Marine Debris
Olympic Coast

volunteers removing many bags of marine debris from the beach
Organized cleanup efforts on the Olympic Coast remove significant quantities of marine debris from beaches every year, yet debris is deposited daily on shores. Credit: OCNMS, NOAA

Why is it a concern?

Marine debris is a management concern for Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary because debris can alter physical habitats and damage habitat structure, displace organisms from natural habitat, injure organisms directly and serve as a vector for introducing non-native species.   

Given the amount of plastic debris floating in our oceans, the potential for wildlife impacts is enormous. Plastics in the marine environment never fully degrade but tend to fragment into smaller pieces. Marine animals at all levels of the marine food web, from plankton to megafauna, mistake marine debris for food and ingest plastic.  Derelict fishing gear, another form of marine debris, typically is constructed from resilient materials that last and continue to kill marine animals for decades While entanglement in derelict fishing gear and ingestion of plastics are widely documented phenomena, the extent of these impacts off Washington’s outer coast is poorly documented.

Floating debris originating from the March Japanese 2011 tsunami has been arriving on shores of the eastern Pacific Ocean since the winter of 2011-2012. While debris, including natural objects like logs, has always been circulating in the oceans, larger items of marine origin mobilized by the tsunami have hosted living communities of attached plants and animals (biofouling) that survived the trans-Pacific journey. Because this biofouling includes species that are not native to eastern Pacific shores, there is concern that some tsunami debris is transporting potentially invasive species.

Organized beach cleanups on the Olympic Coast remove significant quantities of marine debris every year, yet debris is deposited daily on our shores. Routine monitoring by sanctuary volunteers is conducted to identify the types and volumes of marine debris arriving. In addition, Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, through a National Science Foundation grant, is developing a new citizen science program focused on characterizing debris from a wildlife impact perspective. Surveys in limited portions of the sanctuary have revealed few derelict fishing nets in nearshore areas, but abandoned crab pots remain a problem that is being address by state and tribal fishery managers, including collaborations between the tribal fisheries and and The Nature Conservancy. In deeper areas, abandoned longline and other fishing gear can be found, but it will remain for many years because removal methods are poorly developed and costly.

Overview of Research

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is actively seeking research partners to conduct work connected to Marine Debris as a sentinel issue.

Project Name PI and contacts Links

Survey and Removal of derelict fishing gear

OCNMS and the Makah Tribe (Puget Sound)

Beach cleanups

Washington Clean Coast Alliance

Marine debris monitoring


Data are entered into NOAA Marine Debris Program’s national database at

Derelict crab gear removal

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife


collected marine debris piled up on the beach, including water bottles, milk jugs, derelict fishing gear and hazardous material containers
Marine debris can damage habitat, displace organisms from natural habitat, injure organisms directly and serve as a vector for introducing non-native species. Credit: OCNMS, NOAA

Science Needs and Questions

The best available science is used by sanctuary scientists and managers working to address priority resource conservation and management issues. As priorities change and new issues emerge, each sanctuary develops new science needs and questions and works with partners to address them.

  • What types of marine debris are found within and around the sanctuary and where does the debris originate?
  • Where are debris accumulation hotspots in intertidal and subtidal areas?
  • Which organisms are ingesting plastics and how is this impacting on these organisms?
  • What are concentrations of microplastics in shoreline sediments and waters of the sanctuary?
  • What factors lead to the high rate of Dungeness crab pot loss, and what are the most effective methods for prevention and removal?

Education and Outreach Material

NOAA Marine Debris Program Education Materials

Washington Coast Savers Education Materials

EPA: Pack A Waste-Free Lunch

Winged Ambassadors

Protect Our Ocean

Ocean Guardian School

Growing with Science Blog


ONMS (Office of National Marine Sanctuaries). 2008. Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Condition Report 2008. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 72 pp.

Natural Resources Consultants, Inc. 2007.  Final Report: Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Derelict Fishing Gear Removal Project.  Prepared for Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.  December 28, 2007.  19 pp.

Barnea, N., L. Antrim, D. Lott, G. Galasso, T. Seuss, and S. Fradkin. 2013. The Response to the Misawa Dock on the Washington Coast.  Summary Report and Lessons Learned.  Final report October 31, 2013.