Wallace: Marine debris can, for the most part, be prevented

6th International Marine Debris Conference in San Diego, California, March 12-16, 2018. Commentary By Nancy Wallace For The Cordova Times

Editor’s note: Wallace is the director of the Marine Debris Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Here is an excerpt from her testimony on July 25 before the Senate subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, chaired by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, on Efforts on Marine Debris in the Oceans and Great Lakes. Complete testimony from the hearing is online at https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/hearings?ID=62EF9156-2910-4318-BC6C-3D4801C82C6B 

The NOAA Marine Debris Program in 2017  

The MDP, guided by the Marine Debris Act, is focused around five program pillars: research, removal, prevention, emergency response and regional coordination.  


A key tenet of the MDP is research. Congress recognized the need for research that determines the sources and helps us understand the adverse impacts of debris on the marine environment and navigation safety. 33 U.S.C. § 1952(b)(1). The field of marine debris research is relatively young with many questions that need to be answered in order to advance our understanding of the relationship between marine debris and the environment. Over the past 10 years, NOAA has funded research projects focusing on the effects of microplastics on marine species, development of standardized methods for marine debris monitoring, and assessment of the economic and environmental impacts of derelict fishing gear and consumer debris. For example, the program funded a 2014 study that evaluated the economic costs of marine debris on beaches in southern California. Authors found that a twenty-five percent decrease in marine debris could result in ~$32 million in beach recreation benefits to local residents during the summer months (Leggett et al. 2014).  

Currently, NOAA is collaborating with several academic partners to quantify and characterize microplastic debris in the Mississippi River and how it may eventually affect the Gulf of Mexico. This study and others are working to fill critical knowledge gaps about microplastics and other debris types in terms of where it is coming from, where it ends up, and how it is impacting the environment. In continuing to fill such gaps, the program plans to fund new research projects in FY17.  



Since its inception, the MDP has been actively involved in marine debris removal across the United States. A portion of the program’s budget goes toward supporting removal projects annually, including locally driven, community-based marine debris prevention and removal projects that benefit coastal habitat, waterways, and wildlife including migratory fish.  

Removal of marine debris can be logistically challenging, particularly in remote locations such as Alaska. NOAA is currently supporting a derelict crab pot removal and recycling effort by the Douglas Indian Association in Gastineau Channel, outside of Juneau, Alaska, aimed at reducing loss of commercial species to ghost-fishing. In the last few months, tribal members have worked with other partners such as the Alaska State Troopers to identify, quantify, remove, and recycle or return derelict pots as well as discussed data applications and steps forward. The program is also partnering with the Sitka Sound Science Center to remove marine debris from remote, marine debris “hotspot” communities in the Bering Sea, such as Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island and St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands.  


One of the most effective ways to reduce marine debris is through prevention, which requires that boaters, fishermen, industry, and the general public have the knowledge and training to change the behaviors that create marine debris. NOAA’s robust outreach and education activities focus on improving awareness and changing behavior through developing and disseminating public information, and by partnering with and providing funding support to external groups including academic partners, local governments, and nonprofit groups.  

One of the greatest challenges of prevention is finding effective ways to reach diverse audiences and help them discover how they can participate in local solutions to marine debris. The National Aquarium in Maryland, in partnership with NOAA, is working with underserved communities in Baltimore to create a network of leaders to spearhead prevention efforts such as community cleanup events and communication trainings. In Mississippi, Ship Island Excursions is using their ferry service as a platform to educate passengers, many of which are students from underserved schools, on the impacts of marine debris on the Gulf of Mexico, and how they can prevent the issue.  

The materials and products from our other partnerships, such as marine debris curricula, are all free and downloadable from the MDP website, and the program’s regional coordinators do extensive boots-on-the ground outreach year-round to promote and share these products.  

Regional Coordination  

Working with non-governmental, regional, and international organizations, academia, and local, state, and federal governments will enhance marine debris efforts across the country. The program’s regional coordinators extensively cover marine debris issues in the Pacific Islands, West Coast, Alaska, Great Lakes, East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean. While these coordinators focus on the local, state, and regional issues as a part of the national program, they also bring in lessons learned and make connections across the country and the world.  

NOAA is leading an effort with states to develop marine debris action plans, which outline major goals for preventing and reducing marine debris. Marine debris action plans are complete for Virginia, Florida, the Great Lakes, Oregon, and Hawaii, with plans in progress for the Gulf of Maine, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, California, and Alaska. NOAA also continues to work with partners throughout the country to develop and test innovative and cost-effective methods of detection and removal of marine debris, and to engage the public and industry, including shippers and fishermen, and the recreational community on marine debris.  

Emergency Response  

Coastal storms and natural disasters are another source of marine debris that create hazards in our inland and coastal waters. NOAA has responded to emergency events including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the American Samoa and Japan tsunamis, and Superstorm Sandy. Following the Japan Tsunami, the program spearheaded detection, modeling, monitoring, planning, and removal efforts for debris from Japan that made its way to U.S. shores. NOAA also contributed initial funding to the states of Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California for removal and response efforts, and was responsible for administering the monetary gift from Japan of $5 million under the Gift Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1522, to assist with debris removal in these states. Similarly, following Superstorm Sandy, NOAA worked with the affected states (Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware) on debris modeling, surveying, and removal using funds from the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013.  

NOAA also works with federal, state, and local partners to develop Emergency Response Plans that outline the processes and roles of each partner for responding to and recovering from a severe marine debris event, such as a hurricane. To date, plans have been completed for North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, and plans for Louisiana and Virginia are currently in progress.  

National Coordination  

As mandated in the Marine Debris Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1954, NOAA is the chair of the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee (IMDCC), a multi-agency body that is responsible for streamlining the federal government’s efforts to address marine debris. Representative agencies coordinate a comprehensive program of marine debris activities and report to Congress every two years on research priorities, monitoring techniques, educational programs, and regulatory action. Members include: Departments of State, Interior, Justice, and Homeland Security; U.S. Navy; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.  

This IMDCC Progress Report provides an update on the activities of federal agencies to address marine debris, as mandated by the Marine Debris Act. In 2008, the IMDCC delivered the “Interagency Report on Marine Debris Sources, Impacts, Strategies, and Recommendations.” Subsequent biennial progress reports have evaluated progress in meeting the purposes of the Act and these recommendations.  

In addition to the IMDCC, the program also partners with other agencies on funded projects, such as a recently completed collaboration with the National Park Service and Clemson University that collected and analyzed beach sediments to assess the abundance and distribution of microplastics and microfibers on U.S. National Park beaches. NOAA has also been contributing to a multi-year, multi-partner effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others to remove debris from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. In April 2017, ~100,000 pounds of derelict fishing gear and plastics were transported from Midway and Kure Atolls to Honolulu, and incorporated into the Hawaii Nets-to-Energy program, a highly successful strategic partnership between agencies, industry, and local partners. NOAA, the City and County of Honolulu, the State of Hawaii, Covanta Energy Corporation/H-Power, and Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. work together to convert derelict fishing gear and plastics into energy. Since its initiation in 2002, this program has created enough electricity to power over 350 homes for a year in O’ahu. NOAA plans to foster similar collaborations with other agencies and industry partners moving forward.  

NOAA has also worked extensively with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) on contingency and emergency response planning on the West coast and in the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico, respectively. Additionally, the USCG provided valuable sighting reports of marine debris from the Japan tsunami to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), which houses the MDP. From these data, OR&R was able to generate trajectories for locating and removing debris items that landed on U.S. shorelines.  

International Engagement  

Marine debris is a global problem that has local solutions. In many countries, population size and consumption of plastic and other consumer debris are increasing more quickly than the capacity to manage waste, and thus solutions must be shaped to address country-specific challenges. To help others move forward in finding their own unique solutions, NOAA works closely with the Department of State and participates in other international efforts including: the U.N. Environment Global Partnership on Marine Litter (chair), the G7 and G20 Marine Litter Cooperation, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) (co-chair), the North Pacific Marine Science Organization (co-chair), the African Marine Waste Network, and implementation of Indonesia’s National Action Plan on Marine Plastic Debris. As the APEC co-chair, NOAA is working to increase collaboration with industry and non- government organizations, such as the American Chemistry Council, Ocean Conservancy, and other international partners that will help address the diverse waste management challenges around the world to minimize the amount of marine debris.  

NOAA is also working with the U.N. Environment Programme to help organize and facilitate the 6th International Marine Debris Conference in San Diego, California, March 12-16, 2018. The conference will bring together more than  


All marine debris comes from humans, and thus it is a problem we can, for the most part, prevent. NOAA will continue to pursue on-the-ground research, prevention, and reduction of marine debris nationwide and work with international and other partners to find solutions that fit the unique challenges posed by marine debris, particularly with respect to waste management. While the problem of marine debris has existed for decades and has received considerable attention from NOAA and other partners, there is still much to learn as we work to address the impacts of marine debris on the environment, marine species, and human health and safety. NOAA is committed to investigating and preventing the adverse impacts of marine debris, and looks forward to working with the Committee to achieve our vision of seeing the global ocean and coasts free of debris.