NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


What Is Plastic Doing in My Face Scrub?

Recently, I was surprised to find out that the little beads in my expensive tube of exfoliating face cleanser weren’t made of some beneficial ingredient that dissolved as it was used—they’re actually made of plastic. Furthermore, these tiny beads of polyethylene plastic washing down the drain are too small to be caught by wastewater treatment plants and end up in the ocean, where they’ll possibly be ingested by sea creatures.

Apparently, these “beads” are in many products I often use—facial cleansers, toothpaste, hand cleansers—but I wondered, what good could plastic possibly do for my face?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, exfoliating cleansers, or “abrasive scrubs,” are known to make the face smoother by rubbing off dead skin cells from the outermost layer of skin. The abrasive ingredients used to make these cleansers range from dissolvable granules of the household product Borax to ground fruit pits (natural but quite abrasive) to the polyethylene beads of concern here. It turns out that the polyethylene beads are popular because their smoothness results in less redness or tiny cuts to the skin than some other materials.

A 2009 study at the University of Auckland in New Zealand revealed that the average person is now likely to use cleansing products with microplastics on a daily basis because the majority of facial cleansers now contain polyethylene microplastics. But what does all this plastic mean for the environment?

“While we don’t yet understand the impacts of microplastics to aquatic organisms,” says Dr. Joel Baker, professor at the University of Washington and Science Director of the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma, “we do know that releasing persistent materials into the ocean will result in ever increasing concentrations of marine debris.”

The Bigger Issue of Tiny Plastics

While this issue of microplastics in the ocean was first addressed by scientists in the 1970s, interest in it has grown substantially in the last decade. According to the 2010 proceedings of The GESAMP (Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection) International Workshop on microplastics [PDF], it is now internationally recognized that marine organisms do ingest these tiny plastic particles, with the potential for harm from, for example, the toxicity of chemicals in the plastic.


A sampling of microplastics (NOAA).

The NOAA Marine Debris Program is leading efforts within NOAA on the emerging issue of microplastics, which they define as plastic pieces approximately the size of a pencil eraser or smaller. They are working in partnership with the lab of Dr. Baker at the University of Washington Tacoma to standardized methods for collecting samples of microplastics from sediment, sand, and surface water.

This project, funded through the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, determined a relatively simple, cost-effective, and unbiased laboratory method to estimate the quantity of three plastics (polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyvinylchloride) in environmental samples. The goal is to determine concentrations of these plastics in the environment—to figure out the extent of the problem—and the study has found microplastics on virtually every beach surveyed.

Dr. Baker’s lab has developed methods to measure microplastic particles larger than about 0.3 millimeters (less than 1/80 of an inch), the size of the nets used to collect the samples. Most of the microplastics in consumer products are smaller than this. To date, no one has detected the consumer product plastic beads in the environment. According to Dr. Baker, “They are almost certainly out there; we just don’t have the tools to detect them.” A huge challenge to addressing this type of marine debris is that original sources of the microplastics are extremely difficult to trace.

The next step in this study is to assess the potential chemical impacts of microplastics. You can find more detailed information from the Second International Research Workshop: Microplastic Marine Debris

Courtney Arthur, research coordinator with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, expects research on microplastics and the effects on marine life to be a hot topic among scientists over the next few years. But for now, she says, the bottom line is still unclear.

“We know it’s possible they could be accumulating in the food chain,” says Arthur. “The entire spectrum of marine life, from lugworms and mussels to fish and marine mammals, has the potential to take in these small particles. But at this point, it’s hard to say if these particles are bioaccumulating in food webs and how much harm is being caused by chemicals in the plastic.”

I hope to see more information on this issue in the mainstream media so we, as consumers, know how to make better choices in the products we buy. According to last winter’s issue of Shore Stewards News (Washington), if you find the ingredient polyethylene in the product, you may have found the microplastics (tiny beads) that can be harmful. (The author Scott Chase notes that polyethylene glycol is a different product that may not pose the same threat.)

Instead, you could look for an exfoliating scrub that contains a natural abrasive or the American Academy of Dermatology suggests using a face cloth as an alternative way to exfoliate.

[Update March 2016: Find out what we know today about microbeads and microplastics in the ocean and what you can do to help.]

1 Comment

Some Gulf Dolphins Severely Ill, Says Study by NOAA and Partners

All links leave this blog, unless otherwise noted.

Taking a blood sample from one dolphin.

Veterinary scientists take a blood sample from a dolphin as part of an overall health assessment. Credit: NOAA.

Bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, are showing signs of severe ill health, according to NOAA marine mammal biologists and their local, state, federal, and other research partners.

Barataria Bay, located in the northern Gulf of Mexico, received heavy and prolonged exposure to oil during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

Based on comprehensive physicals of 32 live dolphins from Barataria Bay in the summer of 2011, preliminary results show that many of the dolphins in the study are underweight, anemic, have low blood sugar, and/or some symptoms of liver and lung disease.

Nearly half also have abnormally low levels of the hormones that help with stress response, metabolism, and immune function.

Researchers fear that some of the study dolphins are in such poor health that they will not survive. One of these dolphins, which was last observed and studied in late 2011, was found dead in January 2012.

NOAA and its local, state, and federal partners started the Barataria Bay dolphin study in 2011 as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), the process for studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

View a photo gallery of dolphin assessment work.

NOAA is sharing the preliminary results from the study so that stranding responders and veterinarians can better care for live stranded dolphins and look for similar health conditions.

Investigation of Dolphin Strandings in the Northern Gulf Continues

Barataria Bay dolphin carcass being examined to determine cause of death.

January 2012: The carcass of Y12, one of the Barataria Bay dolphins closely studied by NRDA researchers, was recovered on Grand Isle Beach, January 31, 2012. The visible ribs, prominent vertebral processes, and depressions along the back are signs of extreme emaciation. A necropsy was performed and samples were collected to help determine cause of death and potential contributing factors. (NOAA)

Since February 2010, more than 675 dolphins have stranded in the northern Gulf of Mexico (Franklin County, Florida, to the Louisiana/Texas border)—a much higher rate than the usual average of 74 dolphins per year, prompting NOAA to declare an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) and investigate the cause of death for as many of the dolphins as possible.

The vast majority of stranded dolphins have been found dead; however, 33 have stranded alive and seven have been taken to facilities for rehabilitation.

In the spring, it is typical to see some newborn, fetal, and stillborn dolphins strand, and there has been an increase in strandings of this younger age class during this UME in 2010 and 2011. Yet all age classes continue to strand at high levels. NOAA is working with a team of marine mammal health experts to investigate the factors that may be contributing to the dolphin mortalities.

Gulf Seafood Safety

Since the 2010 oil spill, the Food and Drug Administration, NOAA, and the Gulf Coast states have used an agreed-upon protocol to test seafood and ensure that it is free of harmful oil and dispersant residues. NOAA opened federal waters to fishing after extensive testing, and the Gulf states continue to use the protocol to routinely test finfish and shellfish to ensure all seafood reaching the consumer is safe.

Some waters in the northern Barataria Basin, a larger area that includes Barataria Bay, remain closed to commercial fishing, as visible oil is still present along the shoreline where the closures are in place. The joint protocol directs seafood safety testing to begin only after visible oil is gone.

NOAA and its state and federal partners are researching multiple ways Gulf dolphins may have been exposed to oil, including through ingestion, inhalation, or externally. Dolphins could have routinely ingested oil from sediments or water while feeding or by eating whole fish, including internal organs and fluids such as liver and bile, which can harbor chemical contaminants. These are not likely routes of exposure for most people.

Read more about the Gulf dolphins.

Useful Links

Leave a comment

More Than Two Decades Later, Have Killer Whales Recovered from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill?

With input from NOAA’s Alan Mearns, Gary Shigenaka, and Marilyn Dahlheim.

Orca breaching.

Killer whale breaching (NOAA Marine Operations Center).

Does a killer whale instinctively know how to avoid oil spilled on the surface of its watery home? At the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill twenty-three years ago, scientists and oil spill experts presumed that the answer was “yes.”

They thought marine mammals were “smart” enough to steer clear of spilled oil, which possibly could harm their skin and eyes or irritate their lungs with hazardous vapors.

Yet, within 24 hours of the tanker Exxon Valdez grounding on Bligh Reef, killer whales were photographed swimming through iridescent slicks of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska. No one was quite sure then how this exposure to oil might affect the health of killer whales living there. For most oil spills, we don’t know how well individual species were faring before oil invaded their habitats, complicating our ability to understand health impacts after a spill. This time, however, was different.

“Orcas (killer whales) have been particularly interesting because they have been so well studied and are one of the few critters for which pre-spill information was available,” NOAA biologist Gary Shigenaka says of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which he has worked on extensively.

The two killer whale pods unlucky enough to swim in or near Exxon oil were from two different eco-types of killer whales, known as “resident” and “transient.”  Eco-types differ in several aspects of morphology (shape and structure), ecology, behavior, and genetics.  For example, resident whales primarily feed on fish while transient killer whales feed on marine mammals.

Since the 1989 oil spill, scientists have followed closely the killer whale populations of Southeast Alaska. They have examined both the two pods of whales exposed to the oil in Prince William Sound as well as the other resident and transient pods which were not in the oiled areas at the time. The differences are stark.

Killer whales swimming alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn).

In the year and a half after the Exxon Valdez spill, both groups of killer whales swimming through Prince William Sound at the time experienced an unprecedented high number of deaths. The pod of resident killer whales lost 33% and the pod of transients 41% of their populations, according to a 2008 study by researcher Craig Matkin [PDF]. In general, killer whales tend to have very stable populations, usually losing only very young or very old whales when they lose any.

But in this case, the pods were losing a number of immature whales and breeding females as well. Missing these key members, the populations in the oiled areas were slow to bounce back, if they bounced at all. One pod of resident killer whales still hasn’t reached its pre-spill numbers, while the oil-exposed transient pod’s numbers have dropped so much that NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has listed them as a “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Meanwhile, the other killer whale populations in Southeast Alaska have been growing since the mid-1980s.

Graph of killer whale populations exposed to oil after the Exxon Valdez spill.

Population trends in killer whales before and after the Exxon Valdez oil spill: AB Pod is the group of resident whales while AT1 is the transient group exposed to oil in Prince William Sound. Courtesy of Craig Matkin.

Still, because researchers were unable to examine either live or most of the dead whales after the spill (and thus confirm oil-related injuries), any direct link between the spill and killer whale health has been circumstantial. Even so, Shigenaka personally believes that this indirect evidence “stands the test of time.”

The crux of it lies in the fact that two pods of very different killer whale groups crashed suddenly and simultaneously after only one obvious disturbance to their environment—the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Fast forward twenty-one years to April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. Taking these lessons about killer whales and oil from the Exxon Valdez, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration quickly partnered up with the NOAA Fisheries Service to do reconnaissance during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, especially in oiled areas. Twenty-one species of marine mammals live in the Gulf, and bottlenose dolphins in particular potentially could be suffering some significant impacts from this spill.

Since February 2010 (before the oil spill), nearly 700 bottlenose dolphins and other species of cetaceans (dolphins and whales) in the Northern Gulf of Mexico have been stranded. These marine mammals are experiencing what’s known as an “unusual mortality event,” defined as “a stranding that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response.” Federal and state agencies have been investigating this large die-off and any possible connections to its overlap with the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

These investigations are ongoing and the possible role of infection in these dolphins adds a twist that leaves us with plenty of questions still to answer. Nevertheless, every piece of information we learn helps create a fuller picture of how oil spills affect marine mammals, whether we’re looking at killer whales in Prince William Sound or bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico.

For more information on killer whales and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, check out:

Matkin, C.O., Saulitis, E.L., Ellis, G.M., Olesiuk, P., Rice, S.D. 2008. Ongoing population-level impacts on killer whales Orcinus orca following the ‘Exxon Valdez’ oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 356:269-281.

Loughlin, T. R. Ed. Marine Mammals and the Exxon Valdez. Academic Press, San Diego, 1994.

Leave a comment

Solid Returns: NOAA Prepares for Future Oil Spills in the Arctic

Polar bear on Arctic sea ice.

Polar bear on Arctic sea ice (NOAA).

In recent years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) has turned its focus to the remote Arctic region of Alaska due to proposals to increase oil and gas exploration and production there.

The environment above the Yukon River and beyond the vast Brooks Range is warming rapidly. Scientists estimate that by 2020-2030, the Arctic Ocean will be free of multi-year ice in the summer, increasing opportunities for maritime transportation, tourism, and oil and gas exploration.

The likelihood of hazards will also increase as access to Arctic oil reserves becomes easier.

Shoreline erosion and the long-term effects of climate change will also affect the stability and safety of communities in the Arctic region. Oil pipelines and other infrastructure located in permafrost will become less stable, also increasing the risk of spills. The potential expense—in terms of damage to fisheries, to wildlife, and to the formerly pristine environment—could be staggering.

Coast Guard Ice Breaker Healey cuts through Arctic ice.

The icebreaker Coast Guard Cutter Healey (left) cuts through Arctic ice (U.S. Geological Survey).

“The Arctic’s remoteness, its gale-force winds, lengthy periods of darkness, and lack of infrastructure combine to make any efforts to manage its resources and protect the environment extra challenging,” says Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “It’s essential that we develop the right technologies and techniques to reduce risk and proceed cautiously in the largest expanse of wilderness currently under our care.”

For this reason, OR&R is working with the oil and gas industry, international governments, the University of Alaska, University of New Hampshire, University of Rhode Island, and the Prince William Sound Oil Spill Recovery Institute to understand and prepare for any future spills in the Arctic.

The stakes are high, says Margaret Williams, managing director for the World Wildlife Fund-US Arctic Program. “The Exxon Valdez spill has been the best studied oil spill in history and scientists have found that even 20 years later, the damage from the spill continues,” she says. “Fishermen’s livelihoods were destroyed, many wildlife and fish populations still haven’t recovered, and the Alaskan economy lost billions of dollars.”

“We have a slogan, ‘Our role is stewardship, our product is science,’ that pretty much explains what OR&R is doing in the Arctic and elsewhere,” says John Whitney, NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for Alaska. “We take our work seriously, regardless of the size or severity of the spill, and the results speak for themselves.”

Find out more about our office’s work in the Arctic, from oil spill preparedness to marine debris removal, at [leaves this blog].

For more information on how this office helps protect and revitalize economic interests through environmental response and restoration, read the first part of this series, Solid Returns: Response and Restoration Efforts Create Big Economic Benefits to Coastal Communities.

Leave a comment

Always Ready: A NOAA Thank You to the Coast Guard

This is a post by NOAA’s Captain Michele Finn. All links leave this blog.

MH-65C Dolphin helicopter

An MH-65C Dolphin helicopter, the type which was involved in the recent and tragic crash in Mobile Bay, Ala. (U.S. Coast Guard).

Recently, our friends at the United States Coast Guard (USCG) sustained a horrible blow. On the night of February 28, 2012, an MH-65C Dolphin helicopter (forever to be known as CG6535) crashed into Alabama’s Mobile Bay, losing four very important members of our emergency response community.

Three of the four members of the flight crew were stationed at the Aviation Training Center, Mobile Lieutenant Commander Dale Taylor, originally from North Carolina and a very active member of the Mobile, Ala., community, was the Aircraft Commander and Instructor Pilot. Chief Petty Officer Fernando Jorge, a twenty year veteran of the Coast Guard and a California native, was a highly experienced rescue swimmer and instructor. Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Knight, a native Alabama guy from Thomasville, was the flight engineer. Lieutenant junior grade Thomas Cameron, a USCG Academy graduate originally from Oregon, was on temporary duty from USCG Air Station Borinquen (Puerto Rico) undergoing flight training to become a Search and Rescue Pilot. The flight on February 28 was the last step in the qualification process for Lieutenant junior grade Cameron.

Starting immediately after the crash that night and continuing until the afternoon of March 8, the Coast Guard was immersed in a heart-wrenching search for their own guys. While Fernando was found the first night, the search effort spent several days in inclement weather before finding the two pilots, Dale and Tom. Finally, Drew was found a few hours after the memorial service was held for the crew at the Aviation Training Center. Ten excruciating days for the Coast Guard Search and Rescue team and the many local rescue groups that worked together around the clock to bring those boys home.

Watching this tragedy unfold from the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center (also located in Mobile), I realized once again how grateful I am for two things. First, I am grateful that the Coast Guard takes such good care of NOAA. Immediately after learning about the crash, I wrote down a list of ways that the Coast Guard has helped me do my job.

How many unique items were on the final list? 32. Thirty-two different ways that the Coast Guard enabled me to complete tasks critical to the NOAA mission, or made my job easier, or just made accomplishing tasks way more fun. As a NOAA employee, one or more members of the Coast Guard can often be found standing in front of me leading the way, standing next to me helping shoulder the burden, or standing behind me watching my back. True fox hole buddies—the U.S. Coast Guard.

Second, I am grateful that the new NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center is located in Mobile, Ala. The response to the crash of helicopter CG6535 from the Mobile area rescue community was heroic. But the overwhelming support from the public for the crewmembers’ families and for the Coast Guard as a whole was spectacular, in my opinion. I believe the Coast Guard felt the same way.

On March 2, the Coast Guard’s official blog named the Mobile community the “Shipmate of the Week.” The following is a quote taken from that blog post:

“In keeping with what makes America the greatest country in the world and Mobile, Ala., a Coast Guard City, the community came together to support the Coast Guard during search and rescue operations for Lt. Cmdr. Dale Taylor, Lt. j.g. Thomas Cameron, Chief Petty Officer Fernando Jorge and Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Knight.”

How lucky are we to have a new NOAA response facility in this awesome community?

The U.S. Coast Guard has eleven different missions, all related to the safety and security of Americans. Semper Paratus, their motto, means “Always Ready.” Always. It does not mean “Ready When the Weather is Good,” or “Ready When There Aren’t Any Bad People Involved,” or “Ready Monday through Friday From the Hours 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Excluding Holidays.”

In order to be “Always Ready,” you have to train to operate in nasty weather and work in nasty situations. In the aviation world (where I come from), “Always Ready” means you need to “Fly like you train, train like you fly.” There are significant risks in the execution of each of the Coast Guard’s eleven missions, and making sure that they are “Always Ready” means that training for those missions involves some of those risks too. From this NOAA employee, I feel tremendous appreciation for all members of the Coast Guard and for what they do for us each day, around the clock, and on weekends and holidays.

The official memorial logo for the Coast Guard crew.

The official memorial logo for the Coast Guard crew. (U.S. Coast Guard)

And on behalf of the staff at the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, I would like to say that our thoughts and sincere sympathy are with the families and friends of Lieutenant Commander Dale Taylor, Lieutenant junior grade Thomas Cameron, Chief Petty Officer Fernando Jorge, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Knight.

Our thoughts, sympathy, and deep respect are with the Aviation Training Center Command, Coast Guard Sector Mobile Command, and all of the local rescue crews and community groups that searched for these young men and took such good care of their families. We feel honored to be part of your community.

CAPT Michele Finn

Captain Michele Finn

Currently the Deputy Director and Operations Manager of the new NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., Captain Michele Finn has spent 24 years as a NOAA Commissioned Corps Officer supporting NOAA in a number of operational, management and leadership roles.  She is a senior NOAA aviator with a Master of Science degree in Zoology from the University of Hawaii and a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Biology from Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Leave a comment

A Massive Watershed Fix for the Delaware River

Duck in the Delaware River.In addition to the cleanup of the 2004 Athos I oil spill, numerous improvements are in the works for the environment — and the economy — of the Delaware River watershed.

Blackbird Reserve Wildlife Area (DE)
Ecological benefits: Resting and foraging areas for migratory geese
Economic benefits: Hunting; wildlife viewing; preservation of open space

Oyster Reef Creation (DE, NJ)
Ecological Benefits: Habitat for oysters and other reef dwellers; improved water quality
Economic Benefit: Boost to local economy during reef-building

Freshwater Tidal Wetland Restoration, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (PA)
Ecological Benefits: Restored tidal exchange; enhanced wildlife habitat
Economic Benefits: Recreational boating; education; wildlife viewing

Preferred Athos oil spill restoration sites on the Delaware River.Dam Removals and Stream Habitat Restoration, Darby Creek (PA)
Ecological Benefits: Fish and wildlife habitat improvements
Economic Benefits: Fishing; outdoor education; flood protection; boost to local economy during construction

Marsh, Meadow and Grassland Restoration, Mad Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area (NJ)
Ecological Benefits: Feeding, roosting and nesting habitat for birds
Economic Benefits: Wildlife viewing; hunting; boost to local economy during construction

Shoreline Restoration, Lardner’s Point (PA)
Ecological Benefits: Restored habitat for fish, birds and mammals
Economic Benefits: Wildlife viewing; fishing; open space

Plus recreational projects, including boat ramp restoration at Stow Creek (NJ), rock jetty restoration in Augustine (DE) and trail improvements on Little Tinicum Island (PA).

For more information on restoration, as well as response activities, along the Delaware River in the wake of the Athos I oil spill, read the first part of this series, Solid Returns: Response and Restoration Efforts Create Big Economic Benefits to Coastal Communities.


One Year Later: Aftermath and Debris of the Japan Tsunami

By Nancy Wallace, Director, NOAA Marine Debris Program. The following is reposted from the NOAA Marine Debris Blog. All links leave this blog unless otherwise noted. 

Early floating debris fields from the Japan tsunami.

March 13, 2011 -- Debris off the coast of Japan after the tsunami. Debris fields such as these are no longer visible. (U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord)

On March 11, one year will have passed since Japan suffered one of the worst natural disasters and human tragedies in its history. The 9.0 earthquake and the tsunami that followed claimed nearly 16,000 lives, injured 6,000 more, and damaged or destroyed countless buildings.

The Japanese people are remarkably resilient. The strides they’ve made in one year to rebuild their nation are a testament to their strength and ability to band together in a crisis, even though the sense of loss is not gone.

Here at NOAA, we’re preparing for a different kind of aftermath from the disaster: the possibility that debris washed into the sea by the tsunami could arrive on shores in Alaska, Hawaii, the West Coast, and Canada over the next few years. While our situation pales in comparison to what the Japanese experienced, NOAA and its partners have taken action to assess and prepare for any impacts.

Facts and Misconceptions

Public buzz about this debris has grown stronger over the past few months, and people are understandably concerned. Where will it go? How much is it, and what is it? What will happen to the beaches, and who is going to clean it up?

Here is what we know: It will not arrive in a large “mass,” clumped together in a 25-million ton flotilla, as shock-value news headlines have indicated in recent weeks. That image is dramatic, but unrealistic. At this point, there is no scientific estimate of how much debris the tsunami washed into the sea or how much is still floating.

We also know it is highly unlikely any debris is radioactive, and – while gut-wrenching to imagine – there is almost zero chance human remains from Japan will arrive with it. Our coasts are national treasures, and the public should continue to visit them and help us keep them clean. Of course, we urge caution and awareness, especially for boaters, but there’s no reason to fear the shore.

What to Expect

So where is the debris? From NOAA’s experiences with other natural disasters, we believe quite a bit of debris sank off Japan’s coast. Satellites that observed “debris fields” in the days following the tsunami lost sight of those fields after one month. What debris did float away has dispersed far across the Pacific Ocean, to the point where our partners in planes and vessels are reporting very few sightings.

To predict where the debris will go, NOAA and independent researchers modeled its path using historical ocean conditions.  Those models gave us a rough idea of when and where we can reasonably expect debris items (that make it across the Pacific) to show up. It is likely that beachgoers on the West Coast and Alaska will start noticing a gradual increase in marine debris items near-shore or on the beaches in 2013. Those on the main Hawaiian Islands might start noticing an increase closer to 2014.

These are just predictions and should not be taken as the end-all of what will actually happen.

Consider this: the Pacific Ocean is enormous – it covers one-third of the Earth’s surface – and its currents and winds are constantly changing. Any debris still floating in the water has been at the mercy of one year of storms and weathering. Items will sink, break up, and scatter far across the ocean, or they could get pulled into existing garbage patches.  Models do not take this into account, and we have no way of knowing how an individual piece of debris will behave.

While it’s impossible to tell exactly what will make it across, it will likely be items that float easily: buoys and other fishing gear, plastics and cans, barrels and drums, lumber, or even appliances. Boats are also a possibility. These items can impact navigation, ensnare animals, damage precious reefs, and litter the beaches.

Dealing with Debris

Given all the uncertainties, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and our federal, state, and local partners have been preparing contingency plans for the past several months to protect our natural resources. These plans will help guide local responses in case we need to remove large, hazardous, or unmanageable items.

We also reached out to the Japanese government, which has done a considerable amount of work to track this debris, even while dealing with incredible tragedy and nation rebuilding. If items from the tsunami do wash ashore, we ask people to remember that they represent loss. Any pieces that can be clearly traced back to an owner should be reported to a Japan consulate, so that they might be returned.
(Check out what else the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been doing to monitor and prepare for the debris.)

In recent weeks, beachcombers have caught sight of buoys and other items washing up on the West Coast, Canada, and Alaskan shores. Although models suggest most of the debris won’t show up until sometime next year, NOAA is not ruling anything out. It is possible for highly buoyant debris to catch wind and arrive ahead of expectations.

The truth is, what now floats our way is part of a larger problem. Marine debris, even buoys and other debris from Asia, persists in many of our coastal communities every day, and that’s why it’s hard to tell if any one item came directly from the tsunami.

Help Wanted: Beachcombers and Monitors

No matter where it comes from, we should all take comfort in this: debris is – for the most part – removable and preventable.

If you see small debris, pick it up and examine it. Items that have no identifying markers should be disposed of properly, but if it belongs to someone, alert a local authority. You can also report large volumes of debris or items that clearly came from Japan to There are other easy ways to help: join a beach cleanup or recommit yourself to recycling.

Some items should be left to the authorities. We urge beach cleaners not to touch anything that appears hazardous or too large to move safely. Report it, and it will likely be dealt with by local emergency responders.

This is a challenging situation, to be sure, and it will take everyone working together to address it. But if we remain aware and take action, we can reduce the impact marine debris has on our environment now and in the future – whatever it may bring.

NOAA needs beach monitors to help us survey the shores for baseline marine debris data. That way, if more debris starts appearing, we’ll know the leading edge of the tsunami debris may have arrived. You can request NOAA Marine Debris Program protocols at