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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National Aquarium Helping Reduce Plastic Pollution

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is looking at the impacts of pollutants on wildlife and endangered species. We’ll explore tools we’ve developed to map sensitive species and habitats, how marine debris endangers marine life, how restoring toxic waste sites improves the health of wildlife, and the creation of a mobile wildlife hospital.

Woman reaching for beverage from case. National Aquarium.

This year the National Aquarium eliminated all single-use plastic foodware in its building. Image credit: National Aquarium.

By Maggie OstdahlNational Aquarium 

Experts estimate there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our ocean, with millions of tons entering the ocean from land each year. It’s estimated that Americans use (and throw away) about 500 million plastic straws each day, and 100 billion plastic bags each year. Disposable plastic items easily wash or blow into the ocean, where they can have devastating effects on marine animals and ecosystems.

Plastic pollution also affects human health—humans are ingesting the plastic that has found its way into our food web, and the production of plastic releases toxins into our atmosphere that have negative impacts on our health.

We also have a financial interest in reducing plastic pollution, since the cost of waste management and litter cleanup largely comes from our tax dollars. Recycling helps, but reducing the use of plastic is a critical first step in keeping it out of the ocean.

The National Aquarium is proud to contribute to the global reduction of plastics, not only through advocacy and education, but also through our own operations. This year, we eliminated all single-use plastic foodware in our building.

This change involved many of our partners, including Sodexo, the Classic Catering People and Pepsi, and a shift in the products we offer in our on-site cafes. For example, disposable plastic lids, straws, stirrers and utensils have been replaced with compostable options. Juices and soft drinks are available, but no longer sold in single-use bottles, eliminating the average 85,000 single-use soda and juice bottles previously sold within our building each year.

Prior to this year, we also removed plastic bags in our gift shops, eliminated single-use water bottles and installed water bottle filling stations throughout our building. As a result of these changes, we estimate that at least 300,000 water and soft drink bottles have been removed from the waste stream each year.

Our most recent effort to eliminate single-use plastics is also part of our leadership role in the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, or ACP, a first-of-its-kind collaboration of 19 U.S. aquariums that have joined together to take collective action to address plastic pollution.

Alongside Monterey Bay Aquarium and Shedd Aquarium, we’ve led the charge to produce In Our Hands, the ACP’s first consumer campaign. In Our Hands seeks to bring awareness and action to plastic pollution, and empower the participating aquariums’ 20 million visitors—and millions more in their communities—to shift away from single-use plastics and adopt innovative alternatives.

The participating aquariums have also pledged to significantly reduce or eliminate plastic beverage bottles by December 2020 and showcase innovative alternatives to single-use plastics in their facilities.

Whether through consumer education or operations within our own walls, the National Aquarium is proud to work with other organizations and our on-site partners to lead the fight against plastic pollution. Reducing plastic at or near the source of production is crucial to keeping it from becoming marine debris that harms wildlife and people, and educating consumers about these harmful effects is key to inspiring change.

 

Maggie Ostdahl is the conservation operations manager at the National Aquarium who never leaves the house without her reusables. The National Aquarium is a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. Consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top three aquariums, we host more than 1.3 million guests and educate more than 100,000 students each year. The Aquarium’s conservation work focuses on  urban conservation and diversity, climate change and resiliency, and ocean and human health.


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How Marine Debris is Impacting Marine Animals

and What You Can do About it……

This week, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration looks at the impacts of pollutants on wildlife and endangered species. We’ll explore tools we’ve developed to map sensitive species and habitats, how marine debris endangers marine life, how restoring toxic waste sites improves the health of wildlife, and the creation of a mobile wildlife hospital.

Animals tangled in nets. NOAA.

Left: Animals can become entangled in marine debris, particularly in items such as derelict fishing lines and nets. Image credit: NOAA. Right: Sea turtles entangled in debris run the risk of drowning if they are prevented from reaching the surface to breathe. Image credit: NOAA.

Marine debris is one of the most widespread pollution problems facing our ocean and waterways today. This issue of solid, man-made materials in the ocean or Great Lakes is a global one that leaves no part of the world untouched by debris and its impacts. These negative effects impact people on a daily basis, from economic losses to potential health hazards, but can impact marine animals most severely. Animals are impacted by marine debris in a variety of ways, including:

Ingestion. Marine debris can be ingested by animals that either mistake it for food or accidentally consume it along with their meal. This can create a lot of problems, ranging from mild discomfort to a dangerous blockage. Debris can fill up stomachs, causing an animal to feel full while depriving it of the nutritious meal it needs. In these cases, animals may starve with a full stomach.

Bird stomach, turtle with string.

Left: The contents of this bird’s stomach shows marine debris can block up an animal’s system. When plastic debris is ingested, it can make the animal feel full and robs them of getting the nutrients they need. Image Credit: NOAA. Right: This sea turtle was found after ingesting balloon debris, likely mistaking it for food. Image Credit: Blair Witherington, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Entanglement. Animals may become tangled up in marine debris and unable to free themselves. This can affect the animal in a variety of ways, ranging from mild discomfort to seriously impacting the animal’s ability to survive. Entangled animals may get abrasions from the debris, resulting in a dangerous infection. If movement is restricted, animals may not be able to feed and air-breathing fauna may drown if entangled underwater.

Habitat damage. Marine debris can also harm animals indirectly by impacting their habitat. Large or heavy debris may damage or smother sensitive habitats, such as coral reefs and sea grass.

Diver and damaged seagrass. NOAA.

Left: Debris can damage or smother sensitive habitats like coral reefs. Image credit: NOAA. Right: After six months of a derelict spiny lobster trap sitting on top of seagrass, the impact to this habitat can be readily observed. Image credit: NOAA.

Non-native species. Non-native species may hitch a ride on marine debris from one region to another. This might sound like a convenient way to travel, but if these introduced species become invasive, they can wreak havoc on an ecosystem by depleting food sources or destroying habitat.

Thankfully, there is hope! Although debris is a big problem that has many negative impacts, it is also a completely preventable problem that we have the power to address. The NOAA Marine Debris Program has many efforts underway to prevent and remove marine debris in order to reduce these harmful effects, coordinating with partners on local solutions to this global issue. Many other organizations are stepping up to do their part to address debris, from reducing their distribution of unnecessary single-use plastics to involving the community in caring for their local area.

You can get involved, too! Evaluate your habits and change those that may contribute to marine debris. Follow the “3Rs” and reduce, reuse, and recycle. An additional “R” to keep in mind is to refuse items you don’t need, like a plastic straw in your water glass. Spread the word to your family and friends so they can participate, too. If you’d like to get more involved, join a cleanup in your area (subscribe to our e-newsletter for a list of cleanups each month) or start one yourself and use the Marine Debris Tracker app to record your finds. Working together, we can make a big difference in the fight against marine debris.

To learn more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts to remove and prevent marine debris, head to marinedebris.noaa.gov.

Read more stories in our series on the effects of pollutants on wildlife:


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A Summer like NOAAther: A NOAA Intern’s Experience

Man standing in front of wave fountain. Image: NOAA.

Danny Hoffman, constituent and legislative affairs intern, standing in front of the wave pool at NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. The pool, Coastline, is the work of artist Jim Sanborn and represents the Atlantic coastline. A NOAA monitoring station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts transfers instantaneous wave heights via modem to Silver Spring and then transferred to the wave pool. Image credit: NOAA.

By Danny Hoffman, Office of Response and Restoration intern

When I told my friends and family that I would be interning at NOAA this summer, the first reply I often got was “NOAA? Aren’t they the ones that do the weather report?”

I have to profess that as a government and history double major, my knowledge of NOAA did not extend much beyond that before starting my internship. When asked what I would be doing, I mostly rattled off phrases from the internship description posted, not knowing many more specifics.

However, after a very rewarding 10 weeks as a constituent and legislative affairs intern at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, not only do I know much more about NOAA than I could have previously imagined, I have also gained valuable experience working in a government agency.

As my time at NOAA ends, I’ll share some of my experiences, as well as my impressions of interning with the federal government.

What does Response and Restoration mean?

First, “Response and Restoration” is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than physically clean up oil and chemical spills, one of the office’s roles is to provide scientific support to the Federal On-Scene Coordinators during spills. The Emergency Response Division does this by calculating the trajectory of spilled materials in bodies of water and providing information on weather and resources at risk for the affected areas, among other support.

The Assessment and Restoration Division assesses damages to natural resources in the aftermath of a spill, and finally, the Marine Debris Division helps to monitor and cleanup the thousands of tons of marine debris in our waterways and oceans. Even after 10 weeks, I am still learning new aspects of this office every day.

Learning to Love Science

As someone coming from a social science academic background with limited scientific expertise, I initially felt intimidated interning for a government agency principally focused on science.

On top of that, this was my first internship. However, those worries were largely laid to rest on the first day, when to my surprise, rather than finding scientists in lab coats huddling around beakers—as I like to imagine my friends majoring in science do all day—I instead found an office with resource coordinators, communication specialists, NOAA commissioned officers, and scientists, none of whom were in lab coats.

Some of the things I learned my first day here were:

I quickly had to adapt to navigating the jungle of acronyms. Thankfully, I finally found an acronym that spoke to my feelings of sinking in the sea of letters and abbreviations: SOS. Which, incidentally, stands for both Science of Oil Spills, a class that helps train and educate spill responders, and Science on a Sphere, a room-sized globe that allows the over 400 data sets to be projected onto it.

Behind the Scenes

While providing scientific expertise during spills is one of the main missions of this office, their work extends far beyond that. During my internship, I worked under policy analyst Robin Garcia. She is responsible for communications between the office and Congress. This ranges from organizing tours of spill restoration sites in congressional districts, to requests for technical information about the office’s work to Congress. Though this job may be more behind-the-scenes, it provides vital support for the office’s mission.

 More than Just Brewing Coffee

When picturing an intern, you may think of someone delegated to the mailroom, licking envelopes and refilling the water cooler.

I actually did help refill the water cooler, but only because of my cubicle’s close location to it. Otherwise, I did little grunt work. When I wasn’t out attending Capitol Hill briefings, or outreach events, my main duties included tracking key legislation that would affect the office’s mission, and creating a tracker for the Strategic Plan that will continue be used through 2021.

My activities were varied; I attended an outreach event at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, helped review a training manual on environmental compliance, and went to a briefing on the Hill, all within the first week!

From white papers to windows

I was also fully integrated into the office, from sitting and participating in conference calls with the outreach team, to interviewing NOAA scientists in Hawaii. That interview was for one of my main projects this summer, researching and writing a white paper reviewing the office’s outreach efforts on oil-by-rail spills.

As someone used to writing historical and political science research papers, one of my biggest challenges was adapting to the more technical and explanatory, or scientific, writing style of a governmental white paper.

Also, while this may seem strange to some, getting my own cubicle proved more exciting than I was expecting. As part of that, I also learned to deal with a struggle affecting thousands of government employees: not having a view of a window by their cubicle (though thankfully I was no more than a five-second walk away from one).

Man sitting at desk in front of computer screen. Image: NOAA.

Intern Danny Hoffman sitting at his desk in his windowless cubicle. Image credit: NOAA.

Some other highlights of time include attending Capitol Hill Oceans Week, the nation’s premier ocean conference where I attended panels and met with leading ocean science and policy experts, and a communications training day, which included workshops on how to constructively talk to reporters during interviews, public speaking tips, and not one, but two mock interviews.

A true dive into the world of policy

As I leave NOAA to enter my senior year at the University of Maryland, I am thankful for the sweeping introduction this internship has given me to the world of policy, and for all of my NOAA coworkers who supported me during my internship.

From preparing white papers to speaking daily with leading professionals who make policy, much of what I have learned and experienced simply could not have been taught in a lecture hall.

I am excited for a possible future career with the federal government, and encourage anyone with an interest in policy, marine science, or public relations to apply for an internship with the Office of Response and Restoration in the future!

 

Danny Hoffman is a rising senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently double majoring in Government and History, with a minor in Spanish. Outside of interning for NOAA, Danny enjoys traveling (though not on Metro), reading about U.S. History, and playing his viola.


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Microplastics on National Park Beaches

Two men picking up objects from beach. Image credit NPS.

National Park Service staff collect sand for microplastic and microfiber sampling at Cabrillo National Monument, California. Image credit: NPS, Cabrillo National Monument.

Guest post By:  Stefanie Whitmire, Ph.D., Research Scientist at the Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology & Forest Science, Clemson University

Microplastics are plastic pieces measuring less than five millimeters in size and in recent decades, there have been many studies that indicate a strong presence of this type of debris in marine and coastal environments.

Microplastics can come from a variety of sources. Some microplastics are manufactured at that small size as microbeads, found in products like toothpaste and facial scrubs, or pellets, which are used to make larger plastic items. Microfibers, another type of microplastic debris, come from synthetic items such as rope or clothing (like fleece).

Microplastics also come from the breakdown of larger plastic pieces, such as water bottles and fishing line. Unfortunately, the presence of microplastics in the marine environment poses risks to wildlife. Microplastics ingested by animals can physically damage the digestive tract and potentially expose the animal to chemicals and contaminants associated with the microplastic particle.

To investigate the number and distribution of microplastics on National Park beaches across the United States, researchers at Clemson University collaborated with the National Park Service to collect and analyze sand from 37 coastal National Parks. The study area included parks from the Northeast, Midwest (Great Lakes), West Coast, Alaska, and Pacific Islands. This collaborative effort, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, provided a unique opportunity to quantify microplastic loads from a wide geographic distribution of coastal beaches, capturing a snapshot of microplastics around the country at one moment in time.

Most of the microplastics that were found in this study were in the form of fibers, but beads and plastic fragments were also observed (see microscope images below). The presence of microplastic debris was widespread and found at even the most remote areas, such as secluded parts of Alaska, but the highest recorded amounts of microplastics were at individual parks in the Great Lakes and the Pacific Islands. Interestingly, many sampled sites were far from urban centers but still had over 100 pieces of microplastics per kilogram of sand. This was observed in Alaska, along the northwest Pacific coastline, and the islands in the Pacific.

Man kneeling on beach. Image credit: NPS, Acadia National Park.

National Park Service staff collect sand for microplastic and microfiber sampling at Acadia National Park, Maine. Image credit: NPS, Acadia National Park

However, no clear patterns between quantity of microplastics and geographic features like urban centers or rivers were apparent. This was not completely unexpected given the wide geographic sampling and the numerous local factors that could influence microplastic abundance along these shorelines. For instance, beaches can capture microplastics from both open water bodies (the ocean or lakes) and riverine systems.

Additionally, beaches are dynamic systems, with constant movement of sand and other particles like shells, glass, and plastic. Understanding the movement and turnover of microplastics in beach environments will help us clarify the exposure and risk to wildlife in the future. Overall, this project provided a snapshot of microplastics around the United States and emphasized the pervasive nature of this type of marine debris.

Check out the final report, Quantification of Microplastics on National Park Beaches, for more information on this project. This guest post first appeared on the Marine Debris Program’s blog, visit that blog to read the complete post.


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Show Mother Earth Some Love on Mother’s Day

Every small change we can make to reduce, reuse, and recycle helps Mother Earth!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Sunday is Mother’s Day and while you’re celebrating the mothers in your life, take some time to think about Mother Earth, too! There are lots of things we can do every day to show Mother Earth some love, and she deserves it considering all she does for us! One of the simplest and easiest ways to love our Earth is to learn what can be recycled in your area and follow that up by recycling those items properly. Step it up a notch by reusing those items instead—use that plastic water bottle again and again or repurpose it into something completely different, like a bird feeder or flower pot! Step up your Mother’s Day gift-giving game for our Mother Earth even more by reducing your use of or refusing items you don’t need. When you’re at a restaurant for Mother’s Day brunch, ask for your water without a straw. Each…

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8 Ways to Keep the Earth Clean

Litter on beach.

Litter such as plastic detergent bottles, crates, buoys, combs, and water bottles blanket Kanapou Bay, on the Island of Kaho’olawe in Hawaii. This region is a hot-spot for marine debris accumulation. Image credit: NOAA

By: Amanda Laverty, Knauss fellow with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program

Earth Day is just around the corner and it’s the perfect time to get involved and support efforts working toward a clean environment and healthy planet. We want to remind ourselves to make these efforts throughout the year, so Earth Day is a great time to start.

This year, let’s challenge ourselves as consumers to make better daily choices so that we can collectively lessen our impact on the planet! It only takes a few consistent choices to develop new sustainable and earth-friendly habits.

Here are a few easy and effective ways you can choose to reduce your daily impact and make a world of difference:

  1. Bring a bag. Remember to bring reusable bags to the grocery store or for any other shopping activities to reduce consumption of disposable bags.
  2. Invest in a reusable water bottle. Acquiring a reusable water bottle would not only greatly reduce the amount of single-use plastic you use, but it would also save you money in the long run! If you’re concerned about the quality of your tap water, consider using a water filter.
  3. Bring your own reusable cup. Think about how many disposable cups are used every day in just your local coffee shop. Bringing a mug for your morning coffee can reduce the amount of waste you produce annually. Imagine how much waste we could reduce if we all made this simple daily change!
  4. Refuse single-use items. Take note on how often you rely on single-use items and choose to replace them with more sustainable versions. Refusing plastic straws and disposable cutlery when you go out and bringing your own containers for leftovers are a few ways you can start today.
  5. Avoid products with microbeads. Facial scrubs and beauty products containing plastic microbeads were banned in the United States in 2015, but won’t be fully phased out until 2019. Read the labels when purchasing products and opt for ones that contain natural scrubbing ingredients like salt or sugar.
  6. Shop in bulk. Consider the product-to-packaging ratio when purchasing items and choose larger containers instead of multiple smaller ones. When you have the option, also consider purchasing package-free foods and household goods.
  7. Make sure your waste goes to the right place. Do your best to ensure that the waste you dispose of ends up where it should. Recycle the materials that are recyclable in your area and make sure to reduce the likelihood of your garbage ending up in the environment by keeping a lid on your trash can when it’s outside.
  8. Compost. Composting at home reduces the volume of garbage sent to landfills and reduces the chance of some products becoming marine debris.

These are just a few ways that we can apply our Earth Day intentions to our everyday lives. By doing our part to work toward a sustainable and debris-free planet, we’ll also be providing others with inspiration and a good example to follow. As individuals we have the potential to make a big difference and together we can change the world.

This blog first appeared on the Marine Debris blog. Learn more about NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and its mission to investigate and prevent the adverse impacts of marine debris.

Addressing Marine Debris in the Pacific Northwest: Harnessing the Power of Art

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Check out this amazing art!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Like the rest of the country, the Pacific Northwest is unfortunately not immune to the impacts of marine debris. Luckily, there are many efforts in this region to address the marine debris issue, one of which focuses on the power of art.

Washed Ashore, an organization based in Oregon, works to prevent marine debris by raising awareness through art. After collecting debris on beaches and then cleaning and sorting it by color, the Washed Ashore group creates large and intricate sculptures made exclusively of marine debris. By building and displaying these sculptures, which mostly feature animals impacted by debris, this project aims to reach a broad audience to raise awareness of our connection to the debris issue and to inspire changes in our habits as consumers. Many of these sculptures now travel around the country as part of traveling exhibits, reaching broad audiences throughout the nation.

In 2014, Washed…

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