Marine Debris: NOAA’s Role

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Updated April 23, 2020
Marine Debris: NOAA’s Role
Researchers have found marine debris, especially plastic
Figure 1. Marine Debris on a Hawaiian Shoreline
items, to have some effects on humans, wildlife, and the
environment, but the extent of these impacts is currently
unclear. Congress has directed the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the Secretary of
Commerce (through NOAA) to lead federal government
efforts to address marine debris and has enacted additional
marine debris-related legislation in recent years. Members
of Congress are considering further NOAA provisions, and
other federal agency actions, to support marine debris
prevention efforts, domestically and internationally.
What Is Marine Debris?
Congress has defined marine debris, also known as marine
litter and anthropogenic debris, to include “any persistent
solid material that is manufactured or processed and
directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally,

disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or
Source: NOAA Marine Debris Program.
the Great Lakes” (33 U.S.C. §1956). According to NOAA,
marine debris can be made of plastic, glass, metal, or wood.
Sources of Marine Debris
Plastic is the most abundant type of marine debris in
Marine debris originates from ocean- or land-based sources.
shoreline and oceanic surveys. Plastic debris comes in a
However, determining the exact source of an item can be
range of sizes and types, from tiny pieces (microplastics) to
difficult. Ocean-based sources primarily include derelict
larger items (macroplastics) such as food wrappers, bottles,
fishing gear (e.g., nets, lines), abandoned and derelict
bags, foam materials, and fishing gear.
vessels and structures, and equipment or waste released
from at-sea vessels and structures. Some countries also may
NOAA identifies microplastics as plastic particles less than
allow the disposal of municipal and industrial waste directly
5 millimeters (0.2 inches) in size. Microplastics can be
into the ocean, although the practice is prohibited or
categorized as primary or secondary. Primary microplastics
regulated in many developed countries.
are manufactured as microbeads, capsules, fibers, nodules,
or pellets and are used in cosmetics, personal care products,
Land-based mismanaged waste has found pathways to
industrial products, and synthetic textiles. Secondary
marine environments, as well. Mismanaged waste generally
microplastics form through the degradation and
includes littering or inadequate disposal (i.e., disposal in an
fragmentation of larger plastic items.
open dump or a poorly contained landfill). The United
States and other developed countries have laws prohibiting
Location of Marine Debris
such practices. However, countries with vast amounts of
According to NOAA, marine debris has been recorded in
waste are known to allow inadequate disposal. Rain events
numerous marine environments extending from the ocean
can wash litter and poorly managed wastes into storm
surface to the sea floor, including shorelines (Figure 1),
drains, discharging it to rivers and streams that may provide
coral reefs, polar regions, and estuaries. Marine debris also
a pathway to the ocean; some researchers have found that
can be found within oceanic garbage patches—areas of
rivers act as major transport pathways for waste into the
rotating ocean currents that can accumulate dense
ocean. Extreme natural events (i.e., flooding, tsunamis,
concentrations of marine debris. A dynamic combination of
mudslides, or hurricanes) also may create debris or carry it
factors influences local accumulation, including marine
into nearby waterways. There may be other sources of land-
debris size and density, proximity to human population
based debris that are more difficult to identify. For
centers, ocean currents, and wind. These factors also make
example, recent studies have found that some wastewater
it difficult to determine an item’s provenance or establish
treatment plants discharge microplastics. How much debris
an accurate estimate of the total mass of marine debris
is discharged, what amount reaches the ocean, and its
currently in or entering the marine environment. For
original source may be uncertain.
example, NOAA’s estimate of the total number of pieces of
plastic on the U.S. shoreline in 2017 ranged from as few as
Impacts on Humans, Wildlife, and the Environment
20 million pieces to as many as 1.8 billion pieces, a near
According to NOAA, marine debris has varying effects on
100-fold difference.
humans, wildlife, and the environment; however, many

link to page 2 Marine Debris: NOAA’s Role
aspects are poorly understood. Debris at the water’s surface
and research its effects on humans and the environment.
can cause navigation and boating hazards, whether through
NOAA’s current research priorities include exposure and
damage to vessels on impact or via tangled propellers and
response analysis, ecological risk assessments, fate and
clogged intake pipes. Shoreline communities with high
transport studies, and economic impacts.
amounts of marine debris may experience adverse
economic effects on local tourism. Some researchers have
The Marine Debris Act has been amended several times,
found microplastics in several food items and in the air,
most recently by the Save Our Seas Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-
although the effects of these items on human health are still
265). The 2018 act authorized NOAA to develop strategies
with other federal agencies to address marine debris
sources, promote international action, and assist in
Wildlife may become entangled in marine debris and, as a
responding to a “severe marine debris event,” among other
result, can experience injury, illness, suffocation, starvation,
provisions that directed other federal agency actions. The
and death. Wildlife also are at risk of ingesting marine
act also authorized appropriations for the MDP at $10
debris, which may lead to starvation, internal injury, and
million annually for FY2018 through FY2022.
blockage; it also may provide a pathway for toxic
constituents associated with certain marine debris, such as
Interagency Coordination
plastics, to be absorbed by wildlife. According to NOAA,
The Marine Debris Act established the Interagency Marine
marine debris may negatively affect individual organisms,
Debris Coordinating Committee (IMDCC; 33 U.S.C.
but its impacts on populations and communities remain
§1954), with NOAA as chair. The IMDCC coordinates
unclear. Marine debris may cause habitat degradation to
federal agency activities and makes recommendations on
varying degrees, including by providing transport to alien
research priorities, monitoring, and regulatory action. The
and invasive species. However, to date, few large-scale
Marine Debris Act requires the IMDCC to include senior
studies have attempted to quantitatively and qualitatively
officials from the Departments of Commerce, the Interior,
assess the occurrence and magnitude of habitat impacts.
and State; the U.S. Coast Guard; the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency; and the U.S. Navy. The act provides the
NOAA’s Marine Debris Program
Secretary of Commerce the discretion to invite
In 2006, Congress enacted the Marine Debris Research,
representatives from other federal entities; these currently
Prevention, and Reduction Act (Marine Debris Act; P.L.
include the Department of Justice; Marine Mammal
109-449; 33 U.S.C. §§1951 et seq.). The Marine Debris Act
Commission; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
established NOAA’s Marine Debris Program (MDP) to
identify, determine sources of, assess, prevent, reduce, and
Recent Legislative Efforts by Congress
remove marine debris and to address the adverse effects of
Some Members have continued to express concern over
marine debris on the U.S. economy, marine environment,
global and domestic issues related to marine debris. In the
and navigation safety. According to NOAA, the MDP
116th Congress, Congress has enacted laws (P.L. 116-20
achieves its mission through five program pillars:
and P.L. 116-113) that provide NOAA with appropriations
prevention, removal, research, regional coordination, and
for marine debris assessments and removal in specific areas
emergency response. Congress directed NOAA to track the
and for the MDP broadly. Some provisions of proposed
location of marine debris, financially and technically
legislation would provide additional authorities or direct
support community- and region-based efforts to remove it;
NOAA’s activities (Table 1).
Table 1. Selected Legislative Proposals with NOAA Provisions in the 116th Congress
Bill Number and Name
Marine Debris Provisions
H.R. 1305 – Albatross and Petrel
Would direct the Secretary of Commerce to support marine debris research and
Conservation Act
albatross/petrel conservation measures.
H.R. 3969/S. 1982 – SOS 2.0 Act
H.R. 3969 would (1) create a Marine Debris Trust Fund available to NOAA to
Several provisions of each bill have been
respond to certain marine debris events; (2) create a Marine Debris Foundation to
introduced as separate pieces of legislation
support MDP activities; (3) require the Secretary of Commerce to establish a prize
(i.e., S. 2260, S. 2364, S. 2372).
competition to encourage technological innovations; and (4) change existing marine
debris activities, request several reports, and amend or provide related authorization
of appropriations. S. 1982 is similar to H.R. 3969, with differences related to the
Marine Debris Trust Fund, prize competition, and required reports, among other
H.R. 5845/S. 3263 – Break Free from Plastic Would direct the Secretary of Commerce to report on the scale and impacts of
Pollution Act of 2020
derelict fishing gear, make recommendations, and plan their implementation.

Eva Lipiec, Analyst in Natural Resources Policy

Marine Debris: NOAA’s Role

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