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New Toolkit Helps Students and Teachers in the Fight Against Marine Debris

By Megan McDaniels

August 2017

person cleaning up marine debris on the beach next to a laysan albatross chick. they are surrounded by marine debris
Marine debris in places like Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument threatens wildlife. Photo: Ryan Tabata/NOAA

Located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument protects the most remote region of the most remote archipelago on Earth. Though no one lives here, its shores have a lot in common with urban streets: you can find discarded fast food wrappers, plastic straws, lighters, fragments of styrofoam, and more. This scene is not unique to Papahānaumokuākea: each year thousands of tons of marine debris make their way to marine sanctuaries and monuments and threaten aquatic ecosystems.

NOAA is combating this dangerous pollution through education and research. NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the NOAA Marine Debris Program have developed a new kit for students and educators in coastal and inland areas to learn more about marine debris and monitor their local waterways.

This toolkit serves as a unique collaborative effort to reduce the impact on marine ecosystems through hands-on citizen science, education, and community outreach, explains Alyssa Nally, program coordinator for the NOAA Ocean Guardian School Program. "Through surveying the debris found on their local waterways, students will be empowered to learn more about how to address this issue on campus, at home, and in their community," she says.

Debris wrapped around sponges
Debris can become wrapped around sponges and other invertebrates and block their access to sunlight and food. Photo: NOAA

Marine debris threatens marine life and coastal communities who rely on the ocean. It litters shoreline habitat and can potentially release contaminants into the water. Debris can break down into microplastics that are consumed by fish and seabirds, while discarded fishing nets can entangle larger species of marine animals like whales, dolphins, sharks, and turtles. Debris can also become wrapped around corals and sponges, blocking their access to sunlight and food. Because it occurs throughout the world's ocean, understanding the nature of marine debris is crucial and requires comprehensive wide-scale monitoring.

The newly developed marine debris kit seeks to address the root of this global problem by working at the local level through youth education. The kit consists of curriculum and classroom presentations, guidelines for marine debris monitoring, and resources for community outreach. It is designed to be fun and engaging for both students and teachers and has several options tailored to different grade levels. It can also be adapted for use by after-school clubs and local educational organizations, libraries, and more.

Students conduct marine debris monitoring on the beach
Students conduct marine debris monitoring in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Karlyn Langjahr/NOAA

The kit prepares students to join the Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project by walking them through data-collection surveys, safety tips, and easy-to-understand spreadsheets to record their data. Sherry Lippiatt, the California regional coordinator for the Marine Debris Program, is looking forward to the lessons the marine debris kit will teach students. "We're thrilled to have a new resource to guide students with marine debris surveys on their local shorelines, an experience that builds awareness of the connection between debris in the environment and our everyday use of disposable items that too-often escape proper waste management," she says. The kit also teaches students valuable scientific communication skills like how to analyze and display their data.

The kit encourages students to use the lessons they learn about marine debris to help their community become more sustainable. It provides several ideas on how students can engage in stewardship activities and empowers them to share their messages with their communities. Lippiatt recognizes that the outreach component of the kit is key to its far-reaching success. "Teachers who pilot-tested the toolkit indicated that the field experience stuck with their students and motivated them to engage with their local communities on efforts to ‘turn off the tap' and prevent this source of pollution in our ocean," she explains.

Students explore the issue of marine debris at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
Students explore the issue of marine debris at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Kelly Drinnen/NOAA

Some of the outreach activities include challenging students to a "Do Without" Week, where they select one disposable plastic item to stop using for a week and reflect on and share their experience. Students can also host a debris scavenger hunt around campus or write to local restaurant owners and government officials about the issue of marine debris.

For marine national monuments and national marine sanctuaries, turning off the tap on marine debris is especially important since many areas are key feeding and breeding habitat for marine life. "National marine sanctuaries have been identified as some of our nation's most significant marine ecosystems," says Seaberry Nachbar, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries education coordinator and Ocean Guardian School program director. "Our jobs as sanctuary educators are to provide young stewards a connection to these spectacular underwater treasures, as well as the knowledge of how to protect them. The marine debris kit offers a vehicle for students to identify locations within their sanctuary watershed where marine debris is an issue and then to take the steps to make a change."

Turning the tide against marine debris is a global challenge and necessitates widespread awareness of the crisis thorough monitoring and adoption of alternatives to single-use plastics. If you are a student or teacher you can get involved by using the marine debris toolkit in your class or encouraging your school to join the Students for Zero Waste Week challenge to reduce single-use plastics.

first grader drawing depicting marine debris in the ocean and a seal swimming through the debris
2015 Marine Debris Program Art Contest winner Emily E., Grade 1, Alaska

Megan McDaniels is a social media intern at NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.