Marine Debris

What is Marine Debris?

Marine debris is any man-made, solid material that enters waterways directly through littering or indirectly via rivers, streams and storm drains. Marine debris can be simple items such as a discarded soda can, cigarette butt, or plastic bag that ends up in the ocean potentially harming marine life. Nearly 80 percent of marine debris originates from land-based sources.

Lost or abandoned commercial and recreational fishing nets, lines, pots, and traps are another form of marine debris, categorized as derelict fishing gear (DFG). These items, whether discarded intentionally or lost accidentally, may sit on the seafloor, get caught on rocky or coral reefs, or float on the ocean surface. The majority of this lost gear does not decompose in seawater and can remain in the marine environment for many years. Often this gear continues to trap and even kill marine animals, a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing.” You can learn more about derelict fishing gear cleanup and the problem of ghost fishing in this video Responding to the Risks of Marine Debris: Derelict Fishing Gear by produced by Oregon SeaGrant:

Take Action Against Marine Debris

With so much trash and litter entering our ocean every year, the problem of preventing and reducing marine debris is an urgent challenge that we must meet to preserve the health of our ocean. Business, government and individuals can make a difference. Here’s how you can do your part in reducing and preventing marine debris:

  • Bring your own reusable cup for your morning coffee or latte, because disposable cups can end up as marine debris. You can also leave a mug and glass at work for you to use for your personal beverages. Every year we throw away 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups. Many end up in our ocean where they kill nearly a million sea creatures.
  • Avoid products with excess packaging. Buy fresh and local. Buy from bulk bins and avoid packages with individually wrapped items. Reducing excess packaging and plastics reduces marine debris!
  • Invest in a reusable water bottle instead of using single-use plastic bottles.
  • Bring in your own reusable bag not only to the grocery store, but to all stores to reduce use of paper and plastic bags.
  • Keep our beaches clean! Get involved in the annual California Coastal Clean Up Day in September.
  • Take the pledge. Return the favor by taking our pledge to protect the ocean.
  • Take action against marine debris.

Where Does Marine Debris Come From?

During the 2013 annual California Coastal Clean-Up Day nearly 60,000 Californians volunteered to cleanup shorelines and inland waterways, and removed 750,000 pounds of trash and recyclables. A natural question to ask is, “Where is all this trash coming from?” The next time you walk down the street, look around. When it rains, trash on sidewalks and streets accumulates in the gutter and is swept into storm drains. Most storm drain systems do not have filters, and therefore discharge directly into the nearest creek or river, eventually flowing to the ocean.

There are no confirmed estimates about how much marine debris is in the ocean, but a research voyage to the North Pacific Gyre (an area northwest of Hawaii where ocean currents converge) reported concentrations of plastics in an area roughly one to two times the size of Texas. This area, now referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, has increased 5-fold in the last 10 years. Research here found that the ratio of plastic to plankton (an important food that many marine animals feed upon) was 6:1 in the surface waters. In some areas the ratio was as high as 48:1.

Photo: 5 Gyres

Japanese Tsunami Marine Debris

The devastating tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011 washed much of the infrastructure and debris from the coast into the ocean. The Japanese government estimated that the tsunami swept about 5 million tons of debris into the ocean, but that 70 percent sank off shore, leaving 1.5 million tons floating. Radiation experts believe it’s highly unlikely that any debris is radioactive mainly because the tsunami created debris over a large stretch of coastal Japan, while the leak from the damaged Fukushima reactor occurred in one place. Currently, there is no estimate of how much debris is still floating. It is also important to remember that marine debris is a large problem for much of the Pacific Region, and it washes upon our coasts all of the time. It needs to be inspected very closely, and not every piece of debris found on U.S. shores is from Japan. But, if you do see something suspicious, report it to the NOAA Marine Debris Program at For more information, see Thank You Ocean’s webpage dedicated to Japanese tsunami marine debris.

Why is Marine Debris a Problem?

Marine debris can kill and injure marine wildlife through ingestion and entanglement, disperse invasive species, endanger human health, cause damage to shipping vessels, and hurt businesses and tourism by polluting our beaches and coastline. Plastic debris is especially threatening because of its ability to absorb and concentrate toxic pollutants.

Entanglement: Common items, such as fishing line or nets, strapping bands and six-pack rings, can hamper the mobility of marine animals. Once entangled, animals have trouble eating, breathing or swimming, all of which can have fatal results.

Ingestion: Birds, fish, and mammals often mistake plastics and other debris for food. Many endangered albatross birds and chicks have been found dead with stomachs full of plastic, including bottle caps and cigarette lighters. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their favorite foods. With debris filling their stomachs, animals have a false feeling of being full, and may die of starvation.

Disperse invasive species: Marine debris can provide suitable habitat for marine species, such as oysters, barnacles, or plants, to collect upon. As debris is carried away by the currents, so are the inhabitants. This process can potentially speed up the spread of invasive species.

Endanger human health: Beach visitors can be injured by harmful debris on beaches, such as broken glass and sharp metals. Toxic pollutants can also be transferred up the foodchain and consumed by humans.

Hurt businesses and tourism: Increased amounts of debris on popular beaches can make beaches less attractive to visitors, resulting in a decrease in visitation and loss of money to the local community.

Damage to shipping vessels: Marine debris causes damage to shipping vessels through collision, entanglement in propeller blades, and clogging of water intakes for engine cooling systems.

Concentrate toxic pollutants: Plastic debris acts as a sponge for toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals like Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane (DDT) that reside in seawater. As contaminated plastics break down into small pieces they often resemble food, such as plankton, and are ingested by marine species, entering into the food chain. Studies connected in the North Pacific Central Gyre on fish that feed on plankton found that 35% of the fish had ingested plastic.

What is the state of California doing?

In 2005, The SeaDoc Society at the University of California, Davis Wildlife Health Center in partnership with the California Ocean Protection Council and State Coastal Conservancy, the Northwest Straits Commission, and NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and Office of Restoration, launched the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project. This project encourages ocean users to report the presence of lost gear, and hires experienced commercial scuba divers to remove gear from near-shore waters in a safe and environmentally sensitive manner. Since May 2006, the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project has retrieved more than 45 tons of gear from California’s coastal ocean, primarily in Southern California, including areas around the California Channel Islands (Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Catalina). The project has also cleaned more than 1,400 pounds of recreational fishing gear off public fishing piers from Santa Cruz to Imperial Beach including more than 1 million feet of fishing line.

Following the passage of the Marine Debris Resolution in 2007, the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) adopted an ocean litter implementation strategy in 2008 that identifies broad approaches the state could take to eliminate marine debris. The first priority action is to create a producer take-back program, or Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), for convenience food packaging. The second priority action is a ban on polystyrene take-out food containers and a fee on single-use plastic and paper grocery bags. The third priority action recommends a fee be placed on commonly littered products that are not suitable for a take-back program or ban.

In 2011, the Ocean Science Trust (OST) produced a report that compiled existing information to highlight the identified sources and impacts of plastics in the ocean. This report includes the latest scientific research on the sources, pathways, impacts and fate of plastics in California’s coastal and marine environment, including an emerging field of research: the toxicology of plastics in seawater. The report also addresses current policies surrounding plastic marine debris and points to successes and challenges surrounding those policies. You can get more information here.

Currently, the State Water Resources Control Board is developing amendments to statewide water quality control plans to reduce and eliminate trash in California’s waterways (inland surface waters, enclosed bays, estuaries, and ocean). These amendments will identify trash as a pollutant and establish methods to control trash pollution in waterways, statewide. Find more information on the trash amendments here.

In addition to statewide trash amendments, two regions in California are leading the state to reduce trash in waterways. Since 2009, a total maximum daily load (TMDL) is being implemented by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board in the Los Angeles River Watershed to reduce trash in the waterway through the installation of full capture devices in all storm drains. The San Francisco Bay Region uses Municipal Regional Storm Water Permits to reduce the discharge of trash to San Francisco Bay through a combination of source control practice (e.g. plastic bag bans) and full capture devices in storm drains.”

What is the federal government doing?

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program operates under the Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act of 2006. Its mission is to “investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris through research, prevention and reduction activities, in order to protect and conserve our nation’s marine environment and ensure navigation safety”. The program also maintains a Marine Debris Blog that serves as a platform for education and a place for suggesting and collecting new ideas to combat marine debris.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Marine Debris Prevention Program operates under ocean-based laws, including the 2006 Marine Debris Act, the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act, the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act and the Shore Protection Act, as well as a number of land-based mandates. This program has developed research and monitoring initiatives, and many prevention, control and reduction measures. One such initiative, the Marine Debris Prevention Toolkit, offers a variety of outreach materials, including video and audio public service announcements, print materials, educational tools, and promotional items.

The Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee is a multi-agency collaboration responsible for developing and recommending comprehensive and multidisciplinary approaches to reduce the sources and impacts of marine debris on the nation’s resources. Members include representatives from NOAA, EPA, Army Corps, Navy, National Park Service, US Coast Guard, Minerals Management Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Department of Justice, Department of State, and the Marine Mammal Commission. This group produces reports for Congress that include recommendations to guide the federal government’s strategies to prevent and reduce marine debris.

Photo: Nir Barnea, NOAA

At the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference which took place in March 2011, conference participants worked to revise the Honolulu Strategy. The Honolulu Strategy aims to work towards a results-oriented framework of action with the overarching goal to reduce impacts of marine debris over the next 10 years. This goal will be achieved through the collective action of committed stakeholders at global, regional, country, local, and individual levels.

Thank You Ocean Videos Related to Marine Debris

  • TED Talk: Charles Moore: Seas of plastic
    Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an endless floating waste of plastic trash. Now he’s drawing attention to the growing, choking problem of plastic debris in our seas.