Three abandoned and derelict small vessels partially submerged at the edge of a bay.

Vessel Damage and Navigation Hazard

Marine debris can be quite large and difficult to see in the ocean, especially if it's floating below the water’s surface. Encounters with marine debris at sea can result in costly vessel damage, and can even put people’s lives at risk. Occasionally, large amounts of debris can enter nearshore coastal waterways all at once, especially during natural disasters. Abandoned and derelict vessels, construction and demolition debris, and derelict fishing gear are just a few of the types of marine debris we find in waterways that can damage vessels and become a navigational hazard.

What kinds of marine debris cause vessel damage and hazards to navigation?

Abandoned and Derelict Vessels: Thousands of abandoned and derelict vessels litter ports, waterways, and estuaries all over the country. They threaten our ocean, coasts, waterways, and Great Lakes by blocking navigational channels, causing harm to the environment, and reducing commercial and recreational value. Abandoned and derelict vessels can last for years, impact protected harbors and bays, and break apart creating widespread debris. Once lost, abandoned and derelict vessels can block navigation channels and sit low or under water. This can cause problems for passing vessels that may collide with an abandoned and derelict vessel, causing damage and potentially creating more marine debris. 

Assessing, removing, and disposing of these vessels requires significant financial and technical resources and laws pertaining to abandoned and derelict vessels vary within each state. The NOAA Marine Debris Program created an Abandoned and Derelict Vessel InfoHub as a central source of information regarding abandoned and derelict vessels. It explains how abandoned and derelict vessels are handled by each coastal state in an effort to bring together information and to create a comprehensive look at this subject. Check out the InfoHub to find a contact in your area for reporting abandoned and derelict vessels.

Disaster Debris: Marine debris is an everyday problem, but natural disasters and accidents at sea have the potential to make it worse. Hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, typhoons, and mudslides have devastating effects on human life and property. The high winds, heavy rains, flooding, and tidal surges from extreme events can carry objects as light as a cigarette butt or as heavy as the roof of a two-story home far out to sea. During storms or other periods of strong winds or high waves, almost any kind of trash (including glass, metal, wood, and medical waste) can be moved into the ocean and coastal waters, which can cause flooding, block navigational channels, and make it more difficult or dangerous to get to people during an emergency.

Accidents at sea can also result in large amounts of marine debris being created at once. Large materials, such as entire vessels and shipping containers, can block waterways, as well as cause collisions that threaten human health and safety.

In order to reduce the impacts from marine debris created during a disaster, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has created a series of marine debris emergency response guides for coastal states and territories that aid in the response during marine debris emergencies. These guides help describe the local, state, and federal response to marine debris following a disaster and address hazardous debris that can block navigational channels.

Derelict Fishing Gear: Derelict fishing gear includes lines, nets, pots, traps, floats, and other gear that is no longer under the control of a commercial or recreational fisher. This lost gear can cause problems for vessels and navigation safety by wrapping around propellers and rudders, or tangling around active fishing gear. Boat traffic can risk colliding with sunken and large marine debris. When waves are large or weather is hazardous, getting a vessel free from derelict fishing gear can be both difficult and dangerous. 

Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, has a ghost net problem. Storms, wind, shifting ice, waves, and other vessels can cause fishers to lose gill nets, a type of durable net commonly used in Lake Superior. If lines are cut, the nets continue to drift beneath the water’s surface for years, getting caught in active fishing gear, wrapping around boat propellers, and threatening the safety of boaters that may not know how to release their vessel from derelict gear. In order to address this ongoing issue, University of Wisconsin Sea Grant partnered with commercial, tribal, and sport fishers through a NOAA Marine Debris Program Prevention Grant, to develop an education and outreach plan to prevent the loss of these gill nets, as well as produce a video that highlights the hazards of lost gill nets and provides tips on how to avoid them or free tangled equipment.

What should I do if I find a derelict vessel or other large object that may become a hazard to navigation?

When approaching large or hazardous marine debris, use common sense and follow general safety guidelines. If you don't know what an item is, don't touch it. If it appears hazardous, contact the appropriate authorities. 

If you encounter a derelict vessel or other large debris, contact your local authorities and a state emergency response or environmental health agency to report the item. If the debris item is a potential hazard to navigation, immediately contactyour nearest U.S. Coast Guard Sector Command Center. Do not attempt to move the item.

If the vessel is leaking oil or other hazardous materials, contact your local authorities, a state emergency response or environmental health agency, and the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802 to report the item with as much information as possible. Do not touch the item or attempt to move it. If the item poses a serious hazard and requires immediate attention by authorities, make a 911 emergency call.

For more information on handling marine debris, please see our marine debris handling guidelines.

Last updated Tue, 02/07/2023 - 07:50 am EST