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What is ocean-based debris?

Gear from fishing activities on the water can become marine debris

Gear from fishing activities on the water can become marine debris when it is lost in the environment (Credit: NOAA).

Marine debris can also come from human activities that take place out at sea. This ocean-based debris can include lost fishing or aquaculture gear, items lost from offshore oil and gas work, trash dumped off of vessels or platforms at sea, and containers that fall from large shipping vessels that transport products across the ocean.

Ocean-based debris can impact even extremely remote areas. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, for example, is a large protected area located to the northwest of the eight main islands of the Hawaiian archipelago. Papahānaumokuākea is a sacred landscape that is integral to Native Hawaiian culture. The monument is home to more than 7,000 marine species. These include 23 species that are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, including the Hawaiian green sea turtle, Hawaiian monk seal, and Laysan duck. The monument is mostly uninhabited by people, and located roughly 3,000 miles from the nearest continental land mass.

Despite the distance, an estimated 52 metric tons of fishing gear from all over the Pacific float into the monument every year. Many nets become trapped on the extensive reefs and continue to catch and entangle marine life for years.

Removing that marine debris reduces the potential for damage to the unique native ecosystem of Papahānaumokuākea. Since 1996, a large-scale effort to remove marine debris from the monument has resulted in clearing 923 metric tons (more than 2 million pounds) of debris from this incredible landscape. Every few years multiple partners collaborate to remove debris from the monument and its shores.

The marine debris removal team

A marine debris removal team with the nearly 124,000 pounds of debris they removed from the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2021 (Credit: NOAA).