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Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!
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Love Our Ocean This Valentine’s Day!

Tue, 2017-02-14 07:30

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)

Debunking the Myths About Garbage Patches

Mon, 2017-02-13 08:00

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!

Underwater image of floating debris. An image of the open ocean with only water and sky visible.

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.

A group of students and a teacher sitting in a circle around marine debris. A young child putting a bag of trash into a dumpster.

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!

Derelict Fishing Nets and the Pacific Islands

Thu, 2017-02-09 09:30

Derelict fishing nets are a big marine debris problem. These nets can entangle wildlife, create major hazards to navigation, and can damage sensitive and important habitats. Unfortunately, they can also be difficult to address as they often have few identifying characteristics. This makes determining their source challenging and makes derelict nets difficult to track.

Derelict fishing nets are a particularly large problem in the Hawaiian archipelago, due to Hawaii’s geographic location in the North Pacific Gyre and Convergence Zone and the large amounts of fishing that occurs domestically and internationally in the Pacific. The North and East Coast shorelines of each Hawaiian Island are the most impacted, due to the northeast trade winds that blow this debris ashore. These nets may come from local origin or from far-off sources throughout the Pacific, but it’s difficult to tell without identifying markers such as a specific regional style (which can often be used to determine the general source of debris like derelict crab traps), serial numbers, or writing. Interestingly, Hawaii’s main commercial fishing industry is longline fishing targeting pelagic (open ocean) species, but the majority of the nets and ropes found in Hawaii are made of trawl or purse seine types, which suggests they are likely not of local origin.

Derelict nets and ropes on a beach. Nets and rope on a beach.

No matter where these derelict nets hail from, they create a problem in this region that must be addressed. Prevention is the key to addressing marine debris, so raising awareness about the issue and educating fishermen is important. However, since the origin of most of these derelict nets is unknown and there are already many nets that litter Hawaiian shores, removal is also a very important part of solving the problem of derelict fishing nets. Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) Pacific Islands Regional staff have received an increase in reports of huge derelict fishing net conglomerates, so removal efforts are particularly important.

A diver next to a large net. Nets and ropes floating in water.

There are currently many groups that are working to remove this debris, including the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, which is leading net patrols and removing debris from over 200 miles of coastline on four different Hawaiian islands through a project recently funded by a MDP Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant. Surfrider Kaua’i, previously funded by the MDP, is also active in conducting net patrols in Hawaii (check out the giant net they found!). In addition, there are numerous organizations performing beach cleanups in this area, including the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources; these efforts have been an excellent example of the collaborative efforts put forth to implement the Hawai’i Marine Debris Action Plan. This removed debris is disposed of properly and when possible, and recycled through programs such as the Hawai’i Nets to Energy Program.

People hauling derelict nets and ropes into a boat. A group of people on a beach.

For more on derelict fishing nets in Hawaii, check out this 2014 interview with NOAA scientists.

Marine Debris in the Pacific Islands

Tue, 2017-02-07 09:30

Picture of Mark Manuel.Meet Mark Manuel, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s (MDP’s) Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator! Mark is a Hawaii native, and received his B.S. in Marine Science and M.S. in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Before joining the MDP, Mark spent six years with the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Coral Reef Ecosystem Program. He now works in Honolulu, where he oversees marine debris removal and research projects, the Hawai‘i Nets-to-Energy program, and the NOAA Observer Program at-sea marine debris encounter reports. Mark also works with the Consulate of Japan to confirm tsunami marine debris, is part of numerous emergency response networks, and communicates with the U.S. Coast Guard and state agencies to address Abandoned and Derelict Vessels. Reach out to Mark at!

Picture of Grace Chon.Meet Grace Chon, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Pacific Islands Assistant Regional Coordinator! Grace was born and raised in Maryland and received her B.S. in Biology at the University of Maryland, College Park. After graduating and living in Venezuela for a year, she headed to Hawai’i Pacific University, where she earned her M.S. in Marine Science. As the Assistant Regional Coordinator, Grace now works in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she focuses on marine debris prevention projects, Hawai’i Marine Debris Action Plan activities, regional outreach efforts, and coordination in the territories. Reach out to Grace at!


The Pacific Islands are full of sun, sand, and unfortunately… marine debris. Like many other coastal areas, the Pacific Islands are not immune to the impacts of marine debris. Due to the Pacific Islands’ position in the Pacific Ocean and in relation to the North Pacific Gyre and ocean currents, they are often inundated with debris from both local and far-off sources. Luckily, there are many great efforts underway to address and prevent marine debris in this area. Check out a couple newly-established projects funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program:

Preventing marine debris is the ultimate solution to the problem, so Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) is working to do just that! They’ve launched a public awareness campaign focused on tobacco-free beaches in Maui, Hawaii. To get the word out, they’re creating public service announcements, developing handouts and outreach materials, and giving presentations. PWF is also hosting an art contest to promote marine debris outreach and education. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

A volunteer holding a handful of littered cigarette butts. Tidal Trash Treasures Art Contest Flyer.

Unfortunately, there’s enough marine debris out there that we also must work on removing it. To help clean our shores, Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund is leading an effort to remove as much debris as possible from over 200 miles of coastline on four different islands in Hawaii! Engaging hundreds of volunteers, they aim to remove approximately 55 metric tons (about 120,000 pounds) of marine debris! For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

A group of people on a beach.

Volunteers at Kamilo Point participated in the International Coastal Cleanup event in Sept 2016 and helped to remove 1.71 metric tons (3,765 pounds) of marine debris from a 1km stretch of coastline on Hawai‘i Island. (Photo Credit: Dr. Drew Kapp, HWF)

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

There’s a New Art Contest in Maui, So Do Your Part and Make Some Art!

Wed, 2017-02-01 09:30

Through a project supported by a NOAA Marine Debris Program Prevention through Education and Outreach grant, the Pacific Whale Foundation is launching a Tidal Trash Treasures Art Contest in Maui, Hawaii! Applicants must create artwork made from marine debris that they collected during a cleanup and must reflect the theme “healthy oceans, healthy marine life.”

For more information on this exciting competition, please see the flyer below. Entries are due Friday, February 17th with an entry “fee” of 25 littered cigarette butts removed from a beach, park, or public area.

Tidal Trash Treasures Art Contest Flyer.

Tidal Trash Treasures Art Contest Flyer. (Credit: Pacific Whale Foundation)

ADVs and the Gulf of Mexico

Thu, 2017-01-26 07:30

Abandoned and derelict vessels (ADVs) are a type of large marine debris that is a problem throughout the country. ADVs can be aesthetically unappealing, but can also create real problems by damaging important habitat, creating hazards to navigation and recreation, leaking pollutants into the environment, and impacting fisheries resources. Vessels can become derelict in a variety of ways, such as being abandoned by their owner after acquiring damage or sunk during a severe storm. Unfortunately, this type of debris can be extremely difficult and costly to remove, often making it difficult to address.

Derelict vessels in Galveston Bay, Texas.

Derelict vessels in Galveston Bay, Texas. (Photo Credit: Galveston Bay Foundation)

ADVs are particularly a problem in the Gulf of Mexico, especially due to the many severe storms in this region. ADVs and dilapidated docks remain along numerous rivers and tributaries that drain into the Gulf of Mexico. Many of these debris items are a direct result of storms including Hurricanes Ivan in 2004, Katrina and Rita in 2005, Ike in 2008, and Isaac in 2012. Unfortunately, this effect of these storms is not fully understood by many and it is an all too common practice in this region for boat owners to anchor their vessels in river systems prior to hurricane landfalls. Those boats can then lose their moorings and drift into marshes and stream banks from the strong winds, currents, and flooding that accompany these storms.

To address this problem in the Gulf region, the NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) has funded projects specifically to remove ADVs, including efforts in Dog River and Bayou la Batre, Alabama. Currently, the MDP is funding a project in Galveston Bay, Texas to remove large debris items such as ADVs. Unfortunately, there are still many ADVs that the MDP is not able to address due to costs and removal difficulties. For this reason, the MDP created the ADV InfoHub, which details how to address ADVs and provides avenues for removal in each coastal state. The ADV InfoHub also contains case studies and law reviews available for all Gulf States. In addition, the MDP has been involved in the creation of incident waterway response guides in both Florida and Alabama. These guides are meant to improve preparedness for response to and recovery from severe marine debris events by outlining existing responsibilities and procedures in one document for easy reference.

A derelict vessel in Bayou la Batre, Alabama. A derelict vessel in Dog River, Alabama.

For more on ADVs, check out the ADV InfoHub on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website and keep your eye on our Gulf of Mexico regional page for more on marine debris efforts in the Gulf region.

Tackling Marine Debris in the Gulf of Mexico

Tue, 2017-01-24 07:30

Photo of Caitlin Wessel.Meet Caitlin Wessel, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Gulf of Mexico Regional Coordinator! Caitlin has a broad background in both education and research, with a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and a M.S. from Coastal Carolina University in Coastal, Marine, and Wetland Studies. In her downtime, Caitlin can be found working towards her PhD in Marine Science from the University of South Alabama and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, scuba diving, kayaking, or hiking with her puppies. For questions about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Gulf of Mexico efforts, reach out to Caitlin at!

Marine debris is an issue throughout the country and unfortunately, the Gulf of Mexico is no different. To address this problem, we first must work to prevent trash from becoming marine debris and we do this through education and outreach. Unfortunately, there’s enough debris out there that we must also work to remove it. Check out some of the efforts currently underway to prevent and remove debris in the Gulf:

Sea Turtle, Inc. is working to prevent marine debris by developing bilingual signage on South Padre Island, Texas. They’re also developing a display and educational programs for students to learn about marine debris, its impacts on wildlife (like sea turtles), and the ways we can help prevent it. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

Graphic of a sea turtle taking a bite of a bottle and a photo of a bottle with turtle bites taken out.

This project is focusing on educating the Lower Laguna Madre community about the impacts of debris on marine life, such as the ingestion of debris. In the photo on the right, you can clearly see sea turtle bites taken out of a plastic bottle. (Photo Credit: NOAA (left) and Sea Turtle, Inc. (right))

Ship Island Excursions is also working to prevent marine debris in the Gulf by educating students and community members in Southern Mississippi. As part of this project, they are providing marine debris education to coastal Mississippi students and providing outreach to passengers aboard the Ship Island Ferry through an interactive kiosk, signage, and marine educators and student ambassadors. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

A group of students on a pier.

Ship Island Excursions is educating students, teachers, and community members in coastal Mississippi. (Photo Credit: Ship Island Excursions)

To address the debris that’s already in our waters and on our shores, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is monitoring and removing derelict crab traps in Southern Alabama. They are leading three volunteer removal programs to remove and dispose of derelict crab traps, identifying and counting the animals that have been inadvertently caught by the traps, and monitoring the area to assess the removal efforts. For more information on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

Volunteers cleaning up derelict crab pots. A truck bed full of derelict crab pots.

Also working to remove marine debris from the Gulf of Mexico is the Galveston Bay Foundation. They are working to improve habitat and access to Galveston Bay by removing large debris items such as abandoned and derelict vessels from Chocolate Bayou, Texas. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

Derelict vessels partially submerged in water.

The Galveston Bay Foundation is working to remove large debris items from Galveston Bay, Texas. (Photo Credit: Galveston Bay Foundation)

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

Don’t Get the Winter Blues—Get the Winter Can-Do’s Instead!

Fri, 2017-01-20 07:30

It may be cold and grey outside, but don’t let it get you down! Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean our efforts to reduce the impacts of marine debris need to dwindle. There are still lots of ways we can make a difference in the fight against marine debris, even when the winter has slowed things down.

A cleanup crew moving debris into a boat with snowy mountain in the background.

A cleanup crew picks up debris in Alaska. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Don’t forget your 3R’s, which make a difference at any time of year! Reduce the amount of single-use materials that you use. Reuse items when you can. And for the items that you do use, don’t forget to recycle whenever possible (check out this blog on recycling to make sure you’re doing it right!).

Spread the word! It doesn’t have to be warm outside to spread the word to friends and family. Preventing marine debris is the key to solving the problem and we can do that through education and outreach. Many people simply don’t understand the issue or don’t know how they can help, so get the word out there! If you’re still in school or involved in teaching, consider incorporating one of our activities or lessons into your classroom. Use the activities demonstrated in our Trash Talk Webinar to discuss marine debris in your boy/girl scout troop. Watch our Trash Talk videos and talk about marine debris with your family. No matter how seemingly small, you can make a big difference.

You can still get involved in cleanup events! There may be fewer cleanups at this time of year due to the cold weather in a lot of areas, but there are still opportunities to clean up! Find one in your area or organize one yourself (remember safety first!) and use the Marine Debris Tracker App! If you haven’t already, subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter, which lists cleanups around the country.

Don’t get the winter blues—get the winter can-do’s and continue the fight against marine debris!

Marine Debris Efforts Around the Country

Thu, 2017-01-19 09:24

We’ve spent the last year highlighting marine debris projects in various regions of the country. However, the NOAA Marine Debris Program also supports efforts that are national in scope. Check out some of the national projects that are currently underway:

The BoatU.S. Foundation is working to remove debris in both the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions. With support from a NOAA Marine Debris Program Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant, they are working with two TowBoatU.S. towing and salvage partners to remove two large nets in Ocean City, Maryland, and to remove a derelict vessel in Lake Erie. They’re also assessing the impacts of some of this debris, as well as monitoring the effects of the removal. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

Pictures of derelict nets on a boat.

The BoatU.S. Foundation removed two derelict nets from Ocean City, MD as part of their project. (Photo Credit: Rick Younger)

The BoatU.S. Foundation is also working on preventing marine debris through a project supported by the Fishing for Energy program. Fishing for Energy is a partnership between the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Covanta, and Schnitzer Steel Industries, and administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. With this support, the BoatU.S. Foundation is working to prevent derelict fishing gear by developing a national education and outreach program to teach recreational boaters how to avoid set fishing gear. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

A close-up of derelict nets and ropes.

The BoatU.S. Foundation’s project through the Fishing for Energy program is working to prevent derelict fishing gear. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Another Fishing for Energy-supported project is being run by the National Sea Grant Law Center at the University of Mississippi. This project is working to assess innovative methods for addressing derelict fishing gear from around the country, to determine if these methods could be implemented in other areas. They’re also working to identify opportunities to prevent gear loss due to interactions with passing vessels. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

A close-up of derelict crab pots.

The Fishing for Energy project with the National Sea Grant Law Center is working to assess derelict fishing gear programs. (Photo Credit: G. Bradt, NH Sea Grant)

Keep your eye on our blog as we continue to highlight marine debris projects from around the country throughout the year!

Celebrate MLK Service Day by Joining a Shoreline Cleanup!

Fri, 2017-01-13 08:00

Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and let’s remember that it’s not just a day off from work and school, but a day to think about Martin Luther King, Jr. and what he did for our country. To commemorate a great man who spent his life serving others, this day has become a time to come together to give back to our communities and volunteer our time to a good cause. If you’d like to participate in Martin Luther King, Jr. Service Day, consider joining a cleanup in your area. Cleaning up your local shoreline or even just your neighborhood can help prevent trash from becoming marine debris and can help to create a healthy ocean that we can all enjoy.

Groups across the country host cleanup events throughout the weekend and volunteers are always welcome. If you can’t make it to an organized event, consider either organizing your own or just grabbing a trash bag and some gloves and cleaning up your local area. No effort is too small. If you choose to serve on your own, please remember “safety first!” Interested in getting involved in cleanups in the future, too? Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to get updates on upcoming cleanups around the country.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Service Day!

Kids pick up debris.

Volunteers work to clean up their local area at a cleanup event in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Influence of Various Aqueous Conditions on Additives Releasing From, and Pollutants Sorbing To, Microplastic Debris

Thu, 2017-01-12 09:00

This week marks “Research Week” on our blog and we will be highlighting marine debris research projects throughout the week! Research is an important part of addressing marine debris, as we can only effectively address it by understanding the problem the best we can.

By: Rob Hale, Guest Blogger and Professor in the Department of Aquatic Health Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)

Plastics are an increasing problem in our ocean and waterways. The plastic products we use, and hence those that find their way into the environment, are made of different polymers. These include products ranging from disposable water bottles, fishing gear, electronics, microbeads from personal care products, to furniture. Chemical additives are inserted into many plastic polymers to modify plastic properties such as color, flexibility, weather resistance, and flame retardancy. These additives may leach out over time, depending on the chemical structure of both the plastic polymer and the additive. Unfortunately, some additives are persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic. In addition, pollutants already in the water, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), can sorb to the surface of plastic debris. After exposure to light or abrasion, plastics fragment into ever smaller particles called microplastics. Microplastics can have different shapes and sizes, which not only affect their leaching and sorption behavior, but can influence what organisms either intentionally or inadvertently consume them. Knowledge of the relative importance of all these factors is critical to our understanding of the effects of discarded plastics in our ocean.

Figure showing that additives may leach out of plastic particles over time, while other contaminants can sorb to plastic particles.

Additives may leach out of plastic particles over time, while other contaminants can sorb to plastic particles. (Credit: NOAA)

We chose to study these interactions and used a laboratory environment so we could individually control the factors of interest. We investigated different combinations of plastics (polyurethane foam, polyethylene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride or “PVC”), additives, and water pollutants. We also examined the effect of microplastic size and the degree of weathering. We first ground various types of plastics to different size ranges using an ultra-cold grinder to make them brittle (check out this video of the process). Following the grinding of the plastics to microplastic size, we took photos of the microplastics through an electron microscope (see image below) and measured their surface areas. The plastics were then weathered by being exposed to ultraviolet light, as they might experience at the water’s surface or on a beach. Next, we placed a small amount of weathered or unweathered microplastics in a column containing sand (see figure below) and leached them with waters of differing temperature, salinity, and organic carbon content (including imitation animal digestive fluids). The water exiting the column was then collected and analyzed to see what additives were released.

Electron microscope image. Figure showing that a small amount of ground plastic polymer was placed in a column of sand. Water with varying properties (such as various salinities, temperatures, added digestive fluid) was then passed through the column. The water was then analyzed to see what additives had leached from the plastics.

We found that the type of plastic polymer greatly affected its surface area after grinding. Smaller microplastic particles, which have a greater surface area ratio, generally released additives at an increased rate. Polyurethane foam was particularly interesting due to the amount of flame retardants released to the water. Salinity had little effect on additive leaching. In contrast, higher water temperature, such as found in the tropics and the digestive tract of warm-blooded animals, caused more chemicals to be released. Leaching the microplastics with water containing humic acids caused the release of even greater amounts of additives, especially of flame retardants. Humic acids are natural chemicals found in high levels in estuaries, coastal sediments, swamps, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants (where many microplastics are trapped). Leaching the microplastics with synthetic digestive fluids, similar to what occurs in an organism, caused the most additives to be released to the water.

The results of this research allowed us to distinguish what factors increase the release of potentially harmful chemicals from discarded plastics to the environment. Such information is critical to protect living resources, as well as human health. Results will also allow us to design safer plastic products in the future.

For more information on this project, check out the Marine Debris Clearinghouse and the project profile on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website, where more results will be shared soon.

Different Types of Plastic Litter Lead to Different Types of Effects in Animals

Wed, 2017-01-11 08:00

This week marks “Research Week” on our blog and we will be highlighting marine debris research projects throughout the week! Research is an important part of addressing marine debris, as we can only effectively address it by understanding the problem the best we can.

By: Chelsea M. Rochman, Guest Blogger and Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto

When I go to the beach, anywhere in the world, I can kneel down and find small bits of plastic litter in the sand—these bits are called “microplastics.” Microplastic has become a common pollutant. It can be found globally, from the equator to the poles, in the ocean, lakes, and rivers. Microplastics are also eaten by and can be found inside nearly 700 species of animals, which likely mistake them for food.

If you take a closer look at this litter, you will notice that it is diverse— a handful of microplastics looks like party confetti, with several colors and shapes. This is because there are many types of microplastics that enter the environment. You can likely see some of the various types from looking at the plastic products in your home. Microplastics generally come from larger plastic items (like water bottles and other household items) that have been degraded into several pieces via the sunlight, wind, and waves. If you look at your plastic items, you’ll notice a recycle code which indicates the plastic type; because there are several plastic types, there are several types of microplastics in the ocean. Thus, animals in the ocean, lakes, and rivers eat a diverse mixture of this material.

Ingesting this plastic debris can be harmful to animals. But, because all plastics are not the same, we were curious how different types of microplastics may impact animals differently. To help answer this question, we designed an experiment in our laboratory that fed different types of common microplastics to prey and predators in a freshwater food chain. We chose to experiment with plastics that belong to recycle codes 1 (polyethylene terephthalate, or “PETE,” used in polyester clothing and water bottles), 4 (polyethylene, used in plastic bags), 3 (polyvinyl chloride, or “PVC,” used in plastic pipes and bank cards), and 6 (polystyrene, used in food take-out containers and disposable cutlery). Because plastics in nature also accumulate chemicals from the environment, we spiked some of these plastics with the organic pollutant, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). We fed environmentally-relevant concentrations of these plastics, both with and without PCBs, to freshwater clams (prey) for 28 days. To measure how the exposure of contaminated prey may impact a predator, we then fed some of the clams to white sturgeon (predator), which are fish that naturally eat clams.

Figure showing various experimental groups fed to clams, which are then fed to sturgeon.

Various treatments were used to investigate the effects of different plastic types on prey and predators. These included feeding clams with a negative control (no plastic, no PCBs), a PCB control (no plastic, with PCBs), and then each type of plastic both without PCBs and with PCBs. Sturgeon were then fed clams exposed to each treatment. (Figure Credit: Chelsea Rochman)

We tested for several effects in clams and sturgeon exposed to each type of microplastic. We then compared these measurements to control treatments (clams and fish that were not exposed to any microplastics or PCBs). We compared changes in protein levels related to the metabolism of toxic compounds and reproduction, abnormalities in cells and tissues, changes in feeding behavior, condition factor (determined using standard weight versus length measurements, often used to measure health), and survival.

We found that the impacts to animals varied by plastic type— using several different plastics that were all the same shape and size, and we found greater overall effects from some plastic types and no effects from others. Just like chemical pollutants, our results suggest that not all microplastics should be lumped into one generalized contaminant group. Instead of only thinking about concentrations of microplastics that may be hazardous, we might also consider different sources and types of microplastics that may be hazardous. This may help ease some of the pressure on both resource managers and industry groups.

Tanks in a lab, full of clams. Sturgeon in a tank.

For more information on this project, check out the Marine Debris Clearinghouse and the project profile on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website, where more specific results will be available soon.

Can Tiny Plastic Particles in the Ocean Introduce Contaminants to the Food Web?

Tue, 2017-01-10 08:00

This week marks “Research Week” on our blog and we will be highlighting marine debris research projects throughout the week! Research is an important part of addressing marine debris, as we can only effectively address it by understanding the problem the best we can.

By: Amy NS Siuda (Eckerd College), Kara Lavender Law (Sea Education Association), and Tony Andrady (Helix Science), Guest Bloggers and Principal Investigators for the Research Project “Investigating the Influence of Microplastics (and contaminants) on the Grazing Behavior of Copepods”

 Can the tiniest plastic particles in the ocean introduce contaminants to the food web? This very question was at the heart of our recent research project, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program. As a first step to answering this question, we proposed to test whether microscopic copepods, the most abundant multicellular organisms in the ocean, would eat contaminated plastic particles.

Microplastic debris (less than 5mm) can originate from the likes of facial and body washes in the form of “microbeads,” or may start as larger, more recognizable, objects that break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. Microscopic plastic particles can be as small as the single-celled algae that form the base of the marine food web (30 times smaller than a grain of salt!) and which are the primary diet for copepods.

A microscope image of a copepod.

An Acartia tonsa copepod, approximately 1mm long, as used in this experiment. (Photo Credit: Dam Lab, UConn)

Unfortunately, this plastic debris is often contaminated with toxic chemicals. Plastics can absorb and concentrate toxic pollutants present at trace levels in seawater, and some of the chemical additives mixed in during the manufacturing process can be toxic as well. When marine organisms ingest chemical-laden plastic pieces, some of the pollutants may be released within the gut of the animal and absorbed into body tissue. Although it is uncertain how much of these harmful chemicals enter marine animals due to ingestion of plastic debris in the ocean, laboratory experiments suggest there may be reason for concern.

Biological oceanographers often use simple bottle incubation experiments to isolate and observe interactions between microorganisms. Using this model, and using three common pollutants (nonylphenol, decabromodiphenyl ether, and dicholoro-diphenyl-tricholorethane—say that five times fast!) to contaminate select microbeads, we exposed individual copepods to one of four diets: microalgae, uncontaminated microplastic beads, contaminated microplastic beads, and a mixed diet of microalgae and contaminated microplastic beads.

Copepods in the wild tend to avoid eating naturally-toxic microalgae, so we were interested to learn if copepods exposed to a mixed diet would indiscriminately eat contaminated microbeads along with the algae, or if they would somehow sense and avoid eating contaminated microbeads altogether. If copepods eat the microbeads, there is potential for biological accumulation of contaminants that begins at the very base of the food web.

An image of a woman working in a lab around a lab setup.

Here, a bottle experiment is in progress. To keep algae cells and plastic particles well-mixed in the solution, bottles were affixed to a slowly-rotating plankton wheel in a temperature- and light-controlled room. (Photo Credit: A. Siuda)

The experiments showed that copepods ate the contaminated plastic beads and apparently were not able to distinguish between an uncontaminated plastic bead and a highly contaminated bead. This was true of all three pollutants we tested.

The experiments also attempted to figure out the fraction of beads eaten by copepods when they were presented with a mixture of plastic beads (clean or contaminated) and algae, their staple food.  However, unexpected methodological challenges complicated the data. In order to quantify the number of plastic beads and algae that were consumed during an experiment, we used automated particle counting based upon particle size. We discovered that the tiny polyethylene beads had a tendency to clump together. These clumps, together with biological debris from the algal cultures, obscured the particle size information needed to determine the number of plastic beads and algal cells that had been eaten. This result, while disappointing, revealed a previously unknown phenomenon (plastic particle clumping) and will inform future experimental designs.

Although the fraction of ingested microbeads couldn’t be determined, the discovery that copepods ate both contaminated plastics and clean plastics is an important finding. It suggests these organisms either cannot sense these particular contaminants on their food, or cannot selectively avoid food particles contaminated with toxic chemicals. Without these avoidance mechanisms, there may be toxicological effects for copepods exposed to contaminated plastics in the ocean.

For more information on this project, check out the project profile on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website and the Marine Debris Clearinghouse.

The United States of Trash: A Quantitative Analysis of Marine Debris on U.S. Beaches and Waterways

Mon, 2017-01-09 09:30

This week marks “Research Week” on our blog and we will be highlighting marine debris research projects throughout the week! Research is an important part of addressing marine debris, as we can only effectively address it by understanding the problem the best we can.

By: George H. Leonard, PhD, Guest Blogger and Chief Scientist for the Ocean Conservancy

Have you ever wondered how much trash is on U.S. beaches? So have we! At Ocean Conservancy, we have spearheaded the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) for over 30 years and have collected data on the materials that are cleaned up each year. However, we haven’t done a rigorous, quantitative analysis of those data to provide a baseline by which to understand changes over time and spatial differences in marine debris across the U.S. The NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) has similarly monitored marine debris at a number of sites around the country, but also has not yet tried to rigorously evaluate what all the data mean. So, we have both teamed up with scientists Drs. Chris Wilcox and Denise Hardesty at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia to bring the power of statistics to the problem. The answers are now just pouring in, and while we can’t reveal the specific findings until they are published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, we can give you a sense of what is emerging from this effort.

Amy Uhrin filling out a form on a beach. A group of people looking at data forms and scanning the beach for debris along a transect line. Chris Wilcox filling out a form on a beach.

Our joint project centered on 3 core questions: 1) How much marine debris occurs along U.S. shores?; 2) Are there specific items that are most (and least) abundant, and do they vary locally or regionally?; and 3) Are there “hotspots” where marine debris is most abundant? Our approach was to bring together the ICC and NOAA datasets and statistically explore the impact of state, region, proximity to cities, presence of rivers, and observer bias on the amount and type of debris collected. We were also interested in determining if patterns in some types of debris (like bottles and caps) were influenced by the presence of local policies, like container deposit legislation.

The analysis suggests that marine debris is highly variable around the United States, with some states quite ‘clean’ and others quite ‘dirty’, on a relative scale. While these patterns are highly variable, they are also heavily impacted by the presence of people, the location of routes to the sea (like rivers), and the presence of international borders. We are also discovering evidence that local policies, like container deposit laws, can reduce the presence of commonly-littered items (such as beverage containers) on local beaches.

The three monitoring protocols that were used in this study vary in the size of debris that is recorded. The Ocean Conservancy’s ICC methods have no detection limit (so include very small and large debris pieces), while NOAA’s monitoring efforts record items down to 2.5cm (one inch) in size. Thus, these two survey types are particularly adept at identifying larger items of littered trash. CSIRO’s approach to sampling debris quantifies all debris items that are visible to the naked eye (down to about 1mm in size), which can include many of the small plastic pieces that result from the disintegration of large debris due to exposure to the elements. Thus, when evaluated statistically, estimates of the number of plastic items on the beach can vary widely depending upon the survey method used. Of course, none of the sampling methods we evaluated are capable of sampling plastic pieces that are even too small to be seen by the naked eye. If you include these teeny plastic pieces – visible only under a microscope – estimates of how much debris litters our nation’s beaches and waterways grow larger still.

A group of people scanning a beach for marine debris along a transect line. Sherry Lippiatt standing in beach vegetation and looking at a GPS. Two people looking at a camera and datasheet on a beach. A group of people on a beach. A group of people walking on a beach and using a measuring wheel.

One take-home message from our study? The more scientists research the issue of debris in the ocean, the more we uncover the extent of the issue and the bigger the problem seems to become. Collaborative partnerships among NGOs, scientists, and government leaders like NOAA can help quantify the scale and scope of the problem – and in so doing, lay the foundation for the solutions needed to keep debris from entering the ocean in the first place.

For more on this project check out the project profile on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

It’s Research Week on the Marine Debris Blog!

Mon, 2017-01-09 07:30

This week marks “Research Week” on our blog and we will be highlighting marine debris research projects throughout the week! Research is an important part of addressing marine debris, as we can only effectively address it by understanding the problem the best we can.

Stay tuned starting later today for a post each day about our research efforts. We’ll wrap up with a Reddit “Ask Us Anything” on microplastics Thursday afternoon! Tune in on Thursday (1/12) at 1pm EDT to check out the conversation with the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s (MDP’s) science team and ask some microplastics questions!

Meet our scientists:

Amy Uhrin, NOAA Marine Debris Program Chief Scientist.Amy V. Uhrin, Chief Scientist

Amy spent 15 years as a Research Ecologist at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research conducting applied research focusing largely on seagrass restoration and ecology as well as derelict fishing gear issues. As Chief Scientist, Amy is responsible for developing and implementing the MDP’s Strategic Research Plan, overseeing our research portfolio, leading internal research projects, and overseeing external research projects funded by the MDP. Amy holds a B.S. in Biology from St. Bonaventure University and a M.S. in Marine Science – Biological Oceanography from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. She is currently pursuing her PhD (Zoology) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Carlie Herring, NOAA Marine Debris Program Research Analyst.

Carlie Herring, Research Analyst

Carlie received her M.S. in Environmental Sciences in the Marine and Estuarine Science Program at Western Washington University with a thesis in ecological risk assessments. She completed a B.S. in Marine Sciences at the University of Maine, Orono. For her B.S., she conducted marine debris research, dealing specifically with plastics in the ocean. She also has experience as a marine science educator. As the Research Analyst, Carlie is responsible for overseeing research projects funded by the MDP, staying up-to-date on new marine debris research and literature, and is involved in the MDP’s Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project.

We hope you enjoy learning about some of the great research initiatives that are going on and hope to see you at the Reddit “Ask Us Anything” on Thursday!

The Removal of the F/V Western

Wed, 2017-01-04 10:17

By: Nir Barnea, Pacific Northwest Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program

On December 21st, the F/V Western was pulled out of the water near the Empire Dock in Coos Bay, Oregon. The sunken vessel was brought to land and later disposed of, thus ending a long journey that started 82 years earlier. Unlike some abandoned and derelict vessels (ADVs), we know a lot about the F/V Western’s history thanks to Toni Mirosevich, a Professor at San Francisco State University and the daughter of Anthony Mirosevich, the captain and owner of the F/V Western for twenty years.

In 1934, when the world was gripped by the Great Depression, a graceful, wood hulled, 69-foot long boat was launched in Tacoma, Washington. The vessel was purchased by the Mirosevich family from Everett, WA in 1945, named Western Maid, and set sail for salmon fishing in Alaska. In 1965, after Anthony Mirosevich passed away, his family sold the boat. At some point, it was converted to a crab fishing vessel and its name was changed to Western.

A boat floating in the water. A boat floating in the water.

Over the years the boat’s condition deteriorated. It sank twice– once in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and the second time near Coos Bay, OR. In both instances, it was raised and given a new life. In 2015, the boat sank for the third and last time, adjacent to the Empire Dock in Coos Bay. It was located near a shipping lane and in an environmentally-sensitive area, so the F/V Western had to be removed to prevent additional environmental harm. The Oregon State Marine Board led the removal project, in collaboration with the Oregon Department of State Land and the NOAA Marine Debris Program. Billeter Marine, a local marine salvage contractor, conducted the removal.

A boat floating in the water. A sunken boat in the water. Boat debris being hauled out of the water with a crane.

The story of the F/V Western is unique, but not unusual. Boats, long past their prime, eventually sink, and their removal is challenging and costly. As part of the project, and to facilitate prevention of ADVs in Oregon, the Oregon State Marine Board in collaboration with Oregon Sea Grant initiated the ADV Task Force. The Task Force brings together many partners including port and marina managers, vessel owners, and fishermen to identify strategies to prevent commercial fishing vessels from becoming large and expensive pieces of marine debris. The ADV Task Force will draft a report that includes the group’s process, challenges, options for prevention, and recommendations. In addition, this project is creating an inventory of commercial fishing vessels along the Oregon coast that need to be removed. Using a matrix developed by the Columbia River Derelict Vessel Task Force, the inventory will include vessel location, ownership information, history, and condition to facilitate ADV removal in Oregon.

Hopefully the enduring legacy of the F/V Western will be the long-lasting benefits that the ADV Task Force will provide to Oregon and possibly to other states who face the persistent challenge of abandoned and derelict vessels.

For more information on this removal project, check out the project profile on the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s website.

New Standards-Based Curriculum Available!

Tue, 2017-01-03 11:32

We are excited to announce the release of Nature’s Academy’s Standards-Based Curriculum, which was created as part of their Science Literacy Project as part of an effort supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Students cleaning up marine debris from a shoreline.

Students learn from Nature’s Academy’s curriculum and participate in a hands-on educational program as part of a project supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program. (Photo Credit: Nature’s Academy)

This curriculum incorporates lessons on marine debris into a broader investigation that helps students make the connection between the various parts of an aquatic ecosystem, as well as understand how people can impact such environments. It is designed to be used by fifth-grade teachers that are participating in the Nature’s Academy hands-on educational program in Florida. It outlines the specific standards that are covered by the included lessons, provides background information meant to best prepare students and teachers for participation in the field trip activities, and includes comprehensive lesson plans that utilize the Nature’s Academy Citizen Science Database.

Although this curriculum is aimed at students and teachers participating in the field trip program, the materials provided may prove to be a useful resource for many educators that are working to prevent marine debris through education and outreach.

Check out the curriculum on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

Cover of the new Standards-Based curriculum from Nature’s Academy.

Check out the new Standards-Based curriculum from Nature’s Academy! (Credit: Nature’s Academy)

Happy New Year from the NOAA Marine Debris Program!

Fri, 2016-12-30 08:00

Another year has come and gone and we like to take this time to look back on the past year and look forward to the next. Not only was 2016 the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s ten-year anniversary, but this past year also saw over 44,500 students involved in marine debris education and outreach and over 1,775 tons of debris removed from our shores! Check out our 2016 Accomplishments Report for more on what we’ve achieved this past year. Looking to 2017, we’re excited for the year ahead and we hope you are too! We resolve to continue our fight against marine debris and to strengthen our efforts by supporting 14 projects to remove debris and 12 to prevent it, all of which are in the beginning stages this year. Keep your eye on our blog and website as we work on that resolution throughout the year!

What are your resolutions? There are many efforts we can all resolve to make to get our ocean off to a good start in 2017. Be aware of how your actions contribute to marine debris. Reduce, reuse, and recycle whenever possible. If you’d like to become more active this year, consider getting involved in a cleanup event in your area— it gets you outside, is a good place to meet other like-minded people, and helps keep our ocean clean. Subscribe to our e-newsletter for monthly updates on event locations.

Keep the environment in mind as you ring in 2017 this New Year’s Eve. Let’s work together to make this next year the best it can be for ourselves and the ocean we rely on.

Happy New Year from the NOAA Marine Debris Program!

Image of glass bottles on a beach with the words "Happy New Year! Remember our environment and celebrate responsibly" overlayed.

(Photo Credit: NOAA)

May Your Holidays Be Both Green and Joyful!

Tue, 2016-12-20 08:21
A nicely wrapped present in brown paper with a ribbon.

Green holidays never looked so good! Here, a beautiful gift is wrapped in paper packing material, with a reusable bow and hand-made name tag from a paper bag. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

The holidays are a time to give back and enjoy the company of the ones you love. Here at the NOAA Marine Debris Program, we love our ocean and we hope you do, too! So during this season of giving, consider giving back to our ocean by taking a few of these simple steps to make your holiday “green.” There are lots of little things we can all do to have both a joyful and environmentally-friendly holiday season!

Practice some smart shopping. When doing your holiday shopping for gifts and groceries, think about the packaging those items come in. If possible, opt for items with minimal packaging or stock up on bulk ingredients. And of course, don’t forget your reusable bags, which are not only environmentally-friendly, but much sturdier for when you’re stocking up on ten pounds of flour (true story).

Skip the disposable cutlery. It’s a special time of year to spend with the people that we care about, so celebrate by taking out the nice dishes and silverware and skipping the disposable stuff.

Try some reusable and creative wrapping ideas. Consider wrapping your gifts in something other than wrapping paper. There are so many cool ideas that not only make your gifts stand out, but help to make your holiday green! Consider reusing old newspaper or some of that packing that your gifts were shipped in. Even better, think about using reusable fabric to wrap your presents this year. Some families even choose a particular pattern for each person and reuse them year after year, making a fun new tradition! If you’d like to be the gift-giving champ, think about “wrapping” a gift within another gift, like a gift wrapped in a pretty new scarf or a present tucked in a new purse or shaving kit!

Take care of any packaging the right way. There will inevitably be some waste at the end of your holiday merriment. Make sure you take care of it the right way—save the things that can be reused next year (you may never have to buy wrapping paper again!) and recycle what you can.

Want some more ideas to keep your environmental impact low this holiday season? Check out these tips from the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration. It’s the season to spread some joy and love around, so remember to do your part to show our ocean some love this holiday.

Happy holidays from the NOAA Marine Debris Program!

Gifts wrapped in fabric with festive prints. Gift tags being cut from an old paper bag. A nicely wrapped present in brown paper decorated in stamps and wrapped in twine. Reindeer stamps on reused brown paper. A gift in a mason jar with a handmade name tag.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program Celebrates Ten Years: A Look Forward

Wed, 2016-12-14 08:00

By: Nancy Wallace, Director of the NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program 10 year anniversary identity marker.This year marked the ten-year anniversary of the NOAA Marine Debris Program. We are proud of our accomplishments and looking forward to the next ten years! Throughout 2016, we have celebrated by looking back on our accomplishments over the past decade. For a review of the past ten years, check out our timeline and continue to check out our blog and website as we move forward into our second decade of marine debris work!


Head shot of Nancy Wallace.

Nancy Wallace, Director of the NOAA Marine Debris Program (Photo Credit: NOAA)

With 2016 soon coming to a close, so does the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s ten-year anniversary. Over the past ten years, the Program has seen tremendous growth and success as we’ve worked to address the issue of marine debris. We’ve expanded from an initial staff of six to nineteen, now covering ten regions of the country. Through the dedicated efforts of our team members and partners, we’ve removed thousands of tons of marine debris from our shores, gained valuable knowledge through scientific research, and reached thousands of students, teachers, and community members to raise awareness of the issue and prevent marine debris.

As we move into our next decade, we are looking forward to the future and the strides we hope to make in the fight against marine debris. To focus our efforts, we are driven by our strategic plan, which will guide us through 2020. We will continue to work with partners and stakeholders both at home and abroad to prevent new sources of marine debris. Our support of projects that work to remove, prevent, and research debris will be ongoing and we’re currently looking forward to the award of our new research grants later in 2017, working to further expand our knowledge base. Our next group of removal grants will be awarded as well, helping us continue our mission to remove debris from our shores. In addition, our focus on marine debris prevention will continue, as we investigate what constitutes the most effective method for inspiring behavior change regarding marine debris prevention.

People in a small boat and in the water hauling derelict nets into the boat. A teacher discussing marine debris with students.

I am proud of what the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been able to accomplish over these past ten years and look forward to the next decade and beyond of marine debris work, until our vision of the global ocean and its coasts free from the impacts of marine debris is realized. Thank you to all who support our efforts by making changes in your own lives to combat marine debris; this is a global problem for which the solution requires a collaborative effort and we are excited to continue to be part of it.

A child's drawing of a crab with debris. A volunteer holding a data sheet and pointing to debris.