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

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In Florida, Rallying Citizen Scientists to Place an Ocean-Sized Problem Under the Microscope

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Young woman filling a one liter bottle with water along a marshy beach.

Florida Sea Grant has been teaching volunteers how to sample and examine Florida’s coastal waters for microplastics and educating the public on reducing their contribution to microplastic pollution. (Credit: Tyler Jones, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

Have you ever looked under a microscope at what’s in a sample of ocean water? What do you think you would find?

These days, chances are you would spot tiny bits of plastic known as microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters long (about the size of a sesame seed).

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project is giving people the opportunity to glimpse into Florida’s waters and see a microscopic world of plastic pollution up close. This project integrates citizen science—when volunteers contribute to scientific research—with education about microplastics.

I recently spoke with Dr. Maia McGuire of Florida Sea Grant. She’s leading the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, which is funded by a grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, of which the Marine Debris Program is a part, has a long history of collaborating with Sea Grant programs across the nation on a range of issues, including marine debris.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has funded more than a dozen marine debris removal and prevention projects involving Sea Grant, and has participated in other collaborations with regional Sea Grant offices on planning, outreach, education, and training efforts. Many of these efforts, including the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, center on preventing marine debris by increasing people’s awareness of what contributes to this problem.

Combining Science with Action

Blue and white plastic fibers viewed under a microscope.

Volunteers record an average of eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, with seven of those eight identified as plastic fibers (viewed here under a microscope). (Credit: Maia McGuire, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

This latest effort, the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, involves building a network of volunteers and training them to collect one liter water samples from around coastal Florida, to examine those samples under the microscope, and then to assess and record how many and what kinds of microplastics they find.

“Everything is microscopic-sized,” explains McGuire. “We’re educating people about sources of these plastics. A lot of it is single-use plastic items, like bags, coffee cups, and drinking straws. But we’re finding a large number are fibers, which come from laundering synthetic clothes or from ropes and tarps.”

Volunteers (and everyone else McGuire’s team talks to) also choose from a list of eight actions to reduce their contribution to plastic pollution and make pledges that range from saying no to plastic drinking straws to bringing washable to-go containers to restaurants for leftovers. For those who opt-in, the project coordinators follow up every three months to find out which actions the pledgers have actually taken.

“It’s been encouraging,” McGuire says, “because with the pledge and follow up, what we’ve found is that they pledge to take 3.5 actions on average and actually take 3.5 actions when you follow up.”

She adds a caveat, “It’s all self-reported, so take that for what it’s worth. But people are coming up to me and saying, ‘I checked my face scrub and it had those microbeads.’ It’s definitely resonating with people.”

Microplastics Under the Microscope

The project has trained 16 regional coordinators, who are based all around coastal Florida. They in turn train the volunteer citizen scientists, who, as of June 1, 2016, have collected 459 water samples from 185 different locations, such as boat ramps, private docks, and county parks along the coast.

“Some folks are going out monthly to the same spot to sample,” McGuire says, “some are going out to one place once, and others are going out occasionally.”

After volunteers collect their one liter sample of water, they bring it into the nearest partner facility with filtration equipment, which are often offices or university laboratories close to the beach. In each lab, volunteers then filter the water sample, using a vacuum filter pump, through a funnel lined with filter paper. “The filter paper has grid lines printed on it so you’re not double counting or missing any pieces,” McGuire adds.

Once the entire sample has been filtered, volunteers place the filter paper with the sample’s contents into a petri dish under a microscope at 40 times magnification. “Because we’re collecting one liter water samples, everything we’re getting is teeny-tiny,” McGuire says. “Nothing really is visible with the naked eye.”

Letting the filter paper dry often makes identifying microplastics easier because microscopic plastic fibers spring up when dry. And they are finding a lot of plastic fibers. On average, volunteers record eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, and of those, seven are fibers. They are discovering at least one piece of plastic in nearly all of the water samples.

“If they have questions about if something is plastic, we have a sewing needle they heat in a flame,” McGuire says, “and put it under the microscope next to the fiber, and if it’s plastic, it changes shape in response to the heat.”

Next, volunteers record their data, categorizing everything into four different types of plastic: plastic wrap and bags, fibers, beads, or fragments. They use online forms to send in their data and log their volunteer information. McGuire is the recipient of all that data, which she sorts and then uploads to an online map, where anyone can view the project’s progress.

A Learning Process

Tiny white and purple beads piled next to a dime.

These purple and white microbeads are what microplastics extracted from facial scrub looks like next to a dime. Microbeads are being phased out of personal care products thanks to federal law. (Credit: Dave Graff)

“When I first wrote the grant proposal—a year and a half ago or more—I was expecting to find a lot more of the microbeads, because we were starting to hear more in the news about toothpaste and facial scrubs and the quantity of microbeads,” McGuire relates. “It was a little surprising at first to find so many [plastic] fibers. We have some sites near effluent outfalls from water treatment plants.”

However, McGuire points out that what they’re finding is comparable to what other researchers are turning up in the ocean and Great Lakes, except for one important point. Many of those researchers take water samples using nets with a 0.3 millimeter mesh size. By filtering through paper rather than a net, McGuire’s volunteers are able to detect much smaller microplastics, like the fibers, which otherwise would pass through a net.

“I think one big take-home message is there’s still so much we don’t know,” McGuire says. “We don’t have a lot of knowledge or research about what the impacts [of microplastics] actually are. We need a lot more research on this topic.”

Learn more about what you can do to reduce your contribution to plastic pollution, take the pledge with the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, and dive into the research projects supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, which are exploring:


What You Can Do to Keep Plastic out of the Ocean

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

A Starbucks coffee cup on a sandy beach by a seabird and people picking up trash.

Keeping a reusable mug in your bag or car can help you remember to opt out of much of the single-use plastic waste that inundates our lives. This coffee cup ended up on a beach in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, thousands of miles from the nearest city. (NOAA)

“Plastic doesn’t go away.” This point was really driven home for me after watching the video, “Open Your Eyes,” which is narrated by Jeff Bridges and produced by the Plastic Pollution Coalition. It serves to remind us how much single-use, disposable plastic we can go through in an average day—and the impacts of all that plastic on the natural world.

The majority of marine debris found around the world is made of plastic. The world’s more industrialized nations, including the United States, create a huge amount of plastic, and unfortunately too much of it ends up in earth’s waters and along its coastlines. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predicts [PDF] that in the future, as more countries become industrialized, the amount of plastic waste in the ocean will increase as well.

Reflecting on the pervasiveness of single-use disposable plastics, which are manufactured to be used once and thrown away, has forced me to look at my own behavior and ask myself, What types of plastic do I personally use in my daily life? How could we all use less plastic? And what could we do to keep the plastic we do use out of the ocean?

Here are a few areas to get started:

  1. Snacks. I tend to dash out of the house with grapes or apple slices in a plastic bag to eat while driving to work or the gym. A logical alternative would be to eat at home and skip the bag (eating in the car is a bad habit anyway!) or pack snacks in a reusable container.
  2. Coffee. On my way to work, I stop for a latte, complete with plastic lid so it won’t spill while I’m drinking it in the car. It would be better to drink it at the coffee shop in their ceramic mugs—it doesn’t take that long and doesn’t require a plastic lid. Better yet is to bring your own to-go mug.
  3. Grocery shopping. When I buy fresh fruits and vegetables, I could skip the provided plastic bags, or opt for paper or reusable mesh produce bags. Other things to consider at the supermarket: Buying foods like yogurt, cereal, and oatmeal in bulk, rather than single-serving packages; choosing a product packaged in cardboard or glass rather than plastic, such as cleaning products, ice cream, milk, condiments, and soda; and bringing your own grocery bags or boxes to get everything home.
  4. Eating out and on the go. At lunch I frequently buy salads to go in those plastic “clamshell” containers; better to bring food from home in a non-disposable container or buy something that doesn’t come encased in plastic. A lot of restaurants automatically include a straw in your iced tea or soda, so asking the wait staff to skip the straw when ordering makes sense (or bring your own glass or metal straw). Opt to drink water and other refreshing beverages out of a reusable glass or bottle, but if necessary, reuse and then recycle any plastic bottles and cups you do use. When taking food home or to-go, bring your own resusable containers and utensils, and skip the plastic forks, spoons, and to-go containers.
  5. Dry cleaning. Let your dry cleaners know you’d prefer to pick up your clean clothes without the plastic coverings.
  6. Cosmetics. Cosmetics and personal care manufacturers are phasing out polyethylene microbeads from cosmetics, cleansers, and toothpastes, which have been banned in the United States, but until the phase-out is complete, check labels and avoid products with “polyethylene” in the ingredients. Because of their tiny size, microplastics which are usually added to products as an abrasive (like exfoliants) pass through water treatment systems and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes.
  7. Trash cans. Open and overflowing trash cans (or recycling bins) don’t do much to keep trash off the street and out of our waterways. Use waste containers with a lid, and never toss trash on top of an overflowing trash can. Take it with you instead and recycle what you can.
  8. Beaches. When you visit the beach, pack out all your trash and pick up any trash you do see there (and report it with our Marine Debris Tracker smartphone app). Better yet, join beach cleanups to help remove trash from our waterways and coasts (which helps keep bigger plastics from breaking down into microplastics).
  9. Science. Join citizen scientists around the country and adopt a shoreline to help monitor how much and what kinds of plastic and other marine debris wash up each month. You can check out an existing project near you, such as the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project and the projects in National Marine Sanctuaries up and down the West Coast. Or start your own dedicated effort using these tools and resources and report your data to our national database.
  10. Community. We can all talk to our friends, family, students, or coworkers about the issue of plastics in the ocean and share this list of actions they can take too.

These steps are just a start, but they’re all things we can do with minimum impact to our daily lives. Even incorporating one of these actions into your life can make a difference in the amount of plastic pollution in our ocean.

As the lead federal agency for addressing this problem, the NOAA Marine Debris Program funds research on the harmful effects of debris, such as plastics, to the marine environment and efforts to clean up our nation’s coastal waters. They have lots of education and outreach materials with more information about the many ways we, as individuals, can help remedy this growing problem of plastics in our ocean.

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Innovative Solutions to Tackling Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Washed Ashore founder Angela Haseltine Pozzi with a giant marlin statue made of marine debris.

Washed Ashore Executive Director Angela Haseltine Pozzi leads a lesson on how marine debris can be used as a powerful art medium to engage students on the topic while at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Behind her is one of her organization’s marine life sculptures crafted entirely from trash retrieved from the ocean and coasts. (NOAA)

You don’t have to get too fancy in order to help keep plastic and other marine debris out of the ocean. Solutions can be pretty simple: Reducing your use of single-use, “disposable” plastic items; picking up a plastic wrapper littered on the sidewalk; participating in a beach cleanup. (Stay tuned: we’ll get deeper into ways you can help later this week.)

Sometimes, however, the particulars of this problem can be more complex. Sometimes just getting people’s attention and encouraging them to take those simple actions require more creative approaches. We’ve rounded up a few projects that have our attention, projects which are aimed at making a dent in the many problems associated with ocean plastics.

Know of another notable ocean plastics project? Let us know in the comments or on social media using #OceanPlastics.

Turning what’s Washed Ashore into powerful pieces of art

A large, bright orange fish sculpture made from ocean trash, mostly plastic.

Washed Ashore rallies volunteers to clean beaches, using the collected debris to create larger-than-life sculptures of the marine life affected by ocean trash. Here, Henry the Fish stands outside Washed Ashore’s gallery in Bandon, Oregon. (NOAA)

Walking southern Oregon’s otherwise beautiful beaches, artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi began despairing how much plastic pollution seemed to appear on its shores. Inspired to turn that pollution into something more positive, she rallied volunteers to clean the beaches and turn the trash into sculptures of the marine life affected by plastic pollution. That’s how Washed Ashore was born. In addition to creating these larger-than-life recycled sculptures, Washed Ashore’s latest project, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, incorporates theater, movement, and creative writing into a curriculum for teaching students about marine debris.

From a sleek marlin to an inquisitive puffin, Washed Ashore’s mostly plastic, often massive sculptures serve as dramatic backdrops—and powerful ocean ambassadors—for these educational programs in zoos, aquariums, and museums around the country. According to Washed Ashore, since its inception in 2010, the program has processed 38,000 pounds of marine debris, turning it into more than 60 sculptures.

Transforming lost fishing nets into energy

Man using a forklift to place old fishing nets in a collection dumpster.

Since begun in 2008, the Fishing for Energy partnership has removed and diverted 3 million pounds of fishing gear from the ocean. (Credit: National Fish and Wildlife Foundation)

The Fishing for Energy partnership helps fishermen properly dispose of old and abandoned fishing nets and other gear—much of it plastic—at no cost to the fishermen. In addition to donating their own worn-out nets, some fishermen also directly retrieve lost fishing gear out of the ocean. After being collected and sorted, any metal parts are recycled, and everything else is converted into electricity, with roughly one ton of old nets producing enough electricity to power a house for 25 days.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation works with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Covanta, and Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. to carry out this partnership, which has expanded to include funding other projects that seek to prevent or remove lost fishing gear in U.S. coastal waters.  Since it started in 2008, the Fishing for Energy partnership has removed and kept 3 million pounds of fishing gear out of the ocean.

Rethinking “disposable” plastic at dinner time

Left: Salad in a to-go container with plastic fork and dressing cup. Right: Salad in a ceramic bowl with metal fork and dressing cup.

The Clean Water Fund’s ReThink Disposable campaign works with San Francisco Bay-area food businesses and institutional food services to help them find more sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic food and beverage packaging. (Credit: Clean Water Fund)

Plastic straws, cups, plates, bags, forks, and spoons turn up among the most frequently found items at beach cleanups year after year. Eating with these so-called “disposable” plastics creates huge amounts of waste, and the Clean Water Fund, with the support of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is working to stem this flow of food-related plastics coming from restaurants in California’s San Francisco Bay region.

Through their ReThink Disposable campaign, Clean Water Fund is collaborating with local food businesses and institutional food services by auditing their waste and helping to find more sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic food and beverage packaging. They’re also working with the businesses to communicate to the public the benefits of cutting down on this type of waste and how it impacts the environment.

One of them, El Metate Restaurant, a fast-casual Mexican restaurant, swapped plastic cutlery and salsa cups, previously provided to both dine-in and take-out customers, for reusable metal cutlery and ceramic salsa bowls. After implementing these changes, not only did El Metate manage to keep 493,711 disposable food ware items out of the landfill (and coastal waters) each year, but the changes improved the dining experience, increased dine-in customers, and is saving nearly $9,000 a year.

Diving deep into the belly of a whale to see impacts to wildlife

A circle of students and teachers with trash in the middle and the inflatable whale in the back of the gymnasium.

The University of North Carolina Wilmington MarineQuest’s Traveling Through Trash program takes students inside the belly of a 58-foot-long inflatable whale, Watson, to teach about the impacts of ocean trash on marine life. (Credit: University of North Carolina Wilmington)

Few things can communicate the scale of plastic’s impacts on wildlife like walking inside a life-sized inflatable whale and “dissecting” its organs to uncover the marine debris it’s swallowed. That’s exactly what middle and elementary school kids in rural North and South Carolina have the opportunity to do through the University of North Carolina Wilmington MarineQuest’s Traveling Through Trash program, which received funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

People have found plastic bags, rope, juice packs, broken CD cases, and much more inside dead whales. Watson, the 58-foot-long inflatable right whale, offers students the chance to experience this reality close up and learn how they can take responsibility for keeping trash, no matter where it comes from, far away from the ocean and marine life. During the 2015-2016 school year, Watson the Whale traveled more than 8,000 miles and taught more than 9,500 students about how trash affects migrating marine species.

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Spiny Lobsters, Tropical Cyclones, and Derelict Traps

Metal trap resting on seafloor with vegetation growing around it.

Derelict lobster trap frame with  bio-fouling (most of the side slats are missing). The trap is residing on mixed seagrass and hard-bottom habitat. (NOAA)

Derelict traps generated by the Florida Keys commercial spiny lobster fishery can result in damage to the benthic habitat (meaning located on the ocean floor) such as seagrass beds and corals. During the passage of a tropical cyclone, strong currents and turbulence are generated underwater which  can move spiny lobster traps,  creating the potential for lost traps and habitat damage. An earlier study addressed the prevalence of non-retrieved traps, estimating that over 85,000 ghost traps reside on the seafloor in the Florida Keys. It has been estimated that ghost traps in the region kill approximately 637,622 lobsters annually.

Seagrass from above with a patch in the middle where the seagrass has worn away.

2005 image of an impact area from a lobster trap that was experimentally deployed in seagrass (Syringodium filiforme, or manatee grass) and remained resting on the seagrass for six months. (NOAA)

A new study focused on the Florida Keys commercial spiny lobster (Panulirus argus)  fishery shows how climate change could compound the negative effect marine debris has on the environment. This is perhaps the first study of its kind as it shows how many spiny lobster traps might be lost given different scenarios of future fishing activity and tropical cyclone intensity. In early April, a journal article on the study, titled “Tropical cyclones, derelict traps, and the future of the Florida Keys commercial spiny lobster fishery” was published in Marine Policy (69: 84-91).

The author, Amy V. Uhrin of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, looked at climate change, specifically how projected patterns of increasing hurricane intensity could make this a bigger problem as trap loss increases at higher wind speeds as does the movement of traps along the seafloor, causing more benthic habitat damage.

“The legacy of trap debris in the Florida Keys combined with possible increased inputs of yet more trap debris resulting from a future rise in tropical cyclone intensity presents an immediate challenge for both fisheries management and climate adaptation planning and underscores the importance of an effective process for addressing these issues.” — Amy V. Uhrin

The commercial spiny lobster fishery is important to the Florida Keys. According to experts at the Florida Sea Grant Program at the University of Florida, the fishery contributes over 20 million dollars per year to the economy of south Florida and the Florida Keys. Also, 90 percent of Florida’s spiny lobster harvest comes from the Florida Keys. A fact sheet the National Sea Grant program published several years ago recognized the problem of the derelict traps:

Man dropping a wooden trap into the water from the side of a boat.

Traps being deployed. (NOAA)

“Another significant issue in the spiny lobster fishery is the impact of ghost traps. The prevalence of trap gear that has not been retrieved is concerning as it has been noted to have impacts on benthic habitats and contribute to ghost fishing. Traps, though typically weighted with cement, are still capable of drifting large distances with currents along sand or seagrass causing habitat damage through abrasion or entanglement. Once the line and buoy are separated from the trap, lines may drift with the currents and entangle marine organisms or, more likely, entangle reef structures.”

Ms. Uhrin’s study evaluated three scenarios of tropical cyclone intensification across four levels of fishing effort (based on number of traps used). The study takes the position that derelict traps and marine debris generated by their degradation will increase as hurricanes intensify  in the Florida Keys. In order to create the scenarios, Ms. Uhrin carefully looked at historical data of both fishery effort and patterns in the region and calculated future projections, or predictions, of monthly trap loss as related to maximum wind speed under the three levels of tropical cyclone intensification.

The article suggests that “by maintaining existing fishing effort in the coming decades, trap loss could exceed 11 million over 60 years depending upon the rate of tropical cyclone intensification.” Even a scenario of existing fishing effort with a relatively unchanged (Business-as-Usual scenario) hurricane intensification, would generate over 6.5 million lost traps on the seafloor over 60 years, and create the potential for more than 3 million square meters of injured habitat. This is not including the potential for additional injuries during high wind events when the debris is likely to be moving across the seafloor. The author concludes, “The legacy of trap debris in the Florida Keys combined with possible increased inputs of yet more trap debris resulting from a future rise in tropical cyclone intensity presents an immediate challenge for both fisheries management and climate adaptation planning and underscores the importance of an effective process for addressing these issues.”

Woman with glasses.Amy V. Uhrin is currently Chief Scientist for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, where she oversees the research portfolio, leads internal research projects, and oversees Program-funded external research projects. Her work has addressed issues of natural and human-influenced disturbances in seagrass and other coastal ecosystems, including effects of hurricanes, wave energy, vessel groundings, and commercial fishing gear.


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What Do We Know Today About Microbeads and Microplastics in the Ocean?

Plastic microbeads visible in toothpaste on a toothbrush.

Microbeads are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic added to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. They can pass through wastewater treatment processes and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life. (NOAA)

Almost four years ago, I was surprised to find out about the presence of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products, such as exfoliating face cleansers and some types of toothpaste.

The problem with these tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic is that once they are washed down the drain, they escape being filtered by wastewater treatment processes, allowing them to enter the ocean and Great Lakes where they could absorb toxic chemicals in the environment and be ingested by animal life.

Microbeads are actually not a recent problem; according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients with the same purpose in these products. But even in 2012, this issue was still relatively unknown, with an abundance of products containing plastic microbeads on the market and not a lot of awareness on the part of consumers.

Microbeads, Macro-attention

For several years, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been working with researchers that are investigating issues relating to microbeads in our marine environment. In recent years, the issue has received a fair amount of attention in the media and elsewhere.

As a result of increasing overall awareness of the problem, many companies that use microbeads in their products have been phasing them out voluntarily. On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 [PDF], banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.

The law was met with a lot of support, including from the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group who commented during the act’s approval process, which said:

“Solid, plastic microbeads are used in personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties. Research by independent scientists and nongovernmental organizations show that microbeads from all types of industrial uses are miniscule contributors to marine plastic debris; cosmetic microbeads are a tiny fraction of that. At the same time, our member companies take very seriously their role as environmental stewards of their products. As a result, companies have voluntarily committed to replace solid plastic microbeads. We look forward to this important bipartisan legislation making its way to President Obama’s desk and being signed into law.”

Under the Microscope

Tiny bits of microplastics litter a sandy patch of beach.

Microplastics, which include microbeads, are less than 5 millimeters long (roughly the size of a sesame seed). Most microplastic in the ocean actually ends up there after breaking down from bigger pieces of plastic on beaches. (NOAA)

After I originally learned about microbeads in cosmetic products, I discussed the issue with Dr. Joel Baker, Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science at the University of Washington Tacoma and the Science Director of the Center for Urban Waters.

At the time, he was leading a project for the NOAA Marine Debris Program focused on detecting microplastics in the marine environment. Microplastics, which include microbeads, are minute pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, or about the size of a sesame seed. More recently, he has conducted a study, “Quantification of Marine Microplastics in the Surface Waters of the Gulf of Alaska,” that examined the quantity and distribution of microplastics at specific locations in Alaskan waters over time.

Following the signing of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, I checked back in with Dr. Baker to get his thoughts on the issue now. Four years ago, he had told me, “While we don’t yet understand the impacts of microplastics to aquatic organisms, we do know that releasing persistent materials into the ocean will result in ever-increasing concentrations of marine debris.”

Speaking to him now, while Dr. Baker sees the attention given to microbeads in health and beauty products over the last few years as a good way to raise awareness about plastics in the ocean, he cautions that there still is not enough known about the damage that these extremely small particles cause. He further points out that while certainly not insignificant, they represent a very small percentage of total microplastic debris in the ocean.

We need more research to be able to measure accurately the presence of smaller microplastics, including microbeads, in the ocean. While Dr. Baker and his colleagues have developed a manual on laboratory methods for extracting microplastics from water samples, the methods do not yet detect the smallest particles such as the microbeads that exist in some health and beauty products.

Breaking Down the Issues

In addition, Dr. Baker pointed out to me that microbeads are not the largest source of marine plastic or even microplastics. “Most plastic in the ocean is from beach plastics that break down and improper disposal of trash,” he said. Cosmetic microbeads are much smaller, and are considered primary microplastics [PDF], as opposed to secondary microplastics, which are the result of larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller pieces.

While Dr. Baker found encouraging the news that we’ll be stopping one of the many ways plastic reaches the ocean, he emphasized there are plenty more that will require a lot of effort. He suggested that more attention needs to be paid to the abundance of plastic bags that end up in the ocean, which he feels represents a larger part of the plastic marine debris problem.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program strives to learn more about the impacts of marine microplastics. In addition to Dr. Baker’s work, the program currently is supporting microplastic research projects that include, but aren’t limited to, measuring microplastics in the marine environment; the presence of microplastics in different geographical regions, such as the coastal mid-Atlantic region and national park beaches; examining juvenile fishes to determine if they are ingesting microplastic; and the effects of microplastics in aquatic food chains.

For more information on these issues, you also can refer to a UNEP 2014 update on plastic debris in the ocean [PDF].

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Our Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions for 2016

2015 written on a sandy beach with an approaching wave.

So long, 2015. Hello, 2016!

Another year has gone by, and we’ve stayed plenty busy: responding to a leaking California pipeline, examining the issue of wrecked and abandoned ships, preparing a natural resource damage assessment and restoration plan for the Gulf of Mexico, and removing 32,201 pounds of marine debris from Hawaii’s Midway Atoll.

You can read more about what we accomplished in the last year, but keep in mind we have big goals for 2016 too. We’re aiming to:

  1. Be better models. This spring, we are planning to release an overhaul of our signature oil spill trajectory forecasting (GNOME) and oil weathering (ADIOS) models, which will be combined into one tool and available via an online interface for the first time.
  2. Tidy up. Our coasts, that is. In the next year, we will oversee marine debris removal projects in 17 states and territories, empowering groups to clean up coastal areas of everything from plastics to abandoned fishing gear.
  3. Use or lose. Nature and wildlife offer a lot of benefits to people, and we make use of them in a number of ways, ranging from recreational fishing to birdwatching to deep-seated cultural beliefs. In 2016 we’ll examine what we lose when nature and wildlife get harmed from pollution and how we calculate and make up for those losses.
  4. Get real. About plastic in the ocean, that is. We’ll be turning our eye toward the issue of plastic in the ocean, how it gets there, what its effects are, and what we can do to keep it out of the ocean.
  5. Explore more. We’ll be releasing an expanded, national version of our DIVER data management tool, which currently holds only Deepwater Horizon data for the Gulf of Mexico, allowing us and our partners to better explore and analyze ocean and coastal data from around the country.
  6. Get artistic. Through our NOAA Marine Debris Program, we are funding projects to create art from ocean trash to raise awareness of the issue and keep marine debris off our coasts and out of our ocean.
  7. Break ground on restoration. Finalizing the draft comprehensive restoration plan for the Gulf of Mexico, following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, will bring us one step closer to breaking ground on many restoration projects over the next several years.
  8. App to it. We are working on turning CAMEO Chemicals, our popular database of hazardous chemicals, into an application (app) for mobile devices, making access to critical information about thousands of potentially dangerous chemicals easier than ever.
  9. Train up. We pride ourselves on providing top-notch training opportunities, and in 2016, we already have Science of Oil Spill classes planned in Mobile, Alabama, and Ann Arbor, Michigan (with more to come). Plus, we’ve introduced a brand-new Science of Chemical Releases class, designed to provide information and tools to better manage and plan for responses to chemical incidents.
  10. Get strategic. We are updating our five year strategic plan, aligning it with NOAA’s Ocean Service strategic priorities [PDF], which are coastal resilience (preparedness, response, and recovery), coastal intelligence, and place-based conservation.

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On the Hunt for Shipping Containers Lost off California Coast

Large waves break on a pier that people are walking along.

The M/V Manoa lost 12 containers in stormy seas off the coast of California in the area of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. (Credit: Beach Watch/mojoscoast)

On December 11, 2015, the Matson container ship M/V Manoa was en route to Seattle from Oakland, California, when it lost 12 large containers in heavy seas. At the time of the spill, the ship was maneuvering in order to allow the San Francisco Bay harbor pilot to disembark.

The containers, which are 40 feet long and 9 feet wide, are reported as empty except for miscellaneous packing materials, such as plastic crates and packing materials such as Styrofoam. Luckily there were no hazardous materials in the cargo that was spilled.

The accident occurred about eight miles outside of the Golden Gate Bridge in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Three containers have come ashore, two at or near Baker Beach, just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, and one at Mori Point near Pacifica, California. The search continues for the others.

The Coast Guard is responding to this incident with assistance from NOAA, the National Park Service, State of California, and City of San Francisco. The responsible party is working with an environmental contractor to recover the debris and containers. The Coast Guard asks that if a container is found floating or approaching shore to exercise caution and notify the Coast Guard Sector San Francisco Command Center at 415-399-7300.

On December 14, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration became involved when the Coast Guard Sector San Francisco contacted the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for the region, Jordan Stout. The Coast Guard requested help from the Office of Response and Restoration in tracking the missing containers. Oceanographer Chris Barker is providing trajectory modeling, using wind and current information to predict the potential direction of the spilled containers.

NOAA chart of waters off San Francisco showing where the shipping containers were lost and where three have been found.

A NOAA oceanographer is using wind and current information to predict the potential direction of the spilled shipping containers off the California coast. This information is helping direct search efforts for the remaining containers. (NOAA)

This accident occurred in NOAA’s Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The Greater Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association Beach Watch program, provided some of the initial sightings to the Coast Guard, and volunteers are doing additional beach surveys to look for debris and more containers. There is a concern that the containers, contents, or parts of the containers could pose a hazard to wildlife through entanglement or by ingestion. There is also concern about the containers potentially damaging ocean and coastal bottom habitats within the marine sanctuary. (Read a statement from the sanctuary superintendent. [PDF])

This incident illustrates another way that marine debris can enter the environment. According to Sherry Lippiatt of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, “This incident is a reminder that while marine debris is an everyday problem, winter storms and higher ocean swells may increase the amount of debris entering the environment.”

To learn more about how storms can lead to increased marine debris, take a look at the recent article, California’s “First Flush”. For information on how citizen science can help in situations like this, see this article about searching for Japan tsunami debris on the California coast.