Understanding Marine Debris

The Center was one of the first to recognize derelict fishing gear as a problem in Virginia.  Today, we continue our research on marine debris for solutions that will make a difference in your neighborhood and around the world.


Marine debris can include balloons, plastic bags, food and drink containers, lost crab pots, oyster bags and cages, fishing line and nets, and any other kind of persistent solid material that is intentionally or unintentionally, directly or indirectly, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment.  So basically, any trash that that ends up in the water!

Where does marine debris come from? "As much as 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources such as plastic bags and food containers.  Abandoned or derelict fishing gear, vessels, and other water-based sources also significantly contribute to the problem" - Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program

Land sources ...

Trash on land near wetlands following a large storm.
A large amount of marine debris is litter tossed along roadsides or illegal dumping on property which is then washed into creeks and rivers that flow into larger bodies of water during rainstorms or high tides.  Beverage and food containers, plastic straws, cigarette butts, and other trash all make their way into our streams and waterways during storms. Light items like plastic grocery bags and balloons can travel for miles in the air before landing in waterways.

Water sources ...

Lost crab pot Some debris items don’t have to travel far from their source to become a problem: water-based sources of marine debris include derelict vessels, and fishing gear such as nets, crab pots, and fishing line. Products used for shellfish aquaculture can become marine debris if they are washed out during storms or discarded, such as clam netting, oyster bags, floats, and cages. Trash is also intentionally or accidentally released by recreational boaters, cruise ships, merchant vessels, and military ships.

Shoreline sources ...

Bulkhead and steps falling apart into the Rappahannock River

At the land-water interface, deteriorating shoreline structures can break apart and become marine debris, such as old piers, wharves, and bulkheads. Some of these old structures were constructed many years ago with creosote and arsenic treated lumber. Legal at the time, these materials contain toxic chemicals to prevent decay and prolong their life expectancy.


Is marine debris really a problem?  Yes! Marine debris is a global problem that injures and kills marine life, interferes with navigational safety, causes economic losses to fishing and coastal industries, and poses a threat to human health.  "Up to 13 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, threatening marine life and polluting shorelines. That’s the equivalent of a garbage truck emptying its rubbish into the sea every minute." - The PEW Charitable Trusts

See examples ...
Osprey with plastic bag in it's nest
Wildlife ingestion:
  • Debris items mistaken for food (including microplastics)
  • Debris attached to natural prey items and ingested
Lost crab pot that unintentionally continued to 'fish'Wildlife entanglement and ghost fishing:
  • Young osprey entangles in nest debris
  • Derelict fishing gear, balloon ribbons, wrapped around marine mammals, birds and sea turtles
  • Lost or abandoned nets and traps that continue to catch and kill animals (bycatch)
Derelict boat smothering wetlandsHabitat damage:
  • Smothering of wetland vegetation by bulkhead debris
  • Bottom scour by heavy derelict fishing gear
  • Entanglement and crushing of deep-sea corals
Lost fishing gear pulled from the waterVessel damage and navigation hazards:
  • Direct strikes
  • Propeller entanglement
  • Clogged intakes
Economic loss:
  • Seafood trapped and killed by derelict fishing gear
  • Lost crab traps attracting crabs from active traps
  • Littered beaches are less attractive for tourism
  • Litter removal and beach sweeping costs
Alien species transport:
  • Non-native species attached to debris and moved beyond natural range
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are nearly invisible, tiny pieces of plastic - so small that at less than 5 millimeters in length, they slip through wastewater treatment filtering screens.  Once in our waterways they can be eaten by small animals and work their way up the food chain.  Microplastics come from ...
  • microbeads which are used as exfoliants in toothpaste, cosmetics, suncare, skincare, and household cleanser products that get rinsed down drains (being phased out in the U.S. since the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015);
  • the breaking up and fracturing of larger plastic debris (like cigarette filters, straws, bags and bottles), over months or years, until they are tiny pieces;
  • and largely from microfibers that are released from clothing while doing the laundry that eventually enter our waterways.
Find out more ...
What can YOU do?

No matter which watershed you live, work, or play in, you can help to reduce litter and clean up Virginia’s shorelines, beaches, wetlands, and coastal waters.

Everyday ...

  • Organize or volunteer for a cleanup in your area
  • Avoid using single-use plastic items
  • Encourage the use of cigarette receptacles at your business, school, and church
  • Properly dispose of your trash in a receptacle
  • Purchase recyclable containers and recycle them
  • Don't release balloons
  • Pack food in reusable containers
  • Use cloth shopping bags
  • Recycle your fishing-line
Get involved ...

pot removal

  • The Virginia Trap Removal Program – Every winter from January 1st to March 14th, the blue crab fishery season is closed... that's when we can pitch in to remove lost pots. Find out more about this citizen scientist project where volunteers with access to Virginia's waters are trained and authorized to use the 'Crab Trap App'.  Sign up to help!
  • Join the Virginia Abandoned and Derelict Vessels Work Group – where boaters, marinas, and everyday citizens use a form to help build an inventory of ADV in the state.
  • The NOAA Marine Debris Program – offers citizen scientists a variety of opportunities to learn about marine debris and participate in monitoring programs and beach cleanups.
  • Join the Virginia Plastic Pollution Prevention Network – it's open to organizations of all kinds that are working on the issue of plastic pollution.
What is CCRM doing?

The Center started scanning the waters' bottom for derelict 'ghost traps' in 2004, our research prompted us to develop several solutions to marine resource issues.

Marine Debris Removal Program ...

waterman removing derelict pot
With state and grant funding, CCRM worked with commercial watermen who used their boats and skills to help locate and remove over 34,000 derelict blue crab traps from Virginia waters during the Virginia Marine Debris Removal Program.

  • Find out more about the CCRM and local watermen Ghost Pot Partnership – YouTube video (4:32)
  • Check out this interactive map to see where derelict pots were removed under this program.  Zoom in to view pots removed from a specific creek.  Move your cursor over a dot to see when the pot was removed and what animals were found entrapped.
Biodegradable Plastics ...

Erosion prevention netting caught in a lawn-mower.The Center is looking for ways to replace plastics that pollute the environment and hurt wildlife with safer biodegradable plastics. 

  • The incorporation of biodegradable escape panels on crab traps reduces the capture and ultimate death of animals when a crab pot is lost.
  • Replacing plastic shotgun wads with biodegradable wads can reduce the environmental impact of plastic wad litter. 
  • CCRM is now investigating biodegradable netting to replace the current netting used for erosion control. – Facebook video (3:41)
What is VIRGINIA doing?

Virginia is leading by example through these valuable steps to reduce pollutants.

Marine debris policy ...

In March, 2016, Virginia initiated a plan to reduce marine debris from both land and water sources throughout the state by "leadership, prevention, interception, innovation, and removal for ecological, social, and economic benefits". 

Balloons policy ...

Environmentalists, watermen, and residents who live along the state’s shoreline regularly complain about litter from foil and latex balloons on beaches and the potential harm to marine animals by ingesting balloon remnants.  Virginia responded ...

  • Current law in Virginia already prohibits the release of 50 or more balloons per hour -  (Code of Virginia § 29.1-556.1).
  • However in 2021, Virginia lawmakers approved legislation that would ban the intentional release of all nonbiodegradable balloons and fine offenders $25 per balloon - (HB - 2159).
Single-use plastics policy ...

Governor Ralph Northam signed Executive Order #77 on March 23, 2021 to launch the process of phasing out single-use plastics throughout Virginia. This first step restricts State agencies from buying, selling and distributing single-use plastic items - such as bags, wrappers, bottles, and straws, and are required to develop a 'Plastic Pollution Reduction Plan'.

On April 7, 2022, newly elected Governor Glenn Youngkin created Executive Order #17 that rescinded EO77.  The new order recognizes the value of recycling, requires large-scale food manufacturers (like grocery retailers, sports arenas, schools, and hotels) to identify appropriate strategies to reduce food waste, and removes the ban on purchasing single-use plastics by state agencies.