About Marine Debris
Updated: Jun 4
Imagine walking on one of the most remote places you’ve ever been and it feels like you’ve landed on a different planet. You visualize the world as it once looked, remote and as desolate as where you’ve landed. Large paw prints line the edges of the sandy beach and the only sounds you hear are those of birds singing and the grass swaying in the wind. You follow those paw prints and you come across an old plastic bottle in stark contrast to its environment. You keep walking and you see fishing line, rope, and more plastic evidence of the civilized world you were hoping to leave behind for a bit. Disappointed, but not surprised, you continue walking on your expedition.
We are becoming desensitized to the sight of plastic and garbage as it has become a normal part of our everyday lives. We make efforts to pick up when we can, but sometimes it feels like we won’t make a dent in the big picture. What is going on and why are we seeing so much garbage at the few desolate places that are left on our planet?
What is marine debris?
Under the 2006 Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act, marine debris is officially defined as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment”. In simple terms, they are man-made objects that through any number of means become adrift at sea. Although marine debris can be made of just about anything, most items are made of plastic. Their buoyancy and hard-to-breakdown material make it easy for them to float and travel great distances by water. Ocean currents and weather patterns will dictate where most of these items will end up. Eventually, these objects will find a shoreline, whether it’s a few miles, a few hundred, or even the other side of the world.
How does it affect the environment?
Damages and degrades habitats
Injury/death to marine and coastal wildlife
Interferes with navigational safety
Causes economic loss to fishing and maritime industries
Degrades the quality of life in coastal communities
Threatens human health and safety
Bottle caps, balloon fragments, and other small plastics are often mistaken for food and ingested by animals like seabirds and marine mammals. Plastic ingestion can lead to internal injuries, blockages, starvation, and death. Other string-like plastic materials like fishing line, rubber bands, and six-pack rings can lead to entanglements disrupting daily behavior and growth.
It’s easy to pick up larger pieces such as household cleaner bottles, sandals, and buoys, but the bigger problem lies in the plastics that have broken down into smaller pieces over time, called microplastics. Plastic doesn’t decompose. It can take decades and even centuries to “degrade”. The material just breaks down over time into smaller and smaller pieces eventually becoming invisible to the human eye, making it impossible to track or clean up.
Research has shown that large volumes of microplastics in the ocean are a mechanism for transferring toxic substances into the food web. When they degrade into small pieces, the microplastics resemble food particles similar to what small fish and other marine wildlife consume. Bioaccumulation is the word used to describe the process of chemicals as it runs up the food chain. Although eating small amounts may not do any harm, there could be long-term health issues if these toxins are consumed on a regular basis. For rural coastal Alaskan communities, dependent on marine mammal subsistence harvest, the potential for bioaccumulation of toxic substances is very concerning.
There have been a number of studies on the effects of microplastics on aquatic invertebrates and fish, and the results are troubling. According to a 2022 article on the effects of the microplastic pollution published for the National Library of Medicine, “In aquatic invertebrates, microplastics cause a decline in feeding behavior and fertility, slow down larval growth and development, increase oxygen consumption, and stimulate the production of reactive oxygen species. In fish, the microplastics may cause structural damage to the intestine, liver, gills, and brain, while affecting metabolic balance, behavior, and fertility; the degree of these harmful effects depends on the particle sizes and doses, as well as the exposure parameters.”
In recent years, effects on humans are being studied more as we recognize the dangers of microplastics and bioaccumulation. Studies on mice and rats show the same biochemical and structural damage as seen in wildlife. The results show many effects that we’ve been unable to measure long-term. Plastic just hasn’t been around long enough to know the full effects it has on natural life.
Efforts to address marine debris
In 2006, the federal government passed an act establishing a program within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Coast Guard. The program’s mission is to “help identify, determine sources of, assess, reduce, and prevent marine debris and its adverse impacts on the marine environment and navigation safety, in coordination with non-Federal entities, and for other purposes.” Since then, amendments and foundations have been added to continue the hard work addressing the marine debris issue.
Over the course of 25 years, many clean-ups have occurred thanks to the program grants, Park Service, non-profit partners, and fundraising sponsors. The nature of clean-ups is made difficult due to the remoteness of some of these beaches and removal of larger debris such as refrigerators and abandoned boats. Connecting all pieces of the puzzle requires strong management, healthy financial backing, and, of course, good weather.
Efforts in Alaska
After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, higher than normal amounts of debris showed up on Alaska’s shorelines. It is estimated that the tsunami generated about 1.5 million tons of floating debris and exacerbated an already existing issue. In response, an expansive marine debris clean-up took place in the summer of 2015 in five of Alaska’s national parks. “From Katmai’s coastline, nearly 11,000 pounds of marine debris were removed from only eighteen miles of beach. Rope and netting were the most commonly found items during this clean up, but plastics made up nearly 60% of the five and half tons of waste that were collected.”
Efforts as a company
As a company that visits Katmai National Park on a daily basis in the summer, our guides take the opportunity to educate our guests on the impacts of marine debris while picking up and removing what we can bag, carry, and bring with us back to Homer.
We asked our naturalist guide, Lance Bassett, about his experience with marine debris in Katmai National Park:
“We pick debris up most days whether it’s small pieces or laundry basket size. Most items we pick up are plastic bottles, nets, fishing line, rope, milk crates, other plastic containers, and buoys, small stuff that we can carry with us. Bears like to play with the buoys, styrofoam and plastic bottles and it may be cute to some, but if it is ingested can cause serious problems for the animals, or even death. I've seen an eagle haul off a small buoy either by accident or on purpose. I try to use the debris as an educational tool, explaining where it came from by the marking, how it got there through the complex currents, and how it impacts the area. Really there is no pristine beach in the world anymore. Debris is everywhere and this is what we try to convey to our guests, how unfortunate it is to come way out here where expectations are for just that, a pristine wilderness where there is nothing but wildlife in their own environment. Now, don't get me wrong there isn't a lot of debris but it is still there. Most of the companies who visit the park make it a point to clean up the beaches during their time on the ground, trying to keep it as clean as possible. We need to really be careful about our garbage. The oceans aren't a convenient garbage dump. We all need to be responsible as we only have one planet to live.”
What can you do to help?
The good news is that marine debris is preventable. Through increased public awareness and education, changing individuals’ behaviors, and movement towards an economy of reduced pollution and waste, we can aim at prevention. Future conservation efforts are likely to be less costly, more flexible, and more successful over time if we address the problem at its root.
1. Review your consumption and make changes that are reasonable for you. No matter how small they may seem, they can still make a difference.
2. Educate yourself. Watch reputable documentaries, subscribe to newsletters, find a local collaborating agency, and stay on top of the latest news for environment impact.
3. Volunteer and donate as much you can
4. Set an example for others around you and help educate others respectfully.
5. Do your part when and however you can to pick up debris/garbage when you are on a walk.
This is a global issue and we must all do our part however big or small that may be.
Leave only footprints in nature...
Additional Educational Resources:
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation - https://dec.alaska.gov/
National Parks Conservation Association - https://www.npca.org/
Ocean Conservancy - https://oceanconservancy.org/
Gulf of Alaska Keeper - https://www.facebook.com/GulfOfAlaskaKeeper
Ocean Plastics Recovery Project - https://oceanplasticsrecovery.com/
Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies - https://www.akcoastalstudies.org/