Marine Debris

marine debris washed up on shore
Divers trying to remove fishing gear and other marine debris from Papahānaumokuākea. Credit: NOAA

Why is it a concern?

Marine debris, mostly derelict fishing gear from distant trawl and gillnet fisheries around the Pacific Rim, is one of the greatest anthropogenic impact to the reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Many reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and throughout the Pacific have been inundated with large amounts of debris lost by North Pacific commercial fishing operations or dispersed from other marine or terrestrial sources. It has been estimated that 900 metric tons of debris have accumulated in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands over the past several decades. Assuming accumulation rates have been relatively constant over the past four decades, long-term average accumulation rates are approximately 47 metric tons per year. These objects degrade reef health by abrading, poisoning, smothering and dislodging corals and other benthic organisms, and entangling fish, marine mammals, crustaceans and other mobile species. Marine debris impacting shallow habitats is of particular concern, as derelict fishing gear is likely to have severe impacts on shallow coral habitats. In addition to the threat in general, it is specifically a threat to table coral which is documented as declining, and is a limited in its distribution.

Marine debris containing hazardous materials such as pesticides, petroleum, toxic chemicals and phosphorus flares washes up on the beaches of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and is a danger to wildlife and humans. It is unknown how much of these toxic compounds are released from the debris while floating in the marine environment. Marine debris and derelict fishing gear hinder the recovery of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal and threatened sea turtles through entanglement, drowning and suffocation. Additionally, marine animals, particularly seabirds, in the Monument are harmed by ingesting marine debris, often mistaking it for food resulting in starvation or poisoning. Plastics in the marine environment never fully degrade and recent studies show plastic is consumed by organisms at all levels of the marine food web. Given the quantities of plastic debris floating in the ocean, the potential for ingestion is enormous.

Overview of Research

Project Name PI and contacts Links

Marine Debris Project



Science Needs and Questions

  • What are the sources, types and accumulation rates of marine debris within the Monument?
  • How can we reduce the sources of debris which ends up in the NWHI?
  • What are the impacts to marine resources (i.e. coral) of removal activities?
  • What tools are available to detect marine debris before it enters the Monument?
  • Where is Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat that should be prioritized for marine debris removal efforts?
  • What is the spatial extent of marine debris impacts in the NWHI?
  • Are certain areas more or less susceptible to marine debris accumulation and/or impacts?
  • Are certain types of debris more likely to contain contaminants and can those be targeted for removal efforts?

Education and Outreach Material

NOAA Marine Debris Program Education Materials


Dameron O.J., M. Parke, M. Albins, R. Brainard. 2007. Marine debris accumulation in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: An examination of rates and processes. Mar. Poll. Bull. 54(4):423-433.

Gittings, S.R., M. Tartt, and K. Broughton. 2013. National Marine Sanctuary System Condition Report 2013. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 33 pp.

NMSP (National Marine Sanctuary Program). 2005. Northwestern Hawaiian Islands coral reef ecosystem reserve final reserve operations plan. 255 pp.

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). 2008. Marine Debris Emergency Response Planning in the North-Central Gulf of Mexico Interim Draft Report. 44pp.

ONMS (Office of National Marine Sanctuaries). 2009. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument Condition Report 2009. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 54 pp.