A street storm drain with a wire cover.

Understanding the Sources and Pathways of Marine Debris Entering Lake Ontario

Rochester Institute of Technology is working to understand the sources of marine debris in Lake Ontario, how it moves, and where it ends up.

Type of Project: Research

Region: Great Lakes

Project Dates: December 2021 - May 2024

Who is involved?
Researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology, with the support of a NOAA Marine Debris Program research grant, are collecting and analyzing debris from stormwater systems, tributaries and rivers, and areas near rivers and streams to understand the amount of marine debris coming to Lake Ontario. Researchers at the University of Toronto are conducting similar studies in Canada and are collaborators on the project, while partners from Southpoint Marina, Westpoint Marina, Seneca Park Zoo Society, the Town of Brighton, Monroe County Department of Environmental Services, and DiMarco Group are assisting with debris monitoring and other project activities.

What is the project and why is it important?
Though our understanding of marine debris has grown over the last few decades, there are still many gaps in our understanding of this issue. One such data gap includes an understanding of how much marine debris is entering rivers and lakes and the pathways it takes to get there. Even though we know that a large amount of debris comes from land, researchers are still studying how it travels from land to lakes, rivers, and the ocean, as well as how it moves throughout these environments and where it eventually ends up. Researchers are also working to understand how much stormwater, wastewater, agricultural run-off and other non-point sources, or sources that don’t just come from one place, contribute to the problem. 

This study will begin to address these questions by creating a watershed mass balance model* of marine debris of all sizes entering Lake Ontario. Researchers will use data from field measurements and monitoring to estimate the amount of debris entering the lake from stormwater systems in rural, suburban, and urban areas. The research team will specifically study the way debris enters the environment from storm drains, stormwater ponds, tributaries, and land bordering rivers and streams. They will also evaluate how much marine debris breaks down in both natural and man-made stormwater systems. 

Project researchers will use information from this study and apply it to other similar rural, suburban, and urban areas around Lake Ontario. This will allow researchers to estimate the total amount of debris entering Lake Ontario. They will also be able to use the data collected from litter-capturing devices, such as Seabins and LittaTraps, to quantify how much debris they are removing from the environment before it reaches the lake. In the future, cities and resource managers could use this information to evaluate if and where additional devices are needed to prevent debris from entering the lake.

For more information about this project, visit the Marine Debris Program Clearinghouse.

*What is a watershed mass balance model?

Think of a watershed mass balance model as an 'inputs and losses’ exercise to see how much debris enters the environment and ultimately the rivers and lake from various pathways, such as streams and storm drains, and where debris might be removed or stopped before getting to the river and eventually the lake. These 'losses or sinks' would likely be stormwater ponds and vegetated areas bordering the streams and rivers. We can use litter-capturing devices, such as LittaTraps and Seabins, to understand how much debris would normally enter streams and rivers, and how much debris is getting caught in the environment before it makes it to the rivers and lake. Using that information, researchers can estimate the total amount of debris that make it to Lake Ontario.

Last updated Tue, 07/18/2023 - 10:44 am EDT