted of two divers who were towed behind a boat to study underwater habitats throughout the Florida Keys.

Lobster trap debris included wood slats, rope, and the cement weights used to sink the traps. The scientists counted ghost fishing traps which are lost but still able to catch and kill lobsters and other animals as well as non-fishing traps which were found in various stages of breakdown. They estimated that over 85,000 ghost traps and over 1 million non-fishing traps were in the waters of the Florida Keys. To put these numbers into perspective, about 483,000 lobster traps are actively fished annually.

Trap debris was found in a variety of environments; seagrass, algae, sand, with the highest density of trap debris observed in coral habitats. The accumulation of lobster trap debris in coral habitats, a rarely targeted lobster fishing area, suggests that wind plays a role in moving traps, harming corals, sponges, or sea fans. Other research has indicated that many traps move continuously until finally becoming lodged in the shallow water areas where corals reside.

Trap loss is both an economic issue for fishermen and a source of damage to the environment.  Harvest losses due to lobster mortality in ghost traps and missing gear are substantial sources of lost income for fishermen. Although trap debris removal efforts exist, they are expensive and cannot remove the debris as fast it accumulates. And in the Florida Keys the causes of trap loss include boat propeller cut offs, hurricanes, and theft.

Here’s how you can help: be an alert boater by avoiding trap buoys and organize your own trap debris cleanup through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Trap and Trap Debris Removal Program!

To read the full article: Lobster Trap Debris in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary: Distribution, Abundance, Density, and Patterns of Accumulation

US Virgin Islands’ Derelict Fish Traps

Fish traps are a culturally and economically important fishing gear used to catch reef fish in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and throughout the Caribbean. Fish traps are placed in a variety of habitats that can include seagrass, sand, algae, and coral habitat. Given the USVI fishermen’s concerns regarding fish trap loss, our team of researchers from the University of the Virgin Islands, the NOAA Biogeography Branch, and the St. Thomas Fishermen’s Association worked together to investigate the impacts of derelict fish traps. Like in the Florida Keys, theft, vandalism, and buoy-marker severing, where a boat propeller cuts the line and renders the trap derelict, are common causes of trap loss in the USVI in addition to severe storms.

USVI Trap Map

Team placed traps where fishing was known to occur (USVI).

We deployed fish traps built by local fishermen in nearshore and offshore waters where trap fishing was known to occur. Between January and July of 2010, checking traps 2-3 times a week, divers recorded more than 1,100 fish in the derelict fish traps. Topping the list were surgeonfish, snapper, and porgy and hundreds of small juvenile fish and invertebrates. Overall, 34 fish were found with skin abrasions while 2% of the trapped fish died, with the cause of death attributed to ghost fishing. Using our accounts of the species that died and the local fish market prices, we estimated that each derelict trap was capable of causing an annual loss of $52.

Improving spatial planning can reduce the occurrence of severed trap buoy lines, while simple modifications to trap escape panels will significantly reduce mortality from ghost fishing, and the implementation of land-based trap disposal programs could reduce the impact of recoverable derelict traps. This project reveals the impact of derelict traps and their unintentional loss to both the fishing community and coral reef ecosystems. It also speaks to what can be accomplished when we work collaboratively to understand an environmental challenge!
Click  for more information on our derelict fish trap project.

To read the full article:
Impact of derelict fish traps in Caribbean waters: an experimental approach


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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.


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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?

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