NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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See Restoration in Action for California’s Kelp Forests

Healthy kelp forest in southern California.

Healthy kelp forest in southern California. (NOAA)

In July of 2013, a large-scale project to restore kelp forests began off the Palos Verdes peninsula of California. The Bay Foundation, with funding and technical assistance from NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program, coordinated the effort to remove overpopulated and undernourished sea urchins from urchin barrens. The large numbers of sea urchins in these areas decimate kelp forests by eating every newly settled kelp plant before they have a chance to grow.

The good news is that these restoration efforts are working. Thanks to volunteer divers, commercial urchin divers, researchers, and local nonprofit groups, southern California’s kelp forests are on the road to recovery. Check out the before and after photos to see the radical difference this project is making. In just weeks after divers clear urchins, newly settled kelp and algae can be seen growing.

In the before photo, you can see what the area’s nearly 100 acres of urchin barrens look like—rocky reef covered in dense clusters of spiny purple urchins. In the after photo, taken several months after restoration began, long strands of giant kelp reach from the seafloor up toward the water’s surface. At some of the restoration sites, kelp have already grown more than 25 feet in length, creating better habitat for fish and other marine life.

Left, purple sea urchins on a rocky reef. Right, young kelp growing tall.

On the left is an urchin barren before divers cleared it of excess purple sea urchins and on the right is newly settled kelp already growing tall several months after restoration. (NOAA)

To date, volunteers have cleared roughly eight acres of reef habitat at four restoration sites, which are in various states of recovery, but we still have plenty more work ahead. In the next two to three years, we hope to reestablish between 75 and 80 acres of kelp forest on the Palos Verdes shelf.

For more information, check out:


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Watch Bald Eagle Restoration Come Alive in California’s Channel Islands

On the heels of Endangered Species Day, we take a look at the incredible recovery story of the Bald Eagle, which teetered on the edge of extinction in the second half of the twentieth century, in part due to impacts from people releasing the pesticide DDT into the environment.

By the early 1960s Bald Eagles had disappeared from southern California’s Channel Islands after chemical companies near Los Angeles discharged into the ocean millions of pounds of the toxic chemicals DDT and PCBs [PDF], both of which stay in the environment for a very long time. Once DDT worked its way up the marine food chain to the eagles, it weakened the shells of their eggs, causing the parent eagles to crush the eggs before they could hatch.

However, thanks to the efforts of NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program and our partners, including the Institute for Wildlife Studies, Bald Eagles have made a comeback in southern California’s Channel Islands.

Learn more about this notable conservation work in this Thank You Ocean Report video podcast:

“This program has been 30 years in the making and after that amount of time we have finally started to see natural hatching out on the islands,” says bird biologist Annie Little of the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program. “I think it shows the persistence of these types of chemicals in the environment and that restoration doesn’t happen overnight.”

But it does happen with a lot of hard work and dedication. Between 2006 and 2013, a total of 81 Bald Eagle chicks have hatched in the Channel Islands. You can watch the eagles’ recovery in real time as they build nests and hatch chicks on the islands via the Bald Eagle web cams.

Also from Thank You Ocean, here’s an everyday action you can take to protect the ocean and the animals dependent on it: “Avoid the use of toxic chemicals and keep trash and chemicals out of storm drains. Polluted water from storm drains flows into the sea and can harm marine life and the environment.”


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Oil Seeps, Shipwrecks, and Surfers Ride the Waves in California

This is a post by Jordan Stout, the Office of Response and Restoration’s Scientific Support Coordinator based in Alameda, Calif.

Tarball on the beach with a ruler.

A tarball which washed up near California’s Half Moon Bay in mid-February 2014. (Credit: Beach Watch volunteers with the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association)

What do natural oil seeps, shipwrecks, and surfers have in common? The quick answer: tarballs and oceanography. The long answer: Let me tell you a story …

A rash of tarballs, which are thick, sticky, and small pieces of partially broken-down oil, washed ashore at Half Moon Bay, Calif., south of San Francisco back in mid-February. This isn’t an unusual occurrence this time of year, but several of us involved in spill response still received phone calls about them, so some of us checked things out.

Winds and ocean currents are the primary movers of floating oil. A quick look at conditions around that time indicated that floating stuff (like oil) would have generally been moving northwards up the coast. Off of Monterey Bay, there had been prolonged winds out of the south several times since December, including just prior to the tarballs’ arrival. Coastal currents at the time also showed the ocean’s surface waters moving generally up the coast. Then, just hours before their arrival, winds switched direction and started coming out of the west-northwest, pushing the tarballs ashore.

Seeps and Shipwrecks

It’s common winter conditions like that, combined with the many natural oil seeps of southern California, that often result in tarballs naturally coming ashore in central and northern California. Like I said, wintertime tarballs are not unheard of in this area and people weren’t terribly concerned. Even so, some of the tarballs were relatively “fresh” and heavy weather and seas had rolled through during a storm the previous weekend. This got some people thinking about the shipwreck S/S Jacob Luckenbach, a freighter which sank near San Francisco in 1953 and began leaking oil since at least 1992.

When salvage divers were removing oil from the Luckenbach back in 2002, they reported feeling surges along the bottom under some wave conditions. The wreck is 468 feet long, lying in about 175 feet of water and is roughly 20 miles northwest of Half Moon Bay. Could this or another nearby wreck have been jostled by the previous weekend’s storm and produced some of the tarballs now coming ashore?

Making Waves

Discussions with the oceanographers in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provided me with some key kernels of wisdom about what might have happened. First, the height of a wave influences the degree of effects beneath the ocean surface, but the wave length determines how deep those effects go. So, big waves with long wavelengths have greater influence at greater depths than smaller waves with shorter wavelengths.

Graphic describing and showing wave length, height, frequency, and period.

Credit: NOAA’s Ocean Service

Second, waves in deep water cause effects at depths half their length. This means that a wave with a length of 100 meters can be felt to a depth of 50 meters. That was great stuff, I thought. But the data buoys off of California, if they collect any wave data at all, only collect wave height and period (the time it takes a wave to move from one high or low point to the next) but not wave length. So, now what?

As it turns out, our office’s excellent oceanographers also have a rule of thumb for calculating wave length from this information: a wave with a 10-second period has a wave length of about 100 meters in deep water. So, that same 10-second wave would be felt at 50 meters, which is similar to the depth of the shipwreck Jacob Luckenbach (54 meters or 175 feet).

Looking at nearby data buoys, significant wave heights during the previous weekend’s storm topped out at 2.8 meters (about 9 feet) with a 9-second period. So, the sunken Luckenbach may have actually “felt” the storm a little bit, but probably not enough to cause a spill of any oil remaining on board it.

Riding Waves

Even so, just two weeks before the tarballs came ashore, waves in the area were much, much bigger. The biggest waves the area had seen so far in 2014, in fact: more than 4 meters (13 feet) high, with a 24-second period. If the Luckenbach had been jostled by any waves at all in 2014, you would think it would have been from those waves in late January, and yet there were no reports of tarballs (fresh or otherwise) even though winds were blowing towards shore for about a week afterwards. This leads me to conclude that the recent increase in tarballs came from somewhere other than a nearby shipwreck.

Where do surfers fit in all this? That day in late January when the shipwreck S/S Jacob Luckenbach was being knocked around by the biggest waves of 2014 was the day of the Mavericks Invitational surf contest in Half Moon Bay. People came from all over to ride those big waves—and it was amazing!

Jordan StoutJordan Stout currently serves as the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator in California where he provides scientific and technical support to the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency in preparing for and responding to oil spills and hazardous material releases. He has been involved in supporting many significant incidents and responses in California and throughout the nation.


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PCBs: Why Are Banned Chemicals Still Hurting the Environment Today?

Heavy machinery removes soil and rocks in a polluted stream.

PCB contamination is high in the Housatonic River and New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts. How high? The “highest concentrations of PCBs ever documented in a marine environment.” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

For the United States, the 20th century was an exciting time of innovation in industry and advances in technology. We were manufacturing items such as cars, refrigerators, and televisions, along with the many oils, dyes, and widgets that went with them. Sometimes, however, technology races ahead of responsibility, and human health and the environment can suffer as a result.

This is certainly the case for the toxic compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. From the 1920s until they were banned in 1979, the U.S. produced an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of these industrial chemicals. They were used in a variety of manufacturing processes, particularly for electrical parts, across the country. Wastes containing PCBs were often improperly stored or disposed of or even directly discharged into soils, rivers, wetlands, and the ocean.

Unfortunately, the legacy of PCBs for humans, birds, fish, wildlife, and habitat has been a lasting one. As NOAA’s National Ocean Service notes:

Even with discontinued use, PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are still present in the environment today because they do not breakdown quickly. The amount of time that it takes chemicals such as PCBs to breakdown naturally depends on their size, structure, and chemical composition. It can take years to remove these chemicals from the environment and that is why they are still present decades after they have been banned.

Sign by Hudson River warning against eating contaminated fish.

According to a NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and State of New York report on the Hudson River, “Fish not only absorb PCBs directly from the river water but are also exposed through the ingestion of contaminated prey, such as insects, crayfish, and smaller fish…New York State’s “eat none” advisory and the restriction on taking fish for this section of the Upper Hudson has been in place for 36 years.” (NOAA)

PCBs are hazardous even at very low levels. When fish and wildlife are exposed to them, this group of highly toxic compounds can travel up the food chain, eventually accumulating in their tissues, becoming a threat to human health if eaten. What happens after animals are exposed to PCBs? According to a NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and State of New York report [PDF], PCBs are known to cause:

  • Cancer
  • Birth defects
  • Reproductive dysfunction
  • Growth impairment
  • Behavioral changes
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Damage to the developing brain
  • Increased susceptibility to disease

Because of these impacts, NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) works on a number of damage assessment cases to restore the environmental injuries of PCBs. Some notable examples include:

Yet the list could go on—fish and birds off the southern California coast, fish and waterfowl in Wisconsin’s Sheboygan River, a harbor in Massachusetts with the “highest concentrations of PCBs ever documented in a marine environment.”

These and other chemical pollutants remain a challenge but also a lesson for taking care of the resources we have now. While PCBs will continue to be a threat to human and environmental health, NOAA and our partners are working hard to restore the damage done and protect people and nature from future impacts.


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45 Years after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, Looking at a Historic Disaster Through Technology

Forty-five years ago, on January 28, 1969, bubbles of black oil and gas began rising up out of the blue waters near Santa Barbara, Calif. On that morning, Union Oil’s new drilling rig Platform “A” had experienced a well blowout, and while spill responders were rushing to the scene of what would become a monumental oil spill and catalyzing moment in the environmental movement, the tools and technology available for dealing with this spill were quite different than today.

The groundwork was still being laid for the digital, scientific mapping and data management tools we now employ without second thought. In 1969, many of the advances in this developing field were coming out of U.S. intelligence and military efforts during the Cold War, including a top-secret satellite reconnaissance project known as CORONA. A decade later NOAA’s first oil spill modeling software, the On-Scene Spill Model (OSSM) [PDF], was being written on the fly during the IXTOC I well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software didn’t begin to take root in university settings until the mid-1980s.

To show just how far this technology has come in the past 45 years, we’ve mapped the Santa Barbara oil spill in Southwest ERMA, NOAA’s online environmental response mapping tool for coastal California. In this GIS tool, you can see:

  • The very approximate extent of the oiling.
  • The location and photos of the drilling platform and affected resources (e.g., Santa Barbara Harbor).
  • The areas where seabirds historically congregate. Seabirds, particularly gulls and grebes, were especially hard hit by this oil spill, with nearly 3,700 birds confirmed dead and many more likely unaccounted for.

Even though the well would be capped after 11 days, a series of undersea faults opened up as a result of the blowout, continuing to release oil and gas until December 1969. As much as 4.2 million gallons of crude oil eventually gushed from both the well and the resulting faults. Oil from Platform “A” was found as far north as Pismo Beach and as far south as Mexico.

Nowadays, we can map the precise location of a wide variety of data using a tool like ERMA, including photos from aerial surveys of oil slicks along the flight path in which they were collected. The closest responders could come to this in 1969 was this list of aerial photos of oil and a printed chart with handwritten notes on the location of drilling platforms in Santa Barbara Channel.

A list of historical overflight photos of the California coast and accompanying map of the oil platforms in the area of the Platform "A" well blowout in early 1969.

A list of historical overflight photos of the California coast and accompanying map of the oil platforms in the area of the Platform “A” well blowout in early 1969. (Courtesy of the University of California Santa Barbara Map and Image Library) Click to view larger.

Yet, this oil spill was notable for its technology use in one surprising way. It was the first time a CIA spy plane had ever been used for non-defense related aerial photography. While classified information at the time, the CIA and the U.S. Geological Survey were actually partnering to use a Cold War spy plane to take aerial photos of the Santa Barbara spill (they used a U-2 plane because they could get the images more quickly than from the passing CORONA spy satellite). But that information wasn’t declassified until the 1990s.

While one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. waters, the legacy of the Santa Barbara oil spill is lasting and impressive and includes the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and National Marine Sanctuaries system (which soon encompassed California’s nearby Channel Islands, which were affected by the Santa Barbara spill).

Another legacy is the pioneering work begun by long-time spill responder, Alan A. Allen, who started his career at the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. He became known as the scientist who disputed Union Oil’s initial spill volume estimates by employing methods still used today by NOAA. Author Robert Easton documents Allen’s efforts in the book, Black tide: the Santa Barbara oil spill and its consequences:

Others…were questioning Union’s estimates. At General Research Corporation, a Santa Barbara firm, a young scientist who flew over the slick daily, Alan A. Allen, had become convinced that Union’s estimates of the escaping oil were about ten times too low. Allen’s estimates of oil-film thickness were based largely on the appearance of the slick from the air. Oil that had the characteristic dark color of crude oil was, he felt confident from studying records of other slicks, on the order of one thousandth of an inch or greater in thickness. Thinner oil would take on a dull gray or brown appearance, becoming iridescent around one hundred thousandth of an inch.  Allen analyzed the slick in terms of thickness, area, and rate of growth. By comparing his data with previous slicks of known spillage, and considering the many factors that control the ultimate fate of oil on seawater, he estimated that leakage during the first days of the Santa Barbara spill could be conservatively estimated to be at least 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) per day.

And in a lesson that history repeats itself: Platform “A” leaked 1,130 gallons of crude oil into Santa Barbara Channel in 2008. Our office modeled the path of the oil slicks that resulted. Learn more about how NOAA responds to oil spills today.


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A Video Update on California Kelp Restoration from Thank You Ocean

Giant kelp.

The goal of removing the excess urchins is to allow young kelp plants to establish themselves and grow into a diverse, healthy kelp forest. (NOAA Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

“Imagine a barren underwater ‘desert’ turned back into a lush, healthy habitat in mere months!”

A recent video podcast produced by the Thank You Ocean Report welcomed NOAA scientist David Witting to discuss a project to restore kelp forests off the coast of southern California.

To bring back the decimated kelp forests, volunteer divers, commercial urchin divers, researchers, and local nonprofit groups are removing urchins to keep them from eating every newly settled kelp plant. This is one of the projects aimed at restoring fish habitat in southern California and was funded by the NOAA Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

So, take a few minutes, kick up your feet (or flippers), and enjoy this early success story about NOAA and our partners’ efforts to restore the forests of the sea:


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When Oil Spills, School Kids Take Note

The impacts of an oil spill can be varied: closed beaches, dead fish, oiled birds and wildlife—just to name a few. But the impacts can also be emotional, often drawing out of people feelings like anger, sadness, frustration, or an eagerness to help. Those of us at NOAA who work to minimize the impacts of oil spills on America’s water, coasts, plants, and animals are not immune to these impacts either. But we are glad to know that people care.

Here a few examples of letters written by school kids after they learned about oil spills in Alaska and California—and how these spills affected them.

On April 13, 1989, second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, Calif., let her feelings be known after hearing about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. She addressed her letter, illustrated with her beloved sea otters, to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Hat tip to the National Archive’s excellent Tumblr.)

In November of 2007, middle school students on a science camp field trip to a San Francisco beach were upset instead to find oil on the water, beach, and even the birds. Days earlier, the cargo ship Cosco Busan had crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of thick fuel oil into the marine waters nearby.

An example of the thoughtfully crafted thank you cards sent to oil spill responders by seventh graders in California after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill.

An example of the thoughtfully crafted thank you cards sent to oil spill responders by seventh graders in California after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill.

While they were saddened by the events, the seventh grade students from Old Orchard Middle School in Campbell, Calif., decided to help by writing hand-written and illustrated thank you cards to the people cleaning up the oil spill. According to a press release about their efforts [PDF]:

“Everyone started pitching in and we came up with the idea to write cards,” said seventh grade student Erin.

“We felt helpless that we couldn’t go and help the animals or clean up the beach,” said Alex, another seventh grader from Old Orchard School. “We saw birds staggering and people trying to catch them.”

“These cards did a lot for the morale of our cleanup crew,” said Barry McFarland of the response company O’Brien’s Group, which worked to clean up the spill at Muir Beach and received the students’ cards. “Some of our crew were actually moved to tears.”

You can read more of the thank you notes from the concerned students [PDF].


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Kelp Forest Restoration Project Begins off Southern California Coast

This is a post by Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA/Montrose Settlements Restoration Program Outreach Coordinator.

A volunteer diver removes urchins from an urchin barren to encourage the settlement of kelp larvae.

A volunteer diver removes urchins from an urchin barren to encourage the settlement of kelp larvae.

After 15 years of scientific monitoring, research, and planning, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation (SMBRF), with funding and technical assistance from NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP), begins a large-scale kelp forest restoration project [PDF] off the coast of California’s Palos Verdes peninsula this July. SMBRF will bring kelp forests back to life in an area that has experienced a 75% loss of kelp canopy.

Nearly 100 acres of reef habitat along the Palos Verdes coast is covered by “urchin barrens,” where the densities of urchins are extremely high and kelp plants are non-existent. Sea urchins are spiny marine invertebrates that live on rocky reef substrates and feed mostly on algae. When sea urchin populations are kept stable, they are an important part of a healthy kelp forest ecosystem.

On the other hand, in an “urchin barren,” urchin densities get very high because predators rarely feed on urchins, preferring the greater cover and higher productivity of healthy kelp forests. The urchins in barrens are also in a constant state of starvation, continually expanding the barren area by eating every newly settled kelp plant before the kelp has a chance to grow. These urchins are of no value to fishermen and urchin predators because they are undernourished, small, and often diseased.

See what an urchin barren looks like:

Kelp forests provide critical habitat for many fish species.

Kelp forests provide critical habitat for many fish species. (NOAA/David Witting)

To bring back the kelp forests, volunteer divers, commercial urchin divers, researchers, and local nonprofit groups will assist SMBRF with removing urchins from the “urchin barrens” and allow for natural settlement of kelp plants. Divers’ removal of the urchins will allow for kelp plants to grow and mature, which can happen quickly since the plants often grow up to two feet per day.

Within a year, SMBRF expects that many of the characteristics of a mature kelp forest will return, including providing suitable fish habitat for important commercial and recreational fish species. The mature kelp forest will support greater numbers of urchin predators, such as birds, fish, crabs, lobsters, octopuses, sea stars, and sea otters, which will help to maintain more sustainable levels of urchin populations in the future.

NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program is providing funding for this project as part of its plan to restore fish habitat in southern California. MSRP was developed in 2001 following a case settlement against polluters that released the toxic agricultural and industrial chemicals DDTs and PCBs into the southern California marine environment. MSRP has allocated settlement funds to restore natural resources that were harmed by these chemicals, including impacts to fish habitat due to their presence in ocean sediments.

Learn more about the kelp forest restoration project [PDF], including details about how and where it will happen.

Gabrielle Dorr

Gabrielle Dorr.

Gabrielle Dorr is the Outreach Coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program as part of NOAA’s Restoration Center. She lives and works in Long Beach, California, where she is always interacting with the local community through outreach events, public meetings, and fishing education programs.


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Keeping America the Beautiful this Independence Day

Those of us at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) want to wish everyone a Happy Fourth of July holiday!

And what better way than with the triumphant restoration of America’s national bird, the mighty Bald Eagle?

Bald eagle in flight with text, Do you know what NOAA is digging this Independence Day?  Restoring our national symbol. Restoration for the win.

We place bands on the eagles’ wings to track their movements around the Channel Islands and to monitor their nesting behavior.

Thanks to the efforts of NOAA’s Montrose Settlements Restoration Program and our partners, including the Institute for Wildlife Studies, Bald Eagles have made a comeback in southern California’s Channel Islands. These eagles were wiped out after chemical companies near Los Angeles discharged into the ocean millions of pounds of the toxic chemicals DDT and PCBs, both of which stay in the environment for a very long time. Once DDT worked its way up the marine food chain to the eagles, it weakened the shells of their eggs, causing the parent eagles to crush the eggs during incubation (or when keeping them warm) before they could hatch.

Fortunately, we’ve helped return Bald Eagles to the Channel Islands, and since 2006, they now are raising chicks successfully in the wild. You can learn more at montroserestoration.gov, where you can even download a 3D animation and make a Bald Eagle come to life on your home computer.

And now for a special holiday message from the eagles of the Channel Islands …

What Bald Eagles are thinking most of the year:

Bald Eagle swooping

What they’re thinking on July 4:

Bald Eagle adult with hopping chicks in nest.


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Taking a Closer Look at Marine Debris in Your Backyard

Here's hoping your backyard doesn't look like this: debris scattered on the ocean floor near the Pacific Islands. (NOAA)

Here’s hoping your backyard doesn’t look like this: debris scattered on the ocean floor near the Pacific Islands. (NOAA)

Check out NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog for their ongoing series, Marine Debris in Your Backyard, which examines the unique challenges of marine debris and its impacts on various parts of the United States.

Join them as they “journey across the nation, looking at the nine different regions the NOAA Marine Debris Program spans and the most common types of debris found in them, and how it may have ended up there.”

So far, they have visited the following places:

  • Alaska, where remote beaches, rough seas, and limited fair weather mean volunteers have only a few months each year to remove anywhere from one to 25 tons of debris per mile of shoreline.
  • Great Lakes, where 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water resides, discarded fishing lines often entangle wildlife, and rumors of a plastic-filled “garbage patch” are beginning to appear.
  • Pacific Islands, where Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and a whole lot of open ocean make up the largest region NOAA supports, but where there is so little space for landfills that NOAA helped establish a public-private partnership in Hawaii to turn abandoned fishing gear into a local electricity source.
  • California, where its 1,100 miles of shoreline vary from coastal mountains in the north to well-populated, sandy beaches in the south, and where the nation’s first “Trash Policy” will attempt to control the flow of garbage in California’s waterways.

Stay tuned as they continue working their way around the shores of the United States, and ask yourself, what does marine debris look like where you live? How do you help keep it out of the ocean?

And remember, even if you live hundreds of miles from a beach, a piece of litter such as a cigarette butt (which actually contains plastic) or a plastic bag can still make its way through storm drains and rivers to the ocean. This makes marine debris, no matter where you live, truly everyone’s problem.

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