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Overview | Marine Debris

Marine Debris

Other Resources Related to Marine Debris

Click here for a video of the founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation discussing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Click here for images and video from the North Pacific Gyre/Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Click here for a CNN news video about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

photo of marine debris
Marine debris that has washed up on the beach. Credit: NOAA

What it is marine debris?

If you have ever walked along a beach and spotted a plastic bottle or other pieces of trash, you have seen the impact of marine debris. Marine debris is litter produced by humans that impacts marine ecosystems. Marine debris takes many forms including fishing nets, plastic trash, cigarette butts, and mermaid tears. Mermaid tears are small plastic pellets that manufacturers use to create plastic toys, bottles, and sports equipment. They are also the name for the remains of larger plastic debris that have been ground down over time. Marine debris affects ocean habitats, the health of marine organisms and humans.

What causes marine debris?

Marine debris is caused by a number of sources. Man made trash enters marine ecosystems by accident, carelessness, and deliberate ways. Storms and accidents at sea can cause container ships to lose part of their cargos during storms. The Great Nike Spill of 1990 was caused by a container ship that was hit by a storm, which sent 5 containers of brand new Nikes into the ocean. Scientists found the shoes all along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Marine debris is also caused indirectly by people littering in their neighborhoods. This land based litter reaches the ocean by running off into small streams and storm drains that eventually meet the oceans. Marine debris can also be caused by fishermen throwing their used nets into the oceans, beach goers dropping their trash into the oceans, and corporations and factories dumping their wastes into the oceans.

photo of marine debris
Researchers found a large number of mermaid tears on the beach in Washington. Mermaid tears are plastic pellets that are used to manufacture plastic products. Credit: Port Townsend Marine Science Center

What are some of the impacts of marine debris?

The most detrimental form of marine debris is the type that is non-biodegradable, meaning that the trash cannot be broken down by natural processes. Once these non-biodegradable objects like plastic, nylon, and Styrofoam are produced they become part of the biosphere for tens to hundreds of years. Biodegradable objects like wood and cardboard degrade in a few short years.

Marine debris affects marine ecosystems by destroying habitats, entangling marine animals, killing animals that eat the plastic debris, and destroying coral reefs. The damage that is caused by marine debris is very high. Seabirds like the Sooty Shearwater often mistakenly eat marine debris, which then get stuck in their digestive tracts. Overtime, this can kill the birds because they cannot digest the plastic. Sea turtles and marine mammals often get entangled in ghost nets, abandoned fishing nets, which often kills the animals. Coral reefs are damaged by the marine debris crashing into or getting snagged on the coral. Finally, humans are also impacted by marine debris. Ghost nets and debris can entangle humans swimming or boating in the ocean, and decrease the amount of fish caught during fishing expeditions. Marine debris is one of the biggest threats to marine ecosystems in our time.

photo of marine debris
Nikes that were washed up on the shoreline of the Pacific Northwest after they were lost from a container ship in 1990. Credit: CNN

What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The oceans are constantly on the move because of ocean currents, wind, and the Coriolis Effect. Since the majority of marine debris is non-biodegradable, it gets trapped in the oceans. A large amount of this marine debris has been trapped in an ocean gyre, or a swirling vortex of water, in the Pacific Ocean This gyre is located between Oregon and the Hawaiian Islands. This huge amount of marine debris is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and it has areas of trash as large as an island. Japan and North America are the main contributors of litter to this garbage patch. Scientists estimate that 80% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was at one point land based litter that reached the ocean through streams and storm drains. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has greatly affected marine ecosystems, and it is an important site for scientists to learn about pollution and its effects.

Research Links Related to Marine Debris

Research Links Related to Exploring Pollution Solutions:

 Species Affected by Exploring
Pollution Solutions:
  Harp Seal
Hawaiian Monk Seal
Polar Bear
Common Dolphin
Leatherback Turtle
Loggerhead Turtle
Green Sea Turtle
Black-footed Albatross
Harbor Porpoise
California Sea Lion
Northern Elephant Seal
Southern Elephant Seal
Greater Shearwater
Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle
Olive Ridley Sea Turtle
Harbor Seal
Hawksbill Turtle
Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
Tiger Shark
False Killer Whale
Short-finned Pilot Whale
North Pacific Right Whale
Humpback Whale

 Activities Related to Exploring
Pollution Solutions:
  Predators Among Us
147 KB, pdf
This lesson will focus on human beings as predators, specifically in coral reef ecosystems.

 Other Resources Related to Exploring
Pollution Solutions:
  Why "No Swimming?"
5689 KB, mpeg, audio clip
Our cities and towns affect water quality!

5896 KB, mpeg, audio clip
The effects of eutrophication are discussed in this 6 minute presentation

Killer whales provide information
365 KB, mpeg, audio clip
Killer whales can be used as a 'sentinel species' - an indicator both for ocean health and for the health of humanity.

Saving the Earth's 'last dinosaurs'
360 KB, mpeg, audio clip
Leatherback turtles are not actually dinosaurs, but they are ancient and amazing animals.

Small Changes Add Up
385 KB, mpeg, podcast
People don't realize that little problems cause big issues!

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone
10042 KB, mpeg, podcast
This 10 minute podcast discusses the causes and effects of the huge 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico.

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