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Bringing Marine Debris to Attention: NOAA Administrator and Congressional Members Meet with MDP Partners

This past Friday, April 8th, was an exciting day for those fighting marine debris in Washington State. NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, and representatives from the offices of Senator Patty Murray and Senator Maria Cantwell joined the NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) at a marine debris event in Long Beach, Washington. The event highlighted the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s ten-year anniversary, the five-year commemoration of the 2011 Japan tsunami, and the efforts of the MDP’s partners in Washington State against marine debris. The National Weather Service also participated in the event, highlighting the efforts to make Long Beach “Tsunami Ready.”

Local volunteers, as well as representatives from the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Quinault Indian Nation, The Nature Conservancy, and the Grassroots Garbage Gang provided presentations on their efforts to address marine debris.

Dr. Sullivan, Congresswoman Herrera Beutler, Bryan Stebbins (Southwest Washington Representative for Senator Patty Murray), and Dena Horton (Southwest Washington Outreach Director for Senator Maria Cantwell) spoke on the subject of marine debris and were able to learn a little more about the local problem by engaging with the many marine debris partners and volunteers in attendance.

The event culminated in a small-group cleanup at the local beach.

Bringing attention to this important subject is part of the ultimate solution to prevent marine debris and events such as this help to do that. We’d like to thank our partners for participating in this event and highlighting their efforts to combat marine debris in Washington State. For more information about this event, check out this article.

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Diving into Ka Lae: A Small Nonprofit Receives International Cleanup Help on Hawaiʻi Island

By: Megan Lamson, Guest Blogger and Coordinator of the Hawaiʻi Island Marine Debris Removal Project for the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund

At the bottom of South Point Road in Kamaʻoa (Kaʻū district, SE Hawaiʻi) lies a well-known rocky shoreline named Ka Lae, translated from Hawaiian to mean point, promontory, or wisdom. The cliffs at Ka Lae (a.k.a. “South Point”) are internationally celebrated as the southernmost tip of the United States, domestically recognized as a National Historic Landmark, and are locally renowned for fishing and cliff jumping. Visitors and island residents alike flock to this rugged coastline for the opportunity to take a photo or to leap into the deep blue below. Unfortunately, this region is also a hub for the accumulation of marine debris.

In June, with support from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund (HWF, hosted its first-ever underwater cleanup event at this locale. With help from divers with the Sea Beautification Society (SBS) from Japan and a volunteer interpreter from Canada, this cleanup turned out to be a complete success. A dozen scuba divers were joined by 3 free-divers and 8 shoreline support volunteers. In total, the 23 participants were able to remove 157 pounds (71 kg) of marine debris, most of which was monofilament fishing line that was encrusted with invasive algae. This collaboration was first conceived when HWF linked up with SBS at an international Japan tsunami debris symposium hosted by JEAN (Japan Environmental Action Network) in Vancouver in October 2014. It is yet another reminder of how connected we all are, and how we can work together to take care of our planet.

HWF has been working to conserve native wildlife in Hawaiʻi since 1996 and removing marine debris from the shores of Hawaiʻi Island since 2003. During this time, HWF has hosted nearly 100 cleanup events and collectively removed over 161 metric tons (or 356,000 lbs.) of debris from Hawaiʻi Island with the help of thousands of community and visiting volunteers. This debris typically comes from faraway places on the Pacific Rim, such as the West coast of the U.S. and several countries in Asia; however, regardless of where it originates, it continues to be a threat to marine wildlife until it is removed from the marine and coastal environment. Marine debris is a people problem and HWF is committed to working with people on the island and around the globe to resolve this issue.

To get involved, donate, or find out more, please contact HWF at or call their marine debris reporting hotline at (808) 769-7629.


Barge Carrying Debris Arrives in Seattle After Removal Efforts

By: Peter Murphy

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — a football-field sized barge carrying nearly 3,400 super-sacks of marine debris from remote and rugged beaches from Alaska and British Columbia docked at the Waste Management facility in Seattle, Washington, Thursday morning.

The Concept

The Concept

The barge traveled thousands of miles from Seattle up to Alaska before its return. Its arrival this week marked the culmination of debris removal efforts across the marine debris community in Alaska for the past several years, coordinated by Gulf of Alaska Keeper and funded in large part by a generous goodwill gift from the Government of Japan administered by NOAA and the State of Alaska.

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A diverse team including participants from the National Park Service, non-profit organizations, professional crews, and volunteers from across the state collaborated to collect the debris.  The debris, which was placed into large plastic bags called super-sacks, or tied into bundles, included everything from nets, lines and buoys to consumer plastics and different kinds of foam, including a significant amount of Japan tsunami marine debris. Over the course of the three weeks, from the barge’s first pickup to its arrival in Seattle, helicopters made 1,154 trips from shore to the boat, delivering enough debris to fill nearly 40 rail cars to the brim.

The marine debris issue in Alaska provides unique challenges. It takes innovation and perseverance from the community that works there to meet those challenges and address the issue.  That community includes Gulf of Alaska Keeper, who has been working on this issue for years and was the driving force behind this project, and many others, from Craig and Sitka in Southeast Alaska, all the way to the Arctic, where the National Park Service and communities are working to assess and remove debris.

As we recognize the accomplishment of the barge/airlift project, we also look forward to sharing more of these stories from the marine debris community in Alaska and how they are tackling the issue in different and innovative ways in and through their own communities.

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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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The End is In Sight: Summer Should Bring Less Debris to Pacific NW

By: Dianna Parker

Our partners in the Pacific Northwest have noticed an increase in marine debris on shorelines this past month, including small vessels that likely washed out to sea during the tsunami in Japan in 2011. Four boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone. The flurry of activity may seem unusual and sudden, coming after a relatively long stretch where we still saw some debris — but not this much.  So what’s the deal? Why are we getting a spike now?

Here’s what Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, has to say about possible reasons for the increase:

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.


Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

So, to recap: Winter winds push nutrient-depleted water onshore and bring debris with it. As Pacific Northwest residents may recall, there were a series of big winter storms in February and March.

Amy goes on to describe a period known as the “spring transition” that can occur anytime between March and June, where a change in winds ushers nearshore surface water back offshore. Then, nutrient-rich water moves in (we call this “upwelling”). The timing of this transition period may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches. The later the transition, the more time the debris pushed toward shore from winter storms has to reach shore.

According to researchers, we’re in that transition period now, which means the end to the spike is near:

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April).


The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.


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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