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Marine Debris – What’s The Deal?

Updated: Aug 12, 2022

Something I’ve noticed more since permanently living in Hawaii is the copious amounts of debris that end up on our beaches. In Florida it appeared that most of the trash left on the sand was left there by ignorant beachgoers. Here, there seems to be a much bigger problem… marine debris is constantly washing up on the shore from out in the ocean. You could clean the beach and just a few hours later have just as much to do as when you first arrived. So what’s the deal with marine debris?


What exactly is marine debris?

Marine debris consists of all manufactured solids that are disposed of or abandoned, intentionally or unintentionally, into the ocean. (NOAA, 2020). Pretty much anything discarded in the ocean can become marine debris. Plastics, wood, rubber, metal, paper, cloth, wood, glass, and more can all be part of marine debris. Derelict vessels are even considered marine debris. Basically anything not naturally found in the ocean, man-made, is under the umbrella of marine debris aka ocean pollution.


The currents in our oceans push marine debris into the middle of our major oceans. It is extremely hard to quantify exactly how much is really out there. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most notable of these “patches”. The debris in this patch can be found all the way from the surface to the bottom and varies in size dramatically.

One of the most common types of debris focused on is plastic. There is a big focus on individuals reducing their plastic use in order to help curb the marine debris problem. In 2010, it was estimated that approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean. (NOAA, 2020). Microplastics are often focused on but, fishing nets actually make up 46% of plastic debris in the Pacific Garbage Patch. (SeaShepard, 2019).


What is the problem with marine debris?

Marine Debris has both direct and indirect effects on the ocean and the life that inhabits it. The most prevalent impact of marine debris is the direct impact on marine life through entanglement. It can be especially easy for wildlife to be harmed in debris left in the ocean or possibly even killed. Entanglement can pose problems for animals, like sharks, that need to move to breathe. It can also pose problems for those, like mammals and sea turtles, that have to reach the surface to breathe.


While entanglement can be a problem with smaller items like, six-pack rings and plastic bags, ghost fishing is one of the most prevalent issues with entanglement. Ghost fishing is when marine life are killed by fishing gear, such as net and line, left in the ocean after their initial use. It is estimated that of the species caught in discarded fishing gear 90% have commercial value. (NOAA, 2015). This means fishermen are losing out on potential catches.

Ingestion of debris, such as microplastic can also be a huge issue for marine life. Over time we are finding that microplastics are bioaccumulating in larger species as smaller animals that consumed plastic are eaten by larger and larger predators. Even some of the seafood we consume has microplastics within the animals tissues.

An indirect effect of marine debris that most people forget to mention is the spread of species across the ocean. While this can potentially be a positive scenario for certain species, it can be a huge contributor to the spread of invasive species. Small organisms are often able to attach themselves to debris and as the currents push the trash across the ocean the species are moved along with it.

What can we do about it?

Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling is one of many ways you can make a difference in the marine debris problem. Although one person can’t make a noticeable change in the copious amounts of ocean pollution, all of our collective efforts can help! Reducing your plastic use isn’t as hard as it seems. I always say the goal isn’t for you to be perfect. Every little bit counts.

Another great way to make a small dent in the amount of marine debris in your local area is by hosting a cleanup event. Cleaning up the beach helpful is in reducing the amount of garbage and plastic pollution entering back into the ocean. It is also a wonderful way to inspire your local community to care more about marine conservation.


Get involved with projects in your area that are helping to make a change in the marine pollution problem. I have been lucky to recently begin volunteering with an epic project here in Hawaii. We are working to collect and derelict fishing gear and record weight and type to further understand the source of the problem and where these massive nets are coming from. The project has already collected multiple multiple tons of nets and debris. There are tons of epic organizations doing work in marine debris all around the world. Most of which are constantly looking for volunteers!

Ultimately, we need to push companies and large industries to make a change for the better. By encouraging the reduction is plastic production at the source and/or enforcing regulations on fishing gear and methods there will be a much more radical change in marine debris entering our oceans. Every day efforts are important but we need to continue to put pressure on the industries creating the problem.

Want to take on another conservation issue? Read about how you can help stop climate change here.

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