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Diving Deeper : Episode 3 (Feb. 23, 2009) —
What is Marine Debris?

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I’m your host Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is….What is Marine Debris?

Marine debris is any persistent solid material that is manufactured either intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes. Basically, marine debris is any man-made material that ends up in our waterways. Every year, marine debris injures and kills marine life, interferes with navigation safety, has adverse economic impacts to shipping and coastal industries, and poses a threat to human health. Our oceans and waterways are constantly polluted with a wide variety of marine debris ranging from soda cans and plastic bags to derelict fishing gear and abandoned vessels.
To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Megan Forbes on marine debris – what it is, the impacts, and what we can all do to help. Megan is the National Communications and Outreach Coordinator with the NOAA Marine Debris Program. Hi, Megan, welcome to our show.

MEGAN FORBES: Hi Kate, thanks, it’s good to be here.

HOST: Megan, what are some of the most common types of marine debris?

MEGAN FORBES: That really depends on where you look, Kate. There’s no one type of marine debris. It can be anything from trash or litter that people don’t dispose of correctly to a large conglomerate of nets or traps that have become abandoned in the marine environment. There’s a lot of different types of marine debris out there.

HOST: Where does marine debris come from?

MEGAN FORBES: It comes from everywhere, all over the globe. It’s a direct product of human use. The important thing to know is that you don’t have to live near the ocean to have an effect on marine debris. A lot of people think, “well, I live in the middle of the country, I don’t have an effect on the ocean,” but that’s not really true. Many times trash is not disposed of properly and it ends up in storm drains or rivers or creeks that eventually make their way out to the ocean. Water currents and wind action move this debris across our planet and sometimes it ends up back on our beaches and other times it ends up in countries across the globe.  You can see that marine debris moves quite efficiently, unfortunately.  Sometimes it’ll come directly from a ship whether it’s dumped or accidentally goes overboard if there is a shipwreck or something like that. So, as I said, there’s a lot of ways that marine debris enters the water, but there is only one source and that is human beings.

HOST: Thanks Megan. You covered my next question, which was great, “how does marine debris move,” by talking a little bit about how water currents and wind action that moves that debris from one place to another. So, we really are all able to impact it, not just people living along the coast.

MEGAN FORBES: Definitely and you can impact a coast that’s completely on the other side of the world from you as well because these wave and wind actions are so strong. We can create marine debris here in the United States and because of the different currents it could end up on another country’s coast.

HOST: Thank you. Let’s do a few more questions and then I’d like to hear from you a little bit more about what we can all do to help with marine debris. So, we know that marine debris can injure and kill marine life, but how does this really happen?

MEGAN FORBES: There are a number of ways that animals can be injured by marine debris. It can be ingested or eaten by marine animals because they mistake it for the food that they commonly see in the water. Animals don’t know what trash is – they don’t produce it, they don’t see anything like that in their environment. So, therefore, it’s the case of something like a floating plastic bag, for example, it looks just like a jellyfish, which is very common food for animals like sea turtles and sharks. Trash and especially abandoned fishing gear can trap marine animals as they’re swimming along and that’s called becoming entangled. They get wrapped up or entangled in these different substances in either nets or crab traps sometimes different types of trash. And this can be especially a problem for marine mammals and sea turtles because they need to breathe air as we all know. And being entangled in something it makes it difficult for them to rise up to the surface and breathe, so a lot of times they’ll drown. Even animals that don’t breathe air, when they become entangled, it’s a difficulty for them because it reduces their movement through the water and they can become easier prey for predators. So, there’s many different ways that these animals can be injured.

HOST: Are there other things that we are trying to do to remove these crab traps and other fishing gear that you mentioned that can harm marine life?

MEGAN FORBES: Yes, there are, NOAA especially, in coordination with other federal agencies and organizations in the U.S., is working with different projects across the country. We are working globally and on our own coast to fund projects that get at the questions about marine debris – what are the impacts to our planet. Many times these projects have a marine debris removal component, but they also include research on how marine debris got there in the first place and what steps there are to prevent marine debris from entering there again in the future. So yes, we’re doing a good amount of removal, but that’s just one step – it’s really a multi-layered approach.

HOST: Are there other impacts of marine debris besides what we’ve talked about a little bit that it can kill and injure marine animals?

MEGAN FORBES: Marine debris affects every living thing on this Earth. So whether we’re talking about plants, animals that we’ve spoken about to corals, which are of course an animal, but a lot of people don’t realize that because they are coral reefs. The impacts can range from our environment, so messing up a lot of habitats to actually effecting our economy, because we rely on fishing for a large part of our economy, we rely on ship and boat travel, navigation. So marine debris can impede, or really stop a lot of that and make it more difficult to move throughout the water. So it has a great impact on that.

Also, it can affect human health and safety. An example, about 25 or so years ago, there was a lot of medical waste that had washed up onto the beaches of New Jersey and this was directly impacting human health because there were needles and syringes and other things like that. So, there’s a lot of concern about marine debris because it can affect anything from the tiny coral polyp to humans to the large humpback whale.

HOST: Back to talking just a little bit more then about the marine life and the impacts. Since debris is typically underwater or found even sometimes further out in the water, can we visually see the impacts of marine debris to marine life?

MEGAN FORBES: Yes and no. I’ll say no first because we are still learning and still investigating the true extent, the true impact that marine debris has on some of the very deep surfaces of the ocean. We’re finding marine debris in places that we never knew it was there before. But yes, we can definitely see the impact because the most commonly seen impact is marine debris on our beaches. People walking up and down seeing cigarette butts and plastic and other things like that. Animals who consume marine debris or ingest it are getting tangled. A lot of times, if they’re a marine mammal or sea turtle, they will strand, or bring themselves up onto the beach. And citizens of the U.S. will call and say there is this large whale here and it’s struggling - what happened. So that can be a direct result of marine debris.

Habitat damage along the coast - it can be as devastating and widespread as something from a hurricane, like for example Hurricane Katrina, we could easily see the debris that was strewn all over the place down in the Gulf Coast. Or if you look at coral reefs, if you go to your favorite islands in the Caribbean, sometimes you’ll see reefs that are bleached and damaged and broken off and many times it’s because there’s debris and there’s trash in the water. So, it is possible to see the clear effects of marine debris on our environment.

HOST: This has been a lot of really good information on understanding a little bit about what marine debris is and the impacts. How can our listeners get involved and make a difference?

MEGAN FORBES: A lot of people say, “Megan, what can I do to help this problem?” I’m constantly impressed and thrilled at the fact that people really care about this subject, about the Earth, about the ocean. And they want to know, well marine debris, how can we clean it up.

Basically, there are very simple steps that you can do. Everyone has an effect on the health of our oceans, as I said before it doesn’t matter where you live. The first thing I say to do to everyone is the three R’s. And by this point, a lot of people know what the three R’s are. But that is to reduce, reduce the amount of trash that you produce every day. Reuse, so perhaps choose items that you can reuse again and again like cloth bags instead of plastic bags, glass containers instead of Styrofoam. And then of course, recycle. And a lot of people understand recycling. It’s really caught on, people understand the benefits of recycling. That’s in another way another type of reuse. If we can cut down on the trash that we’re creating, that’s less that gets into our environment.

So, in addition to the three R’s, as I said, it’s easy to choose, and it’s even commonly supported, to choose like a cloth or canvas bag maybe to take to the grocery store or to bring your lunch to school in instead of a paper bag or plastic bag that you throw away.  These are just small steps that you can do. In addition, you could participate in a cleanup in your area.

And really one of the key things that you can do is telling your friends. If you are making these changes, if you are bringing a travel mug to your favorite coffee place instead of getting a Styrofoam or throw-out cup, tell your friends why you’re doing it. Because that kind of thing, that influence, will go a long way. And maybe they’ll start doing it too. And then we can keep getting this great idea in mind that we can stop this problem and we can go a long way towards addressing it.

HOST: Some of listeners don’t live by the coast and I was going to ask you what they can do to help address this problem.

MEGAN FORBES: Even if you’re living in an area that is not on the coast, there’s a very good chance that there’s a waterway somewhere near where you’re living. And storm drains and creeks, riverbeds, it’s all linked together and it all ends up in the ocean, so that’s something to keep in mind.

HOST: And can you tell us a little bit more then about what NOAA is doing? I think you’ve given our listeners a really good idea of what they can do, but how NOAA is helping with this problem?

MEGAN FORBES: NOAA is continuing to investigate the impact of the different types of marine debris. We know marine debris is out there. We need to understand what it is doing to our environment. We can see some of the easy answers to that that I explained to you before, but there are still so many different things that we don’t understand.

And NOAA is approaching this problem as if it were a disease, that’s the best way that I can think of to explain it. The disease is marine debris and in order to treat this disease, we have to first understand it, we have to understand how it moves, where it comes from, and what its effects are. Then we can most effectively treat it and find a cure or a solution to this problem. So as I mentioned before, we continue to fund projects across the country and work with scientists and experts around the globe to approach this problem in many ways.

HOST: A little earlier we were talking about some of the work that happens with removing nets or fishing gear and some of the other kinds of marine debris. I wanted to ask and follow up on that, about what happens to marine debris when it is removed from the marine environment?

MEGAN FORBES: That depends on the type of marine debris that you’re talking about. Sometimes the marine debris is able to be recycled which is great – plastics, glass, things like that. Other times it is reused. Sometimes when we bring in abandoned fishing gear it’s not so far gone that people can’t reuse it if they just put a little bit of work into it. So that’s a great way to recycle quote on quote or reuse this marine debris.

And recently, NOAA has been involved in a project that has come up with a unique and environmentally friendly way to recycle different types of marine debris specifically abandoned fishing gear – nets and traps. And it’s a project called the Fishing for Energy. What it does is it provides the fishing community with a place to bring old or abandoned or derelict gear – traps, nets – and we work with an energy company, Covanta Energy, to recycle this type of marine debris - nets, etc. - into energy. It’s exciting because for every one ton collected, right now this is happening up in New England, but we’re hoping to possibly expand it across the United States, a home in New England is powered for 25 days. So, we’re really finding new ways to create energy through this problem that we have. So, it’s an exciting way to recycle and it’s wonderful to be able to be involved in something that gives back to the community at the same time cleaning up our environment.

HOST: Thanks Megan, that’s really, really great news to hear that there’s something so positive that can be done with something like marine debris that’s causing all of these problems and something that we’re all contributing to that we’re able to get something that we so desperately need from it – energy for homes and something that I know we continue to explore anyway. So, that’s really wonderful. I feel like Megan you have given us a lot of great background on marine debris – what it is, where it’s coming from, and good steps that we can all be thinking about. I think it was really helpful to be able to learn a little bit more about that the fact that marine debris is not just fishing gear and if I’m not a commercial or recreational fisherman, I may be contributing to it in other things that I’m doing. I wanted to see if you had any final closing words for our listeners on marine debris?

MEGAN FORBES: Sure, I would just mention that Marine Debris Program has a Web site and that is And we’re always welcoming questions, there’s an email there, we hope that you take an opportunity to look around and see the different projects that we are doing, and there’s a lot of resources for teachers on our Web site. So, I would just encourage you to come and check out our Web site and certainly send us some more questions if you have any. And I thank you again for this opportunity Kate, it’s been great talking to you.

HOST: Thanks Megan for joining us on today’s episode of Diving Deeper and exploring what marine debris is and some of the impacts from it.

That’s all for this week’s show. Please tune in on March 9th for our next episode on the Integrated Ocean Observing System.