May 2012: Probing Marine Debris in the North Pacific Ocean
Think about the last time you walked along the ocean shore or strolled down the street. Chances are you witnessed trash strewn on the ground. Litter on land and sea seems like a permanent problem.
In May, we focus on marine debris. What does marine debris include, what impacts does it have, and where does it all go? When most people think of marine debris, they imagine the now-infamous ‘Garbage Patch,’ human-generated debris floating across thousands of square miles in the North Pacific Ocean. Plastic is the main offender, accounting for 60-80 percent of all marine debris1, and since it does not degrade in the marine environment, it is particularly deleterious.
Below we offer an overview of marine debris and highlight a few articles recently added to the Pacific Ocean Library that provide insight into defining the marine debris problem and solution.
Drowning in Debris
Marine debris is “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment.”2 Take, for example, the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which marked its one year anniversary this past March. The tsunami washed away an untold amount of debris including buildings, cars, boats, and scrap metals. This debris either sank directly to the seafloor or, if buoyant enough, began its journey with the Pacific’s currents toward North America. Check out NOAA’s update video on the Japan Tsunami Aftermath to learn more.
Solving this problem depends significantly upon improved land debris control. Preventing waste from entering into waterways may decrease the amount of debris entering the ocean. Solutions that work jointly across land and marine agencies may offer effective results. Removal of existing marine debris is also important. Current efforts include beach clean ups, capture of derelict nets at sea, and recycling and energy recovery programs such as Hawaii’s ‘Nets to Energy Program’.1
Every individual has the power to help. So next time you see that piece of trash, pick it up and dispose of it properly to prevent it from heading out into the open ocean. Still have questions about marine debris or want to know how you can help in the Pacific? Check out NOAA’s Marine Debris Program or the Australian Government Marine Pollution Program, just two of many resources available on marine debris. Have a smart phone and want to do more? Visit Marine Debris Tracker and download a free app that lets you track and log the GPS coordinates of marine debris you find on the ocean or in waterways.
Other Marine Debris Research
This month we have selected three articles that highlight marine debris and provide a look into threats to organisms across the food chain as well as potential solutions. Click on the title links below to view the abstracts in the library and while you are there, have a look around!
This article looks at how plastics in the Pacific Garbage Patch break down into toxin-containing pieces that are easily eaten by primary marine consumers, spreading toxins through the food chain. A two-compartment bio-concentration model of primary consumers was constructed to describe the primary consumer absorption of marine debris. Analysis of the overall data from the study shows that over time, the increasing amount of the marine debris in small fish is growing at nearly exponential rates.
This report summarizes the current state of research about plastic marine debris in California. It consolidates and synthesizes the current data available, and articulates knowledge and information gaps where they exist. By summarizing in one place what is known and not known, ocean and coastal managers and policymakers may then be able to more clearly determine next steps in addressing these important issues. Solution efforts include cleanup and recovery, reduction and prevention through initiatives and education, and use of plastic alternatives.
This article examines the economic costs associated with marine debris and presents a simple marine debris cycle model to discuss the costs and benefits of prevention and clean-up, and the advantages of using biodegradable materials. For the 21 national economies of the Asia-Pacific rim, the authors estimate that marine debris-related damage to marine industries costs US $1.26 billion annually (in 2008 terms). Marine debris imposes an avoidable cost that can be reduced through implementing proven policies.
Explore the Library!
Did you know that the Pacific Ocean Library now contains more than 6,500 articles, government publications and reports from the Pacific region that focus on the greatest threats, environmental and socioeconomic impacts, and potential solutions for the region? The library is a great resource for anyone involved in coastal and ocean conservation and management. Each month, we select focal topics of importance to practitioners, managers, academics, decision-makers and stakeholders within Pacific Ocean communities and add interesting reports, resources and tools to help provide you with a robust one-stop information source. This month, we added 36 new articles related to marine debris (plastic pollution and removal, ingestion, entanglement, and solutions) with a focus on the Hawaiian Islands and the United States, Australia, and the open-ocean. To view these articles and browse for other helpful resources on topics of interest, click here.
We invite you to have a look and check back in June for next month’s topics. If you have an idea for a focal topic, send it to us at email@example.com!
 Stevenson, Charlotte. Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem: A Summary of Current Research, Solution Strategies and Data Gaps. University of Southern California Sea Grant. Rep. Oakland, CA: California Ocean Science Trust, 2011. Print.