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Fighting Marine Debris

Ryan Tabata

Marine debris threatens the environment, economy, navigation, recreation safety and health of people and animals. While preventable, it’s one of the ocean’s most widespread pollution problems. Every national marine sanctuary faces challenges battling marine debris from the shores of the Florida Keys to the most remote places on Earth. The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is active in the fight against deadly marine debris in America’s sanctuaries and beyond through support of monitoring, volunteer cleanup, and education programs.


Community Cleanups and Education: Clean Beaches, Healthy Environments and Citizens 

Karlyn Langjahr/NOAA
NOAA/NMFS/Pacific Islands Fisheries
NOAA/NMFS/Pacific Islands Fisheries
Robert Keeley/NOAA

Sanctuary volunteers are an important part of our response to marine debris. The debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami significantly impacted the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.  The local community took a leadership role in recovery efforts, with assistance from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. With a Hollings Grant, Washington CoastSavers organized ongoing cleanup activities in the sanctuary where volunteers carefully remove debris up the sides of cliffs. The grant also helps volunteers provide NOAA information on spotting and reporting tsunami debris to area residents.

Ocean Guardian schools emphasize the need to raise awareness on campus, at home, and in their communities of how marine debris is negatively affecting the health of our watersheds, national marine sanctuaries and the ocean. With the support of Ocean Guardian School Program, students at ninety schools across the nation – from as far and wide as American Samoa, Hawaii, California, Michigan, Texas, Maryland, Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands — took part in the fourth annual Students for Zero Waste Week 2016 campaign. Participating schools chose one of the five campaign weeks to focus on reducing land-based waste in attempt to protect the health of marine environments and animals.

In addition to work in sanctuaries, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation funds activities that educate the public about debris and inspire action to combat it. This includes support for the American Canoe Association’s initiative teaching canoeists how to track data on debris they come across and providing mesh bags for clean-up, a grant to the Seattle non-profit Discover Your Northwest for a marine debris coordinator internship, and funding for workshops and planning meetings in coastal communities.


Removing Derelict Fishing Gear and Debris

Lost or discarded fishing gear can destroy habitats and continue catching and killing fish for years. The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation supported identification and removal of derelict fishing gear by volunteer divers and mapping debris patterns to determine areas causing the most harm to historical shipwrecks as part of a scientific expedition to explore the Gulf of Mexico near the proposed expansion areas for Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.  In some places, the sheer mass of these nets is hard to fathom.

In 2011, sanctuary staff and volunteers removed more than 725 pounds of marine debris from the mangroves and shorelines of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Each year, more than 50 tons (about the weight of a dozen elephants) of marine debris washes up on the shores within Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the most remote areas of the Pacific.  In 2014, NOAA’s Marine Debris team removed 57 tons of marine debris out of Monument waters.

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