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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What We Know About “Ghost Fishing”

The NOAA Marine Debris Program, in partnership with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, published a report today that assesses the current state of science on “ghost fishing” and the derelict fishing gear that causes it.

Ghost fishing occurs when lost or discarded fishing gear that is no longer under a fisherman’s control continues to trap and kill fish, crustaceans, marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. Derelict fishing nets and traps can continue to ghost fish for years once they are lost under the water’s surface.

Ghost fishing can impose a variety of harmful impacts, including: killing target and non-target organisms, including endangered and protected species; causing damage to underwater habitats, such as coral reefs and benthic fauna; economic losses from target species mortalities and replacement costs; and contributing to marine pollution.

Atlantic croaker trapped within a derelict or "ghost" crab pot pulled from the York River. Credit: VIMS

Atlantic croaker trapped within a derelict or “ghost” crab pot pulled from the York River. Credit: VIMS

The report examines existing scientific literature to determine what we know about these impacts, as well as gaps in knowledge and suggestions for prevention and mitigation.

For example, some studies estimate that over 90 percent of species caught in derelict fishing gear are of commercial value, which can contribute to a significant loss of revenue for fishermen.

It notes that while it’s impossible to know exactly how much derelict fishing gear is in the global ocean, studies say the problem is getting worse due to the increased scale of global fishing operations and the introduction of highly durable fishing gear made of long-lasting synthetic materials.

This report is the third in a series of scientific assessments on marine debris topics. The program released overviews of entanglement and marine debris ingestion last year.

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How Does Marine Debris Impact Corals?

By: Dianna Parker



It’s Corals Week at NOAA’s National Ocean Service, so we thought we’d take a moment to examine the impact marine debris has on these amazing species. (Did you know corals are animals?)

Corals are more than just a pretty aesthetic – they have real value. An incredible amount of marine life depends on healthy coral reef ecosystems, from algae to apex-predator sharks. We need them, too, for a variety of reasons:

“Healthy coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and economically valuable ecosystems on earth, providing valuable and vital ecosystem services. Coral ecosystems are a source of food for millions; protect coastlines from storms and erosion; provide habitat, spawning and nursery grounds for economically important fish species; provide jobs and income to local economies from fishing, recreation, and tourism; are a source of new medicines, and are hotspots of marine biodiversity. They also are of great cultural importance in many regions around the world, particularly Polynesia.”

Marine debris, especially large and heavy debris, can crush and damage coral. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which has one of the healthiest and least disturbed coral reef ecosystems in the United States, an estimated 52 tons of derelict fishing nets accumulate every year. The nets that drift there can be enormous, and when tangled together, weigh hundreds of pounds. These net conglomerates are sometimes described as giant “purses” – they roll across the large reef structures, snagging on corals, breaking them, and collecting them within the tangle. The added coral heads can make the nets heavier than when they started. Once the nets settle, they smother and scour the substrate underneath, impeding growth.

It’s not just nets that are a problem for coral. Other larger items such as tires, shipping containers, and derelict fishing traps are also the culprits behind coral damage.

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Even our smaller, everyday litter items can make their way there and degrade the habitat. As our friends at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary asked, do fish even like root beer?


A root beer can rests on coral.


If you are a commercial or recreational fisher, you can help corals out by disposing of your unwanted fishing gear through programs such as Fishing for Energy. Everyone can refocus on proper waste disposal, too. If we reuse more, recycle more, and waste less, the amount of our trash making it to precious coral reefs will also decrease. Trash isn’t limited to just bottles and cans – bigger items such as tires and laundry baskets need careful consideration for disposal when we are through with them.

This Corals Week, whether you’re a diver, snorkeler, or admirer from afar, or let’s take a moment to appreciate all the beauty and value these incredible corals have to offer.