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So Much Trash in Our Oceans!

Keith Cialino, NOAA FisheriesKeith Cialino, NOAA’s Northeast Regional Coordinator for the Marine Debris Program

Working from Gloucester, Massachusetts, NOAA’s Northeast Regional Coordinator for the Marine Debris Program, Keith Cialino, works to address the significant problem of trash in our waters, also known as marine debris.  A native of New Jersey, Keith grew up in a Jersey Shore town spending time at the beach in the summers, and had summer jobs testing water quality at local beaches. As a result, he decided to focus on environmental science issues in college and graduate school. Prior to joining the Marine Debris Program, Keith was the Outreach Coordinator for COASTSWEEP, the Massachusetts component of the International Coastal Cleanup, where he learned about the magnitude of marine debris issues around the world.

As anyone who lives on the coast or spends time on the oceans knows, our oceans are filled with items that do not belong there. Huge amounts of plastics, metals, rubber, paper, textiles, derelict fishing gear, vessels, and other lost or discarded items enter the ocean every day. As a result, marine debris is one of the most widespread pollution problems facing the world's ocean and waterways today. Scientists recently estimated that approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 alone. 

Marine debris threatens our environment, navigation safety, economy, and human health. This is a global problem, and an everyday problem. There is no part of the world left untouched by debris and its impacts. Debris can be carried far from its origins, making it difficult to determine its source. Oceanic currents also trap items in debris accumulation zones called gyres, which are often referred to as “garbage patches.”

Why should we care?

The impacts of debris are broad and substantial. Marine debris can scour, break, smother, and otherwise damage important marine habitats, such as coral reefs. In addition, wildlife can get entangled in debris like ropes, rubber bands, balloon strings, and six-pack rings, which can lead to injury, illness, suffocation, starvation, and even death. Many animals, such as sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, ingest marine garbage. Debris is mistaken for food, and natural food (e.g. fish eggs) may be attached to the trash. Eating debris may cause loss of nutrition and calories, internal injury, intestinal blockage, starvation, and possibly death.

crab trap removals from oceanA commercial crabber and Stockton University research associate place a tag on a derelict crab trap pulled from Great Bay in NJ. Credit: Stockton University/Elizabeth Zimmermann

Marine organism attached to debris, can travel hundreds of miles and land on a shoreline where it is non-native, potentially becoming an invasive species. Invasive species have had devastating impacts on fisheries and ecosystems and can be costly to eliminate.

Trash floating on the surface or just under it can cause vessel damage and navigation issues. And lastly, marine debris is simply an eyesore along shorelines around the world, reducing the beauty of the coastal environment and, in many cases, causing economic loss if an area is a popular tourist destination.

Fishing contributes derelict gear, causing both marine debris and ghost fishing. Derelict fishing gear refers to nets, lines, crab/shrimp/lobster pots, and other recreational or commercial fishing equipment that has been lost, abandoned, or discarded in the ocean.  Ghost fishing occurs when lost or discarded fishing gear continues to trap and kill fish, crustaceans, marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. Modern gear is generally made of synthetic materials and metal, which do not degrade easily. Derelict fishing nets and traps can continue to ghost fish for years once they are lost under the water’s surface. Ghost fishing can harm or kill many marine species, including those that are endangered and protected. It can also cause damage to underwater habitats, such as coral reefs and bottom-dwelling species.

crab trap removals from oceanDerelict lobster traps are hauled on board in Long Island Sound. Credit: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Long Island

What are we doing about it?

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program addresses marine debris through removal, prevention, research, regional coordination, and emergency response.  Some current projects estimate the number of derelict lobster pots in New England using side-scan sonar, conduct outreach and education to fishermen and the general public, and remove trash along shorelines and in other coastal environments. In addition, the NOAA Marine Debris Program works with Covanta, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Schnitzer Steel Industries to provide no-cost options for disposing of old or unwanted fishing gear to the fishing community. Gear collected through the Fishing for Energy Partnership is recycled or converted into energy at a Covanta facility. More information about these and other projects can be found at: Marine Debris Program's Northeast Regional page.

When he is not visiting schools, attending trade shows, or in other ways getting the word out , you  can contact Keith Cialino, Northeast Regional Marine Debris Coordinator (978-281-9136, to find out how you can help.