Craig Quirolo's Coral Reef Relief Image Archive Photos of over 10,000 Free Florida Reef Photos

an article written by DeeVon Quirolo for the revised Monroe County Environmental Story October, 2009

Marine Debris
Craig and DeeVon Quirolo
If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. Aldo Leopold, Round River, 1993.
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Marine debris -- trash and garbage in our waters from land and ocean sources -- is a major problem world-wide.  It is especially noticeable in the Florida Keys because of our many miles of shoreline that collect debris that the tides and currents carry our way.  Added to that is the intensive use of the Florida Keys for tourism and commercial fishing activities which together result in tons of debris trapped in mangroves, on sandy beaches and below the surface of the water on seagrasses and coral reefs.  This debris threatens seabirds and marinelife.  The Florida Keys is home to North America's only living coral barrier reef that together with the upland hardwood hammocks, provides habitat for one-third of Florida's threatened and endangered species.  It is estimated that fourteen billion pounds of debris is dumped into the ocean each year. Americans produce an average of 4.6 pounds of trash per day, and unfortunately, too much of it ends up in coastal waters.  This article looks at the issue of marine debris and ways to reduce it.
Sources of Debris
Debris originates from both the land and the sea in the Florida Keys.  Deliberate disposal results from unknowing or uncaring individuals--residents and visitors, picnickers and beachgoers--who discard trash along the many miles of shoreline and from drivers along the Overseas Highway that runs the length of the Florida Keys.  Land-based sources also include items that are discharged into nearshore waters from stormwater drains that carry debris carelessly discarded on roads, streets and sidewalks and illegal dumping. Land-based sources account for about 80 percent of the marine debris found on our beaches and in our waters according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The second major source of marine debris is commercial vessels including merchant ships, commercial fishing operations and private boats and ships that dispose of their garbage overboard.  Many foreign items wash upon the shores of the Florida Keys, carried by the Gulfstream, the mighty current that enters the Keys from the Caribbean and parallels Florida's east coast to points north. 
Merchant ships, unwittingly and as a result of storm activity, dump dunnage, shoring, pallets, wires and covers into the ocean and are the major source of debris, followed by commercial fishing operations, recreational boaters, military vessels, passenger vessels and oil drilling vessels and platforms. (1)
Fishing line entangled on coral.
Fishing line entangled on coral.
Commercial fishing operations create debris from gear loss caused by normal wear and tear, operational mistakes and storms.  The Gulf of Mexico is second only to the North Pacific in the operation of fishing vessels; thus there are many opportunities for lost nets, lines and other gear.  In the Florida Keys, litter from commercial fishing operations is commonplace.  In 2005-2006, four back-to-back hurricanes-Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma-wrecked the fishing industry, resulting in 700,000 stone crab traps and 400,000 lobster traps lost in the Florida Keys. (2) National Fisherman magazine estimates that in Florida, from a quarter to one half of all lobster traps in the water during Hurricane Katrina were lost.
Florida Keys Coral Reef Photos taken by Craig Quirolo
Recreational boaters and sportfishermen contribute to the problem as well. The Florida Keys has more registered boats than any other Florida county, with thousands of out-of-country boaters using our waters as well.
In the past, cruise ships were responsible for a significant amount of marine debris, however, thanks to an international law, referred to as MARPOL Treaty Annex V, (entitled “Regulations for the Prevention of Pollution by Garbage by Ships”), the Wider Caribbean Region has been designated a special area.  The law requires that the cruise ship industry provide waste management containment onboard until they reach an authorized discharge port.  The results of this legislation have resulted in significantly less cruise ship debris landing on our shores.
Symbolic of the growing issue of marine debris is the world’s largest “landfill”,  a virtual island of marine debris in the Pacific Ocean, created by the north Pacific central or sub-tropical gyre, an area with circular winds that produce circular ocean currents that spiral into a center where there is literally a mass of debris larger than many states. (3)
Impact of Debris

In the Keys, monofilament line and trash wrapped around delicate corals can break them; plastics can suffocate the living coral polyp encased within the calcareous exoskeleton of the coral structures, blocking needed sunlight and preventing feeding.  Trap floats and lines wash onto beaches and entangle mangroves and lost traps litter the bottom and crush fragile coral reefs.
Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food and get caught in fishing gear.  Manatees get caught in stone crab traps.  Both bottlenose dolphin and turtles become entangled in shrimp nets although turtles are now protected by required gear called turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, that allow their escape.
Tropical fish, including breeder species, are trapped in “ghost traps.”  Fish, lobster, and stone crab traps are regularly lost, yet they continue to capture fish and shellfish in a cycle of baiting and trapping that is rarely retrieved. Birds can become entangled in fishing line or six pack connectors and suffer from ingesting plastics, especially raw polyethylene pellets they mistake for food. 
A bird is entangled in a fishing net.
At least 99 of the world’s 312 species of sea birds are reported to ingest plastic and more than a million seabirds are killed by litter each year. Sadly, seabirds are now feeding their young plastic pellets, mistaking it for food.  An estimated 100,000 marine mammals such as dolphins, whales and seals and 86% of all sea turtles choke or get entangled in debris each year.  By 2001, it was reported that 267 animal species worldwide had been harmed by entanglement and ingestion of marine debris.  (4)  
The economic impact of marine debris is also tremendous.  Boats are damaged when propellers are fouled and cooling water intake systems are clogged by fishing nets, bags, sheeting and line.  Clean-up procedures are costly and fisheries resources are depleted.  Beach communities spend substantial amounts of time and money cleaning their shores both for residents and tourist activities.  Beach closures due to poor water quality result when untreated storm water is allowed to run into coastal areas.
Most Common Items

Over half of all debris is plastic.  In the forty years since plastics were invented, they have become an integral part of our lives instead of natural materials that degrade.  Plastic is convenient because of its durability, but this same durability is a disadvantage when disposed of at sea.  It never goes away and, as it endures, has adverse impacts on the ocean and its inhabitants. When these durable and highly buoyant synthetic products enter the ocean environment they can travel for thousands of miles on ocean currents, posing a threat to ocean ecosystems and wildlife above and below the water line. Consequently, marine debris has become one of the most pervasive pollution problems facing the world’s oceans and waterways. (5)
Items salvaged during a beach cleanup.  
Nearly 80% of all marine debris is plastic.  In some parts of the ocean, it outweighs plankton by 6:1 and an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic litter alone are floating on every square mile of ocean. One million plastic bags are used every minute of the day and almost three million tons of plastic are used to bottle water globally every year.  (6)
The most abundant marine debris items found on the world’s beaches during the 2009  International Coastal Cleanup were, in the order of volume: cigarettes & cigarette filters; plastic bags; food wrappers and containers; caps and lids, plastic beverage bottles; paper bags; straws and stirrers; cups, plates, forks, knives and spoons; glass beverage bottles and beverage cans. (7)
Most plastic items are domestic in origin--plastic bags, six pack rings, containers, tampon applicators and foam plastics.  Plastic fragments that break down from larger manufactured articles find their way into the marine environment.  Reef Relief’s Don’t Teach Your Trash to Swim marine debris timeline reports that many plastic items never biodegrade while others such an aluminum can may require from 200—500 years.
The second most common items found are plastic buoys, rope, nets, traps and monofilament line from commercial fishing operations.  Nylon, polypropylene and polyethylene are the most common materials used in fishing gear.  In one Florida clean-up, volunteers retrieved 254 miles of fishing line in just three hours.  Cargo ships routinely dump plastic strapping bands used to bind items during shipment.  Large sheets of plastic are used on these ships to cover items during transport.  Glass, aluminum, wood and paper products are also dumped at sea, some of which degrade with time. 
Storms leave their mark. In the north-central Gulf of Mexico region, side scan sonar surveys for marine debris generated by Hurricane Katrina revealed over 5,000 items within an area of 744 square nautical miles, approximately 40% of which were submerged by less than 5 feet. (8)
But the quantity of plastics dumped is much larger than the volume of all other products.
The Law

Federal law prohibits dumping plastic into any waters.  Additional restrictions prohibit all other garbage within 3 nautical miles of shore and anywhere in U.S. lakes, rivers, bays and sounds.  From 3-12 nautical miles, it is illegal to dump plastics, dunnage, lining and packing materials that float, and all other garbage not ground to less than one inch.  From 12-25 miles offshore, the rules are limited to plastics and dunnage, and outside 25 miles, to plastics.  In fact, a placard outlining the law must be prominently posted on all U.S. vessels 26’ or longer.  (9)
The Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000 authorizes NOAA to provide assistance to any U.S. state, territory or possession that contains a coral reef ecosystem within its seaward boundaries in removing abandoned fishing gear, marine debris and abandoned vessels from coral reefs.   Signed into law in 2006, the Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act establishes a program within NOAA to identify, assess, reduce and prevent marine debris and its effects on the marine environment. The B.E.A.C.H. Act of 2000, part of the Clean Water Act, required the adoption of minimum health-based standards and frequent testing of shoreline waters to protect beach goers from polluted waters.   In addition, the Florida Keys has been designated a No Discharge Zone for boater sewage.
Boaters may report violations to the U.S. Coast Guard.  If you do witness a violation, obtain as much information as possible, including the vessel registration number and state, vessel name and description, what was thrown overboard and time and location of dumping.  Monroe County Code Enforcement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary also pursue illegal dumping activities throughout the Florida Keys.
The Good News

Here in the Florida Keys, community-based clean-ups of shorelines and coral reefs began over 25 years ago and are now sponsored by many civic organizations and businesses throughout the year. A major international clean-up is sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy each September.  The Florida Keys clean-up is supported by numerous local organizations.  Volunteers participate in this one day event designed to heighten awareness of the impact of debris on our lives.  The data collection from the International Clean-Up provides information that helps promote good policy-making regarding marine debris and improves environmental education efforts.
Reef Relief intern Robert Schaudt organized Key West divers for a reef clean  up in April 2008.  
In the Florida Keys, underwater reef clean-ups have become a tradition, since plastics and other debris can damage fragile coral reefs.  Many charterboats routinely bring their trash back to shore and recycle it.  Volunteers are trained to be cautious and are taught to avoid damaging the living organisms by avoiding all contact from hands, fins, and equipment, maintaining neutral buoyancy when diving, and utilizing clippers or cutters rather than tearing out monofilament line from the reef
Snorkelers with Spirit Snorkeling of Marathon gathered lots of debris off Money Island during this island clean-up held Saturday, September 15, 2008. Photos compliments of Spirit Snorkeling
GLEE for Green Living and Energy Education is a organization that has been launched in the Florida Keys that is working with local government and residents to adopt sustainable living strategies that include waste reduction and recycling.

During the 2008 International Clean Up, nearly 400,000 volunteers in 104 countries and 42 US states picked up an astounding 6.8 million pounds of trash.   In Florida that year, 676,816 items were collected, including 398,369 items from shoreline and recreational activities; 40,070 items from ocean and waterway activities; 223,777 from smoking-related activities; 11,039 items from dumping activities and 3,561 items from medical and personal hygiene sources. Floridians collected 416,279.2 pounds of debris from 1966.3 miles of shoreline and ranked third after California and North Carolina in the number of items collected.  In California, 2864.3 miles of shoreline yielded 1,666,106.2 pounds of debris.  In North Carolina, 1,561.1 miles of coastline yielded 528,026 pounds of debris from 127,867 items. (10)
Photo: Cuban students participate in coastal cleanups regularly thanks to the efforts of Angelita Corvea and her organization Aculina based in Havana, Cuba.
Efforts are underway around the world to reduce the amount of debris in the ocean.  Six-pack rings for beverages are now recyclable and designed to break down in sunlight and an effort to reduce packaging is also gaining acceptance by beverage manufacturers.  Fishing hooks and gear are now made to biodegrade over time.
This group of volunteers cleaned up a reef in the Philippines.
Marinas, yacht harbors and boatyards are beginning to acknowledge their responsibility to provide waste reception infrastructure, including recycled oil and garbage and sewage pump-out facilities.  Many marine supply stores carry non-toxic, environmentally friendly boat maintenance products.  Businesses and consumers are becoming more educated to the benefits of sustainable living that involve the three R’s--reduce, re-use and recycle which can make marine debris a thing of the past. The Clean Marina Program in Florida includes a rigorous protocol for the proper disposal of used motor oil, trash and recyclables as well as requiring proper waste treatment at all participating marinas. Eighteen businesses have achieved the designation of eitherClean Marina, Clean Boatyard, Clean Pumpout Facility or Clean Retailer in the Florida Keys.
What you can do:

The National Research Council recommended a goal of discharging zero waste into marine environments. We can all be a part of achieving this goal.
Tips for boating, beach and shoreline:

  1. Bring your trash back to shore and recycle it. Try to retrieve fishing gear and equipment, especially monofilament line.
  2. Carry trash bags with you and pick up litter found along the shore and in the water.
  3. Bring your own reusable bags and when plastic or paper bags can't be avoided, save and recycle them.
  4. Bring your own stainless steel water bottle and avoid sodas. Note: Avoid  aluminum bottles that contain the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA).
  5. Don’t buy over packaged fast food that is just as bad for your health as the wrappers are for our oceans. And do you really need that straw? If so, use biodegradeable ones.
  6. Use vessel pump-out facilities, biodegradeable bilge cleaner and never discharge bilgewater when at the reef. The Florida Keys is a No Discharge Zone for boater sewage.
Anytime, Anywhere:

  1. Reduce, reuse, recycle.  That includes food, clothing and furniture as well as plastics, glass, cardboard and newspapers to save natural resources.
  2. Stop smoking. It destroys your heart and lungs. If you must, properly dispose of the filters and butts.
  3. Sort your trash according to local recycling laws; try to compost organic matter and yard waste, and purchase recycled products to support closing the loop.
  4. Recycle used motor oil at gas stations with facilities instead of using storm drains on land that run to the sea or worse yet, natural areas.
  5. Get involved in local clean-ups for your area. Help organize recycling in your area.
  6. Support public/private partnerships to monitor and reduce marine debris.
  7. Support funding for science-based solutions, including better technology that uses less plastic and more environmentally-friendly materials.
  8. Support comprehensive ocean management at all levels especially for coral reefs which are endangered worldwide.

If we all do a little, we can do a lot!

Special thanks for tips from Reef Relief, Ocean Conservancy and Emily Main’s article Save the Oceans this Saturday, published at  on September 17, 2009. 
DeeVon Quirolo is the author of Potential Impact of Oil Spills and Oil Exploration and Development on the Florida Keys cited above. She is the retired founder of REEF RELIEF, formerly a global non-profit membership organization dedicated to Preserve and Protect Living Coral Reef Ecosystems.  Email:


(1)   K. Ohara, et. al.  A Citizen’s Guide to Plastics in the Ocean: More than a Litter Problem.  Washington, D.C.: Center for Environmental Education. 1988

(2)   T. Delene Beeland. Battered and Bruised but Still Fishing. MMC 6905.  2005.

(3)   Out in the Pacific, Plastic is Getting Drastic.  Captain Charles Moore, August, 2005.

(4)   Solid Waste and Debris. Good Mate Recreational Boating and Marine Manual. Ocean Conservancy 2001, page 35.

(5)   Marine Debris Facts. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  2007

(6)   Marine Debris—the facts. Project AWARE Foundation. 2009

(7)   International Coastal Clean-Up 2009 Report: A Rising Tide and What We Can Do About it, Ocean Conservancy. 2009 .

(8)    N. Barnea, J. Michel, B. Bray, Z. Nixon, G. Imahori and C. Moegling. Marine Debris Response Planning in the North-Central Gulf of Mexico. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS-OR&R-31. June 2009. Page 3

(9)   Marpol Annex V: How it can affect you.  Rhode Island Sea Grant Advisory Service, Jan. 1989.

(10)           Ibid. International Coastal Clean-Up 2009 Report. Page 43.

Photo by Reef Relief

Click here for a PDF with more details on what you can do to reduce marine debris