Marine Debris: Impacts on wildlife & humans

Impacts on Aquatic Animals—Entanglement and Ingestion
Aquatic debris can be particularly dangerous and often lethal to wildlife. Each year, more than 100,000 marine mammals die when they ingest debris or become entangled in ropes, fishing line, fishing nets, and other debris dumped into the ocean. As many as 2 million seabirds also die every year due to debris ingestion and entanglement. Fishing line, fishing nets, strapping bands, and six-pack rings can hamper the mobility of aquatic animals. Once entangled, animals have trouble eating, breathing, or swimming, all of which can have fatal results. According the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), marine debris threatens over 265 different species of marine and coastal wildlife through entanglement, smothering, and interference with digestive systems.

Sea turtles, birds, fish, and mammals often mistake plastic items for food. For instance, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their favorite foods. With plastic filling their stomachs, animals have a false feeling of being full, and may die of starvation.

Learn more from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program.

Some species of sea turtles love to eat jellyfish. Our shopping bags look like jellyfish when they are in the water, and are often eaten by sea turtles. All sea turtle species in U.S. waters are endangered or threatened with extinction. Photo courtesy of Ocean Conservancy.
Entanglement photos courtesy of Ocean Conservancy.

Impacts on Human Health and Safety
Trash in our waterways can also affect human health and safety. Hazards include glass and metal left on the beach, or hospital needles and syringes that can carry disease. Fishermen and recreational boaters can also be endangered as nets and monofilament fishing line wrap around a boat's propeller. Plastic sheeting and bags can also block the cooling intakes on boats. Such damage is hazardous and costly in terms of repair and lost fishing time. A survey in Oregon revealed that nearly 60 percent of fishermen had experienced equipment damage due to marine debris, costing thousands of dollars in repairs.

Economic Impacts from Aquatic Debris
A tremendous amount of time, effort, and machinery is devoted in Virginia to cleaning up litter on the land and in our waterways. Many Virginian coastal communities and parks have regular beach sweeping to remove trash left behind by visitors. Virginia's Department of Transportation spends more than $6 million to remove litter from our roadsides in addition to the thousands of hours Adopt-A-Highway volunteers spend picking it up.

College grounds maintenance crews spend thousands of hours every year picking up litter, as do employees of restaurants, hotels, stores, and other businesses. Every county in Virginia has a Litter Prevention and Recycling Coordinator.

In addition to costly cleanup procedures, there are other economic impacts that are harder to put a price on. Littered parks, marinas, and beaches suffer from lost tourist income, and fisheries that are full of debris can result in decreased yield of food such as crabs and fish.


Explore ways to PREVENT marine debris!