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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Derelict Fishing Gear and the Death of Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs

Infographic on the impacts of derelict crab pots in Chesapeake Bay

This infographic more plainly outlines the impacts of derelict crab pots in Chesapeake Bay from as study funded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. Credit NOAA

 

With the start of the Chesapeake Bay crabbing season only a few days away, a recent study funded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program shows how lost or abandoned (derelict) crab pots can cause big problems for wildlife and have serious economic impacts.

Derelict crab pots compete with active pots and can unintentionally kill 3.3 million blue crabs each year that are never harvested. Not only is this bad for crabbers, but it can also affect more than 40 fish species that are unintentionally caught (known as bycatch) in derelict traps.

Read more about how NOAA’s Marine Debris program is helping remove derelict pots from Chesapeake Bay and around the country.

 


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Hold on to Those Balloons: They Could End Up in the Ocean

Sea turtle being held.

Balloon debris can be harmful for wildlife, which may ingest or get entangled in it. Here, a sea turtle was found after ingesting balloon debris, likely mistaking it for food. (Photo Credit: Blair Witherington, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

By NOAA Marine Debris Program

Balloons are a type of marine debris that many people don’t think about. Often used for celebrations or to commemorate special events, balloons are frequently intentionally or accidentally released into the environment. Unfortunately, once they go up, they must also come down; balloons released into the air don’t just go away, they either get snagged on something such as tree branches or electrical wires, deflate and make their way back down, or rise until they pop and fall back to Earth where they can create a lot of problems.

Balloon debris can be ingested by animals, many of which easily mistake it for real food, and can entangle wildlife, especially balloons with attached ribbons. Balloon debris can even have an economic impact on communities, contributing to dirty beaches which drive away tourists, or causing power outages from mylar balloons covered in metallic paint and their ribbons tangling in power lines.

Balloon debris is a national issue and unfortunately, the Mid-Atlantic is not immune. Over a period of five years (2010-2014), 4,916 pieces of balloon litter were found in Virginia by volunteers participating in the International Coastal Cleanup, with over 3,000 of those pieces found on ocean beaches. In 2014, 236 volunteers found over 900 balloons in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia in a three-hour period. Recent surveys of remote islands on Virginia’s Eastern Shore documented up to 40 balloons per mile of beach. These statistics suggest that this Mid-Atlantic area is appropriate to research the balloon debris issue and to create an education and outreach program that could then be used in other states. So the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, with funding support from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is doing just that. They’re exploring the issue of intentionally-released balloons and targeting that behavior through a social marketing campaign.

Blue and white balloon on beach.

Balloons that are intentionally or accidentally released have to come down somewhere! Unfortunately, they often find their way into our waterways or ocean. (Photo Credit: Russ Lewis)

So what can you do to help reduce balloon debris in the Mid-Atlantic and throughout the country? Consider using alternate decorations at your next celebration such as paper streamers or fabric flags. Rather than giving your child a helium balloon on a string, fill it with air and attach it to a stick—they still get the feeling of it floating above their heads without the risk of losing it into the environment. Most importantly, don’t intentionally release balloons into the air. With increased awareness about the issue, we can all work to reduce this very preventable form of marine debris in the Mid-Atlantic and beyond.


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Is Marine Debris Spreading Invasive Species?

Plant growing on cement wall.

A close-up of marine life found on a derelict dock from Japan that washed up on Agate Beach in Newport, Oregon. Credit: Oregon State University, Hatfield Marine Science Center

If you ask a gardener what a weed is, the answer is likely to be any plant growing where they don’t want it. Invasive species, be they plant, animal, or insect, are much more harmful than an unwanted plant in a well-tended garden.

Invasive species are interlopers that muscle out natives by outcompeting them for resources, like food and shelter. Left unchecked, the invaders can lead to the extinction of native plants and animals. In the marine environment, this can result in damaging local economies and fundamental disruptions of coastal and Great Lakes wildlife habits.

Invasive species can colonize a new area via the ballast water of oceangoing ships, intentional and accidental releases of aquaculture species, aquarium specimens or bait, and marine debris.

Growing concern about increasing amounts of marine debris in our oceans has led scientists to research the potential for invasive species to hitch rides on debris and carry them to new areas across the globe.

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program has a new report exploring the subject. Read “Marine Debris as a Potential Pathway for Invasive Species” for detailed information.


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5 Ways the Coast Guard and NOAA Partner

Large ship on reef with small boat beside it.

On September 18, 2003, M/V Kent Reliant grounded at the entrance to San Juan Harbor, Puerto Rico. USCG and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration responded to the incident. (NOAA)

How do the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration work together? There are many ways the two government organizations partner to keep the nation’s coasts and waterways safe for maritime commerce, recreational activities, and wildlife. Here are five:

1. It all began with surveyors and smugglers

Actually, it was an effort to suppress smuggling and collect tariffs that prompted President George Washington to create the Coast Guard Revenue Cutter Service in 1790, launching what would become the U.S. Coast Guard known today. It was President Jefferson’s approval of the surveying of the nation’s coasts in 1807 to promote “lives of our seamen, the interest of our merchants and the benefits to revenue,” that created the nation’s first science agency, which evolved into NOAA.

2. Coast Guard responds to spills; we supply the scientific support

The Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing oil and chemical spill clean-up activities. NOAA Office of Response and Restoration provides the science-based expertise and support needed to make informed decisions during emergency responses. Scientific Support Coordinators provide response information for each incident that spill’s characteristics, working closely with the Coast Guard’s federal On-Scene Coordinator. The scientific coordinator can offer models that forecast the movement and behavior of spilled oil, evaluation of the risk to resources, and suggest appropriate clean-up actions.

3. Coast Guard and NOAA Marine Debris Program keep waters clear for navigation

The Coast Guard sits on the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee, of which NOAA is the chair. The committee is a multi-agency body responsible for streamlining the federal government’s efforts to address marine debris. In some circumstances, the Coast Guard helps to locate reported marine debris or address larger items that are hazardous to navigation. For instance, in certain circumstances, the Coast Guard may destroy or sink a hazard to navigation at sea, as was the case with a Japanese vessel in the Gulf of Alaska in March 2011.

4. NOAA and Coast Guard train for oil spills in the Arctic

As Arctic ice contracts, shipping within and across the Arctic, oil and gas exploration, and tourism likely will increase, as will fishing, if fisheries continue migrating north to cooler waters. With more oil-powered activity in the Arctic and potentially out-of-date nautical charts, the region has an increased risk of oil spills. Although the Arctic may have “ice-free” summers, it will remain a difficult place to respond to spills, still facing conditions such as low visibility, mobilized icebergs, and extreme cold. The Office of Response and Restoration typically participates in oil spill response exercises with the Coast Guard.

5. It’s not just spills we partner on, sometimes it’s about birds

The Coast Guard as well as state and local agencies and organizations have been working to address potential pollution threats from a number of abandoned and derelict boats in the Florida. Vessels like these often still have oils and other hazardous materials on board, which can leak into the surrounding waters, posing a threat to public and environmental health and safety. In 2016, the Coast Guard called Scientific Support Coordinator Adam Davis with an unusual complication in their efforts: A pair of osprey had taken up residence on one of these abandoned vessels. The Coast Guard needed to know what kind of impacts might result from assessing the vessel’s pollution potential and what might be involved in potentially moving the osprey nest, or the vessel, if needed. Davis was able to assist in keeping the project moving forward and the vessel was eventually removed from the Florida Panhandle.


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Debunking the Myths about Garbage Patches

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at some common myths and misconceptions surrounding oil spills, chemical releases, and marine debris.

Garbage floating on water as seen from underneath.

You may have envisioned the garbage patches looking something like this, but that’s pretty far from the truth. (NOAA)

Although most of us have heard the term “garbage patch” before, many may not have a full understanding of what the term really means. In recent years, there has been a lot of misinformation spread about garbage patches and so now, we are here to try to clear up some of these myths.

First, what are garbage patches? Well, garbage patches are areas of increased concentration of marine debris that are formed from rotating ocean currents called gyres and although they may not be as famous as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” there are actually several garbage patches around the world! So let’s address some of the most common questions and misconceptions about garbage patches:

Are garbage patches really islands of trash that you can actually walk on?

Nope! Although garbage patches have higher amounts of marine debris, they’re not “islands of trash” and you definitely can’t walk on them. The debris in the garbage patches is constantly mixing and moving due to winds and ocean currents. This means that the debris is not settled in a layer at the surface of the water, but can be found from the surface, throughout the water column, and all the way to the bottom of the ocean.

Ocean with horizon.

It possible to sail through a garbage patch without even realizing it! (NOAA)

Not only that, the debris within the garbage patches is primarily microplastics, tiny plastic pieces less than five millimeters in size. Many of these microplastics are the result of larger plastic debris that has broken into small pieces from exposure to the sun, salt, wind, and waves. Others, such as microbeads from products like facewashes or microfibers from synthetic clothing, are already small in size when they enter the water. With such small debris items making up the majority of the garbage patches and the constant movement of this debris, it’s possible to sail through a garbage patch without even realizing it.

 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the size of Texas and you can see it from space!

Not so much. Since the garbage patches are constantly moving and mixing with winds and ocean currents, their size continuously changes. They can be very large, but since they’re made up primarily of microplastic debris, they definitely can’t be seen from space.

Why don’t we just clean them up?

Unfortunately, cleaning up the garbage patches is complicated. Since the debris making them up is not only constantly mixing and moving, but also extremely small in size, removing this debris is very difficult. We generally focus removal efforts on our shorelines and coastal areas, before debris has the chance to make it to the open ocean and before they have broken into microplastic pieces, which are inherently difficult to remove from the environment.

Hand holding small white plastic ball.

Since the garbage patches are primarily made up of very small microplastic debris that is constantly mixing throughout the water column, they definitely can’t be seen from space. (NOAA)

It possible to sail through a garbage patch without even realizing it! (NOAA)

However, preventing marine debris is the key to solving the problem. If you think about an overflowing sink, it’s obvious that the first step before cleaning up the water on the floor is to turn the faucet off—that’s prevention. By working to prevent marine debris through education and outreach, and each doing our part to reduce our contribution, we can stop this problem from growing.

Want to learn more about the garbage patches? Check out this blog post or visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website where you can find more information as well as our Trash Talk video on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Different Types of Plastic Litter Lead to Different Types of Effects in Animals

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On Thursday Marine Debris will have a Reddit “Ask Us Anything” on microplastics.Tune in at 1 pm EDT to check out the conversation with the NOAA science team and ask some microplastics questions!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

This week marks “Research Week” on our blog and we will be highlighting marine debris research projects throughout the week! Research is an important part of addressing marine debris, as we can only effectively address it by understanding the problem the best we can.

By: Chelsea M. Rochman, Guest Blogger and Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto

When I go to the beach, anywhere in the world, I can kneel down and find small bits of plastic litter in the sand—these bits are called “microplastics.” Microplastic has become a common pollutant. It can be found globally, from the equator to the poles, in the ocean, lakes, and rivers. Microplastics are also eaten by and can be found inside nearly 700 species of animals, which likely mistake them for food.

If you take a closer look at this litter, you will notice…

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This gallery contains 3 photos


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Point vs. Non-Point Water Pollution: What’s the Difference?

Ocean with black smoke from burning oil.

In July 2010, responders used in situ burns to remove oil in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA)

Water pollution comes in many forms, from toxic chemicals to trash. The sources of water pollution are also varied, from factories to drain pipes. In general, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) classifies water pollution into two categories; point source and non-point source pollution.

Point Source Pollution

Point source pollution is defined as coming from a single point, such as a factory or sewage treatment plant. Here are a few examples of point source pollution OR&R worked on.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gulf of Mexico — Releasing about 134 million gallons of oil the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the largest point source of oil pollution in United States history.

Mosaic Acidic Water Release, Florida — On Sept. 5, 2004, acidic water was released during Hurricane Frances from Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC’s storage containment system. The spill polluted nearly 10 acres of seagrass beds and more than 135 acres of wetland habitats, including almost 80 acres of mangroves.

Montrose Hazardous Releases, California — From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, millions of pounds of DDT and polychlorinated biphenyl were discharged into ocean waters off the southern California coast. Most of the DDT originated from the Montrose Chemical Corporation manufacturing plant located in Torrance, California. In 2001, NOAA and other federal and state agencies reached a settlement with the polluters, establishing the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program (MSRP).

Non-Point Solution Pollution

Runoff from urban and suburban areas is a major origin of non-point source pollution. Discarded trash can become a component of non-point source pollution runoff. For the last 10 years, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program has been tackling non-point pollution of marine debris by leading research, prevention, and removal projects. Here are a few examples of non-point source pollution the Marine Debris Program worked on.

Tijuana River, California — The large amounts of trash and larger debris that wash downstream threaten and degrade the Tijuana River Valley’s valuable ecological, cultural, recreational, and economic resources. A grant from NOAA funds work that includes the removal and disposal of debris that accumulates behind large trash booms designed to block debris from flowing into the ocean.

Netting across river with trash on one side.

As the water flows in the Tijuana River, debris accumulates behind large trash booms that block the debris from flowing into the ocean. (Photo Credit: CA State Parks)

Shuyak Island, Alaska — With the support of a Marine Debris Program grant, the Island Trails Network (ITN) is leading an innovative two-year effort to remove marine debris from a remote island in Alaska. Working with 100 volunteers and trained crew, ITN created a kayak-based cleanup operation to remove about 40,000 pounds of marine debris from Shuyak Island. The island — a remote location with critical habitat for numerous species of birds, fish, and marine mammals — accumulates large amounts of marine debris because of ocean currents and winds.