Marine Debris: Drowning in Trash

Killer Garbage in Our Oceans

Earlier in July, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel, the Oscar Elton Sette, pulled over 50 metric tons of marine trash from the waters of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, otherwise known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. NOAA’s marine debris operations manager Kyle Koyanagi lamented afterwards, “The ship was at maximum capacity and we did not have any space for more debris.” Before we attribute this extraordinary amount of garbage to the recent Japanese tsunami, it must be noted that not a single piece of garbage could be traced back to Japan. In fact, roughly the same amount of trash is hauled out from the area each year. Since the mission began in 1996, cruises have removed more than 700 metric tons of debris, but there is still more.
Recovered fishing nets and gear on the deck of
the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette.
Photo courstesy of NOAA/Dan Dennison.

Marine trash poses a great danger to sea life. In Papahānaumokuākea, a marine national monument established with the intent of protecting the last few pristine coral reefs and pacific island habitats in our national waters, garbage chokes out natural life in the reefs and shore. Of the 50 tons of ocean litter removed on the latest cruise, approximately half was composed of broken fishing gear and plastic collected on and around Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. 

The remains of dead baby albatrosses reveal the
devastating and far-reaching impact of plastic pollution on
Midway Atoll, which is 2000 miles from any mainland.
Photo courtesy of NOAA/Chris Jordan.

It is important to remember that, while the consequences of the Japanese tsunami have brought this issue to national attention, marine trash is neither a new nor a transient problem. By the time a massive, 70 foot dock washed ashore in Oregon, ocean currents had already concentrated trash in the oceans into massive “garbage patches.” The largest of these, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is conservatively estimated to be bigger than the state of Texas. What is it composed of? Plastics and derelict fishing gear, mostly, but also chemical pollutants and other miscellaneous trash. This debris circulates through the ocean gyres until it is broken down into microscopic parts or driven back ashore.

     Trained NOAA marine debris diver carefully disentangles               Trained NOAA marine debris diver carefully removes a 
         an endangered Hawaiian monk seal in the NWHI.                                derelict fishing net from a coral reef in the NWHI. 

           Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries Service.                                       Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries Service.
Read about what you can do to help!

As Koyanagi reminded the nation, “[M]arine debris is an everyday problem, especially right here in the Pacific.” Two bills currently moving through Congress, the Marine Debris Reauthorization Amendments of 2011 (H.R. 1171) in the House and the Trash Free Seas Act of 2011 (S. 1119) in the Senate, would provide NOAA the funding and resources necessary to continue its Marine Debris Prevention and Removal Program. These bipartisan bills are vital to NOAA’s efforts to address and manage the threat of ocean litter to our coastal communities and wildlife. 

Call your Congressional Representatives today and ask them to push for these pieces of legislation so that we may continue to work towards a trash free ocean.
Marine debris covers a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian
Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore.
Photo courtesy of Susan White, USFWS


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