Marine debris is an eyesore along shorelines around the world. It degrades the beauty (aesthetics) of the coastal environment and in many cases may cause economic loss if an area is a popular tourist destination. Would you want to swim at a beach littered in trash?
Marine debris on the shore of
Kamilo Beach, Island of Hawaii.
Marine debris can scour, break, smother, and otherwise damage important marine habitat, such as coral reefs. Many of these habitats serve as the basis of marine ecosystems and thus they are critical to the survival of many other species.
Marine debris can damage
important marine habitat.
One of the most notable types of impacts from marine debris is wildlife entanglement. Numerous marine animals become entangled in marine debris each year. Exactly how many is not currently known. Entanglement can lead to injury, illness, suffocation, starvation, and even death.
An entangled green sea turtle
Many animals, such as sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals have been known to ingest (or eat) marine debris. The debris item may be mistaken for food and ingested. Otherwise, an animal's natural food (e.g. fish eggs) may be attached to the debris, or the debris item may have been ingested accidentally with other food. Ingestion of debris may lead to loss of nutrition, internal injury, intestinal blockage, starvation, and even death.
Carcass of a seabird that ingested
Marine debris can be difficult to see in the ocean and can also be quite large. Because of this it is a navigational hazard to vessels. Encounters with marine debris at sea can result in costly damage to a vessel such as a tangled propellor or clogged intake.
Large rope (hawser) entangled
in propeller of NOAA ship Hiialakai.
Marine debris may serve as a potential vector or transport mechanism for non-native species. There is a lack of current information on this particular effect of marine debris, however a study was conducted in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 2007 to research this area.
An alien species of mollusk found
on derelict fishing nets in the
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Ghostfishing, mainly by derelict fishing gear (e.g. ghost nets) is a problem in many areas around the world. This is when a derelict gear item continues to fish though lost or discarded. The scope of this particular impact to commercially important species and others is not well known.
A derelict prawn trap continues
to trap animals long after it was
lost or discarded. Photo courtesy
of Milton Love (University of
California Santa Barbara).
The impacts of marine debris to our marine resources, tourism, vessels and navigation, ecosystems, and human health and safety are difficult to quantify, but they all have a cost. Research in this area is being done, however further research and quantification is needed. Visit our page on the economic impacts of marine debris for more information.
The economic impact of marine
debris can be difficult to quantify.
From unsanitary forms of marine debris, to unsafe types such as broken glass in the sand, to large debris in navigable waters, marine debris is a threat to human health and safety. Caution should always be used when cleaning and removing debris.
Debris items such as cigarette
lighters and lightsticks may still
contain potentially harmful liquids.