NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!


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Spring Break Means Warming Weather and Marine Debris

Believe it or not, but flowers are already poking their heads out and it’s about time for spring break for students around the country. Whether you’re spending your break in an exotic location or staying local, there are lots of opportunities to spend this time giving back while still having fun.

A great way to both enjoy some outside time and do some good for your environment is to join a shoreline cleanup! There are lots of cleanups happening around the country and across the world, so find one in your area and help pick up some marine debris. No scheduled cleanup near you? Start one yourself by organizing a group of people to clean up your nearby shoreline or street (just remember, safety first!).

If staying indoors is more your thing, you can still help fight marine debris! The ultimate solution to this problem is prevention, so spread the word to your family and friends. Feeling crafty? Make some signs to let people know how they can help. Or, take some of those old items you’ve been meaning to throw away and repurpose them into something useful.

Spring break already packed? No worries, there are still lots of ways you can help in the fight against marine debris without taking up a lot of time. One of the best ways to fight marine debris daily is by making sure to follow the 3Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle! Even though it might not seem like much, if we all put forth just a little effort, together we can make a big difference!

A flowering tree with a plastic bag caught in the branches.

It’s getting warmer out and you’re probably seeing flowers blooming, birds chirping, and… debris. Unfortunately, trash like this bag can easily find its way into our waters, becoming marine debris. Spend your spring break addressing this problem! (Photo Credit: NOAA)


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Balloons and the Mid-Atlantic

Balloons are a type of marine debris that many people don’t think about. Often used for celebrations or to commemorate special events, balloons are frequently intentionally or accidentally released into the environment. Unfortunately, once they go up, they must also come down; balloons that are released into the air don’t just go away, they either get snagged on something such as tree branches or electrical wires, deflate and make their way back down, or rise until they pop and fall back to Earth where they can create a lot of problems. Balloon debris can be ingested by animals, many of which easily mistake it for real food, and can entangle wildlife, especially balloons with attached ribbons. Balloon debris can even have an economic impact on communities, contributing to dirty beaches which drive away tourists, or causing power outages from mylar balloons covered in metallic paint and their ribbons tangling in power lines.

Balloon debris is a national issue and unfortunately, the Mid-Atlantic is not immune. Over a period of five years (2010-2014), 4,916 pieces of balloon litter were found in Virginia by volunteers participating in the International Coastal Cleanup, with over 3,000 of those pieces found on ocean beaches. In 2014, 236 volunteers found over 900 balloons in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia in a three-hour period. Recent surveys of remote islands on Virginia’s Eastern Shore documented up to 40 balloons per mile of beach. These statistics suggest that this Mid-Atlantic area is appropriate to research the balloon debris issue and to create an education and outreach program that could then be used in other states. So the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, with funding support from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is doing just that. They’re exploring the issue of intentionally-released balloons and targeting that behavior through a social marketing campaign.

Latex balloon on the ground.

With efforts such as those by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, we hope that we will start to see less balloon debris in our environment. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

So what can you do to help reduce balloon debris in the Mid-Atlantic and throughout the country? Consider using alternate decorations at your next celebration such as paper streamers or fabric flags. Rather than giving your child a helium balloon on a string, fill it with air and attach it to a stick—they still get the feeling of it floating above their heads without the risk of losing it into the environment. Most importantly, don’t intentionally release balloons into the air. With increased awareness about the issue, we can all work to reduce this very preventable form of marine debris in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond.

A person holding balloon debris that says "Happy Birthday!"

Working together, let’s reduce this very preventable form of marine debris! (Photo Credit: NOAA)


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Marine Debris as a Potential Pathway for Invasive Species: A New MDP Report

The NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) is proud to announce the release of our new report detailing the potential of marine debris to act as a pathway for the introduction of invasive species.

There is mounting concern over the increase in debris in our ocean and the potential for that debris to assist in the spread of non-native species. While the pathways associated with global shipping draw the greatest amount of attention regarding marine invasives, the purpose of this paper is to consider the potential role that marine debris may play in introducing non-native species that may become invasive. This report reviews the scientific literature that exists on the subject and identifies areas where more research is needed.

Check out the new invasive species report, which joins our reports on entanglement, ingestion, ghost fishing, modeling, and habitat on our website.

Cover of Marine Debris as a Potential Pathway for Invasive Species report.


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Addressing Marine Debris in the Mid-Atlantic

Jason Rolfe.Meet Jason Rolfe, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s (MDP’s) Mid-Atlantic Regional Coordinator! After earning his B.S. in Environmental Sciences from Frostburg State University, Jason began work at NOAA, where he has worked as a cartographer, an environmental scientist, and a project manager for the past 21 years. Jason joined the MDP in 2011 as the Acting Deputy Director, working on operational tasks as well as focusing on emergency response, planning for the marine debris that washed up on West Coast states after the 2011 Japan tsunami. Since then, he’s also led the MDP’s efforts to address debris in East Coast states resulting from Hurricane Sandy and in 2013, assumed his current position with the Program. Reach out to Jason at jason.rolfe@noaa.gov!

 

The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Mid-Atlantic region, encompassing coastal states from New Jersey to Virginia, is no stranger to the impacts of marine debris. Like many coastal areas around the country, this region is often inundated with debris ranging from derelict fishing gear to consumer debris. Luckily, there are several awesome efforts currently underway to address marine debris in the Mid-Atlantic. Check out some newly-established projects funded by the MDP:

In order to address debris at the root of the problem, we must focus on preventing it at its source. Trash Free Maryland is working to prevent the creation of debris in Baltimore, Maryland through a multi-year social marketing campaign. They’re focusing on land-based litter and starting with a pilot campaign utilizing trusted community mentors before expanding their messaging to reach a broader Baltimore audience. The ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of litter in Baltimore by encouraging the feeling of responsibility regarding litter and instilling pride in the community to lead to cleaner neighborhoods and waterways. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

Trash on a sidewalk.

Like many places, land-based litter is a problem in Baltimore and so Trash Free Maryland is working to reduce this debris. (Photo Credit: Trash Free Maryland)

Although prevention is the ultimate solution, removal of debris is unfortunately necessary. To address some of the debris that’s already out there, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Delaware Coastal Program is working with local crabbers to locate and remove over 1,000 derelict crab pots from the Delaware portion of the Delaware Bay. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

Someone taking a derelict crab pot out of the water.

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Delaware Coastal Program is working to remove derelict crab pots from the Delaware Bay. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Running in tandem with the Delaware Coastal Program’s project, the New Jersey Audubon is leading a similar project in the New Jersey waters of the Delaware Bay. Working with Northstar Marine and Stockton University, they are striving to locate and remove over 2,000 derelict crab pots from three critical areas of coastal New Jersey and the Delaware Bay. In addition, they’re training local commercial crabbers to use low-cost sonar devices to locate lost pots in order to limit the re-accumulation of pots after removal. For more information on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

Someone holding a derelict crab pot and a pile of derelict crab pots.

The New Jersey Audubon is working to remove derelict crab pots from coastal New Jersey and the Delaware Bay. (Photo Credit: NOAA (left); NJ Audubon (right))

There are lots of cool things happening in the Mid-Atlantic! Keep your eye on our blog this week for more, and check out our website for more interesting marine debris projects in the Mid-Atlantic and throughout the country!


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Mississippi Marine Debris Emergency Response: A New Comprehensive Guide for the State

The NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) is proud to announce the release of the new Marine Debris Emergency Response document for Mississippi! This guide takes existing roles and authorities, as they relate to response to an incident that generates large amounts of debris in coastal waterways, and presents them in one guidance document for easy reference. By collaborating with local, state, and federal entities active in the region, this guide aims to facilitate a more timely and effective response to marine debris incidents in Mississippi.

Check out the Mississippi Marine Debris Emergency Response Guide on our website!

Cover of the Mississippi Marine Debris Emergency Response Guide.


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Love Our Ocean This Valentine’s Day!

It’s Valentine’s Day, so take some time today to show our ocean some love. We get a lot from the ocean—food, travel, even clean air to breathe— so return the love by thinking about how you can help protect it from marine debris. Consider how you might contribute to the marine debris problem and think about changes you could make to help. Do you bring reusable bags to the grocery store? Do you drink out of a reusable bottle at work? Do you recycle the items you use as often as possible? Following the 3R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle!) whenever you can makes a big difference for our ocean.

If you’d like to make a bigger gesture, consider helping to spread the word about marine debris or getting involved in a cleanup event! There are lots of free outreach materials on our website and our monthly e-newsletter lists cleanups happening throughout the country each month. No matter how you choose to show the ocean some love, every little bit helps. Let’s work together to love our ocean and give it the attention it deserves!

Happy Valentine’s Day from the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Child's drawing of waves with marine debris that says to be part of the solution and to love the ocean.

(Credit: 2017 Marine Debris Calendar Art Contest Winner, Maile R., Grade 1, Hawaii)


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Debunking the Myths About Garbage Patches

Although most of us have heard the term “garbage patch” before, many probably don’t have a full understanding of what the term really means. In recent years, there has been a lot of misinformation spread about garbage patches and so now we’re here to try to clear up some of these myths.

Graphic of a garbage patch with the words "What are garbage patches?"

First, what are garbage patches? Well, garbage patches are areas of increased concentration of marine debris that are formed from rotating ocean currents called gyres and although they may not be as famous as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” there are actually several garbage patches around the world! So let’s address some of the most common questions and misconceptions about garbage patches:

Are garbage patches really islands of trash that you can actually walk on? Nope! Although garbage patches have higher amounts of marine debris, they’re not “islands of trash” and you definitely can’t walk on them. The debris in the garbage patches is constantly mixing and moving due to winds and ocean currents. This means that the debris is not settled in a layer at the surface of the water, but can be found from the surface, throughout the water column, and all the way to the bottom of the ocean. Not only that, but the debris within the garbage patches is primarily made up of microplastics, which are plastic pieces less than five millimeters in size. Many of these microplastics are the result of larger plastic debris that has broken into small pieces due to exposure to the sun, salt, wind, and waves. Others, such as microbeads from products like facewashes or microfibers from synthetic clothing, are already small in size when they enter the water. With such small debris items making up the majority of the garbage patches and the constant movement of this debris, it’s possible to sail through a garbage patch without even realizing it!

I heard that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the size of Texas and you can see it from space! Since the garbage patches are constantly moving and mixing with winds and ocean currents, their size continuously changes. They can be very large, but since they’re made up primarily of microplastic debris, they definitely can’t be seen from space.

A small piece of debris on the tip of someone's finger.

Since the garbage patches are primarily made up of very small microplastic debris that is constantly mixing throughout the water column, they definitely can’t be seen from space. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Why don’t we just clean them up? Unfortunately, cleaning up the garbage patches is pretty complicated. Since the debris making them up is not only constantly mixing and moving, but also extremely small in size, removing this debris is very difficult. For these reasons, we generally focus removal efforts on our shorelines and coastal areas, before debris items have the chance to make it to the open ocean and before they have broken into microplastic pieces, which are inherently difficult to remove from the environment. However, preventing marine debris is the key to solving the problem! If you think about an overflowing sink, it’s obvious that the first step before cleaning up the water on the floor is to turn the faucet off—that’s exactly what prevention is! By working to prevent marine debris through education and outreach, and each doing our part to reduce our contribution, we can stop this problem from growing.

Want to learn more about the garbage patches? Check out this blog post or visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website where you can find more information as well as our Trash Talk video on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Interested in learning the truth behind other myths? Check out the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration website throughout the week for more myth debunking!