Colorful microplastics in a bottle.


The Marine Debris Program supports research projects across the country that address marine debris, its sources, and its impacts. These projects work to investigate many unanswered questions about marine debris so we can better understand it and mitigate its impacts, focusing on marine debris monitoring, fishing gear improvement and alternatives, life cycle analysis, chemical impacts, and economic impacts.

Active Research Projects

A triptych showing derelict fishing gear on a rocky beach, overflowing trash cans, and microplastics mixed in with natural debris on a shoreline.

The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis is developing a framework to help governments estimate the costs of plastic pollution, taking into account the amount of plastic waste entering the environment, how long plastics last, and their impacts on the environment.

Aerial view of the Choptank river.
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science is examining the role marshes and underwater plant life, or vegetation, have in determining what happens to plastic debris as it moves down the Choptank River.
A piece of debris floating in a tideline in the Delaware Bay.
The University of Delaware is investigating how marine debris enters and moves through the Delaware River and Bay and where it ends up.
Marine debris mixed with natural debris on a beach shore.
Villanova University is conducting a regional assessment of the Guánica Watershed, Puerto Rico, by studying the upstream sources and movement of marine debris and evaluating how debris breaks down over time in different habitats and conditions.
Three researchers use yellow tape to set up a grid covering bare and grassy vegetation for observing marine debris via uncrewed aerial systems near a railroad bridge overpass.
San Diego State University is conducting a study to understand and compare the amount of debris entering the San Diego River from stormwater systems, unhoused communities, and illegal dumping. 
A street storm drain with a wire cover.
Rochester Institute of Technology is working to understand the sources of marine debris in Lake Ontario, how it moves, and where it ends up.
Steep cliffs along an ocean shoreline.

The NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuary Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary collected and analyzed data to better understand the marine debris problem in the Sanctuary.

A high-resolution coastal image with labeled natural and marine debris.
Oregon State University, in collaboration with the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and NOAA Marine Debris Program are using uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) imagery, machine learning, and advanced sensors to detect and identify marine debris on shorelines.
Plastic bottles floating in a river.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is conducting a study to evaluate the contributions of the United States to global ocean plastic waste, including types of marine debris, where it comes from, the amount of marine debris in our domestic waterways, and the export and import of plastic waste to and from the United States, among other questions.
Clear, round dish hold many tiny crabs and microplastics in water.
The University of California at Riverside and partners will investigate the source and pathways of microplastics, using modeling and field measurements of riverine and wastewater treatment inputs, to better understand the fate and transport of microplastics in the Southern California Bight (SCB).
A drawing of where a river outflow meets the ocean. On the left side of the image, the river outflow, also known as a river plum, is lighter in color compared to the right side of the ocean image which is a darker blue.
Rutgers University will study the movement of microplastics down the Delaware River to the confluence with Delaware Bay, and determine the role this mixing area may play as the entry point for microplastics into the food chain.

Completed Research Projects - Archives


A microscopic crab larvae is being viewed through a microscope.

Researchers from the University of Delaware are evaluating the effects microplastics have on blue crab larvae at different developmental stages and will test whether exposure during these stages impacts blue crab survival and settlement to Mid-Atlantic Bight estuaries.

Two small fish are shown side by side in a clear container of water.

Virginia Institute of Marine Science and partners will examine whether microplastic ingestion increases disease susceptibility in rainbow trout.

A top down view of a crab pot with three green panels that will dissolve over time. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary, worked to reduce ecological and economic impacts associated with lost gear in coastal Washington and Alaska.


Two people laying a transect. Scientists and statisticians with the University of Washington’s Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) are collaborating with the NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) to conduct shoreline monitoring field trials to evaluate and update the NOAA Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project (MDMAP) and COASST marine debris monitoring protocols.
Live mussel between fingers. This collaborative study between the NOAA Mussel Watch Program, Loyola University Chicago, and the NOAA Marine Debris Program, will use invasive mussels as a monitoring tool for microplastic pollution across the Milwaukee Estuary, Wisconsin.


Buckets full of scallops. Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, and Florida Atlantic University, with support from NOAA Marine Debris Program Research Grant are conducting experiments to provide the data needed to calculate the risk of microplastic ingestion to scallop stock populations.
A fish resting in a researcher’s gloved hands.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) are investigating microplastic ingestion by black sea bass, both by direct consumption and through transfer from prey to predator.

A microscope image of microfibers trapped in an oyster gill. Scientists at the University of Connecticut are determining the types and concentrations of microplastics ingested by oysters, how microplastic characteristics may influence ingestion, and the effects on oysters’ digestive processes.
A beach with palm trees, littered with debris. Researchers from Arizona State University used a risk assessment framework to quantify microplastics in water, sediment, and invertebrates at three sites in American Samoa, as well as assess the types and concentrations of organic contaminants in the water, sediment, invertebrates, and microplastic samples.


A beach filled with people and umbrellas located in Delaware.

Economists with Abt Associates conducted an economic study to understand how marine debris affected the economies of tourism-dependent coastal communities.

Two people taking a water sample from a boat.

Scientists collected and studied water samples from 11 locations along the Mississippi River and quantified and characterized microplastic debris that may eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico.


Two people sampling on a beach. The National Park Service and Clemson University worked to collect and analyze beach sediments to assess the abundance and distribution of microplastics and microfibers on U.S. National Park beaches.
Two people recording on datasheets on a beach. The Ocean Conservancy, with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, led a research project which analyzed datasets from the International Coastal Cleanup and NOAA's Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project. It identified trends in marine debris distribution using a model, assessed management actions, and produced recommendations to improve monitoring protocols.


Bycatch Example (Photo Credit: VIMS).

This project investigated the physical, biological, and socio-economic impacts of Derelict Fishing Gear (DFG) in the Chesapeake Bay.

Blue crab pot with biopanel.

The College of William and Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science employed commercial fishermen to test biodegradable panels and will use color avoidance mechanisms to reduce bycatch mortality in derelict crab pots as part of a Fishing for Energy Gear Innovation project.

Researchers load pots into a tub for testing.

The Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Foundation determined the escapement rates of Dungeness crab from five different crab pot designs in the Puget Sound in this Fishing for Energy Gear Innovation project.

SCNDR Field Biologist Watches a Float.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources evaluated crab trap float rigging designs that may reduce crab trap damage and loss from boat strikes in this Fishing for Energy Gear Innovation project.

Blue crabs trapped in a derelict pot.

SERC evaluated existing crab pot technologies to reduce the impact of Maryland ghost crab pots in the Chesapeake Bay in this Fishing for Energy Gear Innovation project.

A variety of samples from Gulf of Alaska surface waters. (Photo Credit: University of Washington Tacoma) Scientists from UW Tacoma and UW’s JISAO established a baseline for the distribution and quantity of marine microplastics in the Gulf of Alaska, using it to investigate any change in microplastics following the 2011 Fukushima tsunami.
Floating Sargassum. (Photo Credit: University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory) The University of Southern Mississippi investigated the ingestion of marine microplastics in juvenile fish that use floating Sargassum (brown algae) as nursery habitat in the Gulf of Mexico.


Mussels in a UC Davis laboratory receive polymers with PCBs. Researchers in California investigated how contaminants associated with microplastics move through aquatic food chains.
Copepod Example (Photo Credit: Jason P. Landrum).

Sea Education Association, Inc. (SEA) worked with the NOAA Marine Debris Program to answer impact questions related to microplastics. Do copepods demonstrate selective grazing behavior when presented with microplastics contaminated with select persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic substances (PBT) chemicals, in addition to their natural prey?

Volunteers inspect a beach for marine debris. Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and local partners worked with the NOAA Marine Debris Program to evaluate and expand regional marine debris monitoring efforts.
Leaching from and sorbing to microplastics was the main focus of this study. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), funded by a research grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, investigated how various environmental conditions can affect contaminants leaching from, and attaching (sorbing) to, marine microplastic debris.


Marine debris on a beach in California.

Southern California residents lose millions of dollars each year avoiding littered, local beaches in favor of choosing cleaner beaches that are farther away and may cost more to reach, according to a new NOAA-funded Marine Debris Program economics study.

Four people surveying a beach for marine debris. The Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies at Oregon State University worked to develop a pilot marine debris monitoring program for the Oregon Coast.
Three people carrying marine debris off a beach. The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary worked to monitor marine debris in the Sanctuary.
Three people surveying a beach for marine debris. The Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary worked to monitor marine debris in the Sanctuary.
Microplastics sample from the Rhode River. (Photo Credit: Will Parson, courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program) The University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center Aquatic Toxicology Group, by request of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, analyzed archived surface-water samples from four Chesapeake Bay tributaries for microplastic debris.


Plastic nurdles spread out on a table Scientists from the University of Washington Tacoma and George Mason University worked to isolate and quantify microplastics in water and sediment samples and to compare laboratory protocols.


Derelict Dungeness Crab Pot.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program is supported research efforts to measure and address the impacts of derelict crab traps in Alaska’s Dungeness crab fisheries.

Last updated Thu, 03/21/2024 - 03:09 pm EDT