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What are flotsam and jetsam?

Flotsam and jetsam are terms for specific types of marine debris.

marine debris on beach at Kaho'olawe in Hawaii

Marine debris washed ashore in Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.

You may have heard of 'flotsam and jetsam' from the movies, but do you know the meaning of the words? While the phrase 'flotsam and jetsam' is often used to describe 'odds and ends,' each word has a specific meaning under maritime law.

Flotsam and jetsam are terms that describe two types of marine debris associated with vessels. Flotsam is defined as debris in the water that was not deliberately thrown overboard, often as a result from a shipwreck or accident. Jetsam describes debris that was deliberately thrown overboard by a crew of a ship in distress, most often to lighten the ship's load. The word flotsam derives from the French word floter, to float. Jetsam is a shortened word for jettison.

Under maritime law the distinction is important. Flotsam may be claimed by the original owner, whereas jetsam may be claimed as property of whoever discovers it. If the jetsam is valuable, the discoverer may collect proceeds received though the sale of the salvaged objects.

NOAA's Marine Debris Program's mission is to investigate and remove problems that stem from marine debris to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people. Marine debris is defined as any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.

A majority of the trash and debris that covers our beaches and floats in our ocean comes from storm drains and sewers, as well as from shoreline and recreational activities such as picnicking and beachgoing. Abandoned or discarded fishing gear is also a major problem because this trash can entangle, injure, maim, and drown marine wildlife and damage property.

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Last updated: 01/20/23
Author: NOAA
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