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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:


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Follow Along as NOAA Clears the Waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Two people pull nets from the ocean into a small boat.

Two members of the NOAA dive team remove derelict fishing gear from a reef at Midway Atoll during the 2013 marine debris removal cruise. (NOAA)

Turquoise waters, vibrant coral reefs, white sand beaches—this is often what we think of when we think about far-off islands in the Pacific Ocean. But even the furthest reaches of wilderness, such as the tropical reefs, islands, and atolls of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which are hundreds of miles from the main Hawaiian archipelago, can be polluted by human influence. In these shallow waters, roughly 52 tons of plastic fishing nets wash up on coral reefs and shorelines each year.

For nearly two decades, NOAA has been leading an annual mission to clean up these old nets that can smother corals and entangle marine life, including endangered Hawaiian monk seals. This year, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has two staff—Dianna Parker and Kyle Koyanagi—joining the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center scientists and divers on board the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette to document this effort.

A man pulls a net out of the ocean into a small boat.

Chief scientist Mark Manuel hauls derelict nets over the side of a small boat at Maro Reef during the 2014 expedition. (NOAA)

You can follow their journey to remove nets from five areas in the marine monument:

You can keep track of all things related to this expedition on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.


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Celebrate and Protect the Ocean with us on World Ocean Day

Family exploring tidepools in Santa Cruz.

Learn about, explore, and protect your ocean — our ocean. (NOAA)

At NOAA’s National Ocean Service, we’re honoring all things ocean the entire month of June, but if you have only one day to spare, make it this weekend. Sunday, June 8 is World Ocean Day. As we commemorate this interconnected body of water which sustains our planet, consider how each of us can be involved in both celebrating and protecting the ocean.

To celebrate it, we suggest you learn something new about the ocean and share it with at least one friend (perhaps by sharing this blog post). Then, tell us which actions you’re taking to protect the ocean. We have a few examples to get you ready for both.

Learn to Love the Ocean

Did you know that …

You can learn even more about the ocean and coastal areas by visiting a National Marine Sanctuary or National Estuarine Research Reserve and getting a hands-on education.

Act to Protect the Ocean

Plastic water bottle floating in the ocean.

Don’t let this be your vision of World Ocean Day. Be part of the solution. (NOAA)

Now that you’re hopefully feeling inspired by our amazing ocean, you’re ready to do something to protect it from its many threats, such as ocean acidification (global warming’s oceanic counterpart), pollution, and habitat degradation. Here are some ways you can help:

The more we all know and care about the ocean, the more we will do to take care of it. Do your part this World Ocean Day and every day.


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Join the International Coastal Cleanup and Clean up a Beach Near You

Plastic bottle caps picked up from a beach on Midway Atoll.

Help pick up marine debris where you live on September 21 with the International Coastal Cleanup. Marine debris is a global problem, even for places like the middle of the U.S. or a remote Pacific island. The plastic bottle caps shown here were collected from Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. (NOAA)

Worried about the amount of trash on our coasts? Do gyres of bobbing plastic whirl through your head each night? Help wipe these worries from your mind and the beach by joining the International Coastal Cleanup on September 21, 2013.

With more than 550,000 volunteers scouring beaches, rivers, and lakes last year, this event is the biggest one-day cleanup of marine debris in the world. In the past, volunteers have turned up everything from bottle caps and plastic bags to toilet seats and cyborg sea-kitties. But each year cigarette butts take home the prize for most common item of debris found on the beach, with 2,117,931 of these toxic pieces of plastic turning up during the 2012 global cleanup alone.

To volunteer at a location near you, visit Ocean Conservancy online. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud sponsor of the annual event, and last year NOAA volunteers cleaned up more than 2.8 tons (nearly 5,700 pounds) of debris from waterways and beaches in DC, Seattle, and Oahu.

Even if you can’t make it to your nearest waterway on September 21, you can still help reduce how much trash makes it to the ocean by planning your own beach cleanup and considering these 10 suggestions from Ocean Conservancy:

10 things you can do for trash free seas


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NOAA Lifts 14 Metric Tons of Fishing Nets and Plastics from Hawaiian Coral Reefs

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matthew Parry also contributed to this post.

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

The sea life around Hawaii’s remote Midway Atoll is swimming easier after NOAA recently removed 14 metric tons of debris from its waters (a metric ton equals about 2,204 pounds). The removal team, consisting of members of the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Division, spent 19 days collecting debris both from along the shoreline and in the water around Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As usual, the bulk of the items recovered were abandoned fishing gear and plastics.

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

Notably, the team also removed a 23-foot-long derelict vessel weighing close to three-quarters of a metric ton. This vessel was confirmed as having been lost from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. (Learn more about marine debris from the tsunami.)

This current round of marine debris removal efforts began in 2011 when a plan was put in place to help restore the environment injured after the research ship M/V Casitas ran aground on the coral reefs of Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 2005. This atoll is located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in what is now the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Our office, along with our partners, undertook a Natural Resource Damage Assessment for this ship grounding. This process resulted in a legal settlement which provided NOAA with funds to conduct marine debris removal projects over several summers, starting in 2011. The 2011 efforts removed 15 metric tons of marine debris while the 2012 cruise brought in 52 metric tons. Since 2011, NOAA has collected a total of 81 metric tons or 178,000 pounds of debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

Marine debris, particularly discarded and lost fishing gear, is a substantial source of coral damage in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. NOAA and our partners determined that removing nets from coral reefs in this area would prevent similar injuries to corals as those that occurred during the M/V Casitas grounding and subsequent response.

Learn more about efforts to restore coral reefs after this ship grounding [PDF].


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Taking a Closer Look at Marine Debris in Your Backyard

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

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

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

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

So far, they have visited the following places:

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

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

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


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Is There a Garbage Patch in the Great Lakes?

This is a post by Sarah Opfer, NOAA Marine Debris Program Great Lakes Regional Coordinator.

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris in the form of fragments, bottle caps, food packaging, and smoking products are commonly found on Great Lake beaches. Here, marine debris has washed up at Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“—a purported island of trash twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean—receives a lot of media attention. Recent reports suggest that a similar garbage patch may be developing in the Great Lakes as well.

However, based on research we know that the name “garbage patch” is misleading and that there is no island of trash forming in the middle of the ocean. We also know that there is no blanket of marine trash that is visible using current satellite or aerial photography.

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Plastic debris is found in Great Lake waters as well. This debris was pulled from a Lake Erie marina during a cleanup. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Yet, there are places in the ocean where currents bring together lots and lots of floatable materials, such as plastics and other trash. While the types of litter gathering in these areas can vary greatly, from derelict fishing nets to balloons, the kind that is capturing the most attention right now are microplastics. These are small bits of plastic often not immediately evident to the naked eye.

While we know about the so-called “garbage patches” in the Pacific Ocean, could there be a similar phenomenon in other parts of the world, including the Great Lakes? Recent research on the distribution of plastics in the Great Lakes has people now asking that very question.

The Great Lakes are no mere group of puddles. They contain nearly 20% of the world’s surface freshwater and have a coastline longer than the East Coast of the United States. Within the Great Lakes system, water flows from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, the lakes furthest west and highest in elevation, east into Lake Huron. From there, it travels through Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River into Lake Erie. Then, some 6 million cubic feet of water pass over Niagara Falls each minute and into Lake Ontario before flowing through the St. Lawrence River and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

Average summer water circulation patterns in the Great Lakes. Beletsky et al. 1999 (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

This water flow influences circulation patterns within and between each of the lakes. Currents within the Great Lakes also are powered by wind, waves, energy from the sun, water density differences, the shape of the lakebed, and the shoreline. These circulation currents have the tendency to create aggregations of garbage and debris in certain areas, just like in the oceans. But, just as in the Pacific Ocean, this doesn’t mean the Great Lakes have floating trash islands either.

In an effort to better identify and understand how plastic debris is spread throughout the Great Lakes, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have partnered with COM DEV on an exploratory research project. COM DEV is a designer and manufacturer of space and remote sensing technology. Researchers are working with this industry partner to develop and test the ability of different remote sensors to detect plastics in the Great Lakes.

If they find the task is feasible and the trial runs prove to be effective, this work could be applied beyond the Great Lakes and across the United States. The NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration, is engaged with and following the project. We plan to participate in the next steps of this promising effort. You can learn more about the project and a related workshop on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer

Sarah Opfer received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Bowling Green State University and was a Knauss Sea Grant fellow with NOAA in 2009. She is based in Ohio and enjoys having Lake Erie in her back yard! While away from work she enjoys cooking, reading, kayaking, dreaming of places she wants to travel to, and spending time with her family.