Cleaning Up Oceans of Debris

Written by Kara Cardinal, Marine Projects Manager
Photographed by David Ryan, Field Forester

Marine debris - plastics, metals, rubber, paper, textiles, derelict fishing gear, vessels, and other lost or discarded items that enter the marine environment – is becoming one of the most widespread pollution problems facing our world oceans.

Marine life, such as sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, are increasingly confusing it with food and ingesting plastics and other debris. It can damage important marine habitat. Derelict nets, ropes, line, and other fishing gear can lead to whale entanglements, vessel damage and navigational hazards.  Not to mention, who wants to walk down the beautiful Washington coast only to stumble across rafts of Styrofoam, plastic bottles and grocery bags?  No part of our world is left untouched by debris and its impacts.  

She may be small, but she is fierce.
— Anonymous

As overwhelming as this problem seems, incredible work is happening right here in Washington to clean up our local oceans.

I had the opportunity recently to join a group of dedicated individuals in Long Beach, Washington who are working to address marine debris issues in our state, as well as recognize the 10-year anniversary of the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the five-year commemoration of the tsunami that struck Japan and resulted in vast amounts of debris from across the world washing up on our local beaches.

This event brought together local volunteers (Grassroots Garbage Gang), NGOs, tribes, state agencies and NOAA officials to share and recognize our work.  The event on April 8 kicked off with inspiring remarks from Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator , who was eager to learn about our work and explore our local beaches.

Congresswomen Jaime Herrera-Beutler, with family in tow, also addressed the crowd.  Referring to the community efforts on the Washington coast, she recited a quote from her daughter’s bedroom wall: “She may be small, but she is fierce.”  These words couldn’t be more true – folks on the Washington coast are doing local-scale work with a global-scale impact.

At The Nature Conservancy, we are doing our part by addressing the issue of derelict fishing gear along Washington’s rugged coast. With funding from NOAA and in partnership with the Quinault Indian Nation and Natural Resource Consultants, we have removed over 500 pots, lines, and buoys from the Washington Coast.  The main goals of this project can be summed up by 1) getting derelict gear out of the water, 2) keeping gear out of the water through a sustainable recovery program, and 3) doing outreach to tribal fishermen and the surrounding communities about the habitat, economic and safety issues of derelict fishing gear.

See our recent blog post on this project.

Before I started my long journey home, I decided to take one last walk along the beautiful beaches of the Long Beach Peninsula.  As I was walking out towards the water, who did I see coming off the beach lugging a big bag full of trash?  None other than Dr. Kathryn Sullivan herself!  I went up to shake her hand and thank her for visiting our special corner of the country.  She remarked “I couldn’t travel all this way and not do my part.”  I smiled to myself as I continued my walk along the waters edged and felt very confident that all of us together might just make a difference in this world.

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program

Grassroots Garbage Gang


Kids & Nature: How Lingcod Pots Work

Written by Makayla Johnson, Volunteer Intern

Most commercial lingcod fishermen use trawl nets to capture lingcod along the Washington coast. The main problem with this fishing method is that trawl nets are notorious for capturing unintended species of fish while scraping the sea floor at the same time.

The unintended capture of species through fishing is called bycatch. Bycatch has impacts to the environment and to economics.  Unfortunately, most of the bycatch end up dying before they can be put back in the ocean. Also, if lingcod fishermen catch too many recovering overfished species as bycatch, their fishery can be shut down by the government.

The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with The University of Washington and lingcod fishermen in Ilwaco to invent a new fishing pot that protects habitat and sea creatures. They did this by observing the behavior of the Lingcod and designing a fishing pot that catches lingcod, with minimal if not any- bycatch. The fishing pot also has minimal impacts to the seafloor.

Every year, the Seattle Aquarium hosts a "Discover Science" weekend where federal, state and other non-governmental environmental organizations come up with fun outreach activities to educate the public on all of the cool science that they are doing. Each organization creates outreach materials to engage people of all ages from 2-100! The public is invited to walk through the aquarium and talk with the different organizations about their science research.

As an intern at The Nature Conservancy, I had the opportunity to work with the marine team and TNC volunteers at the Aquarium to present TNC’s lingcod pot project! We worked hard to get ready for the day. We created poster boards with information about the project, retrieved video footage of the pots in action from fishermen, and developed an outreach activity for the children. Working at the booth was fantastic! At the event, it was awesome to interact with the smaller children with the game we made to demonstrate how the lingcod pots work, and talk with their parents about how TNC and the University of Washington is helping to advance the technology of the fishermen for a cleaner catch. We saw a total of 5,218 visitors through our doors over the two days, 3,185 of them the first day and 2,033 the second day.

Searching for Crab Pots

Abandoned fishing gear never stops fishing.

Written and Photographed by Molly Bogeberg, Hershman Marine Policy Fellow and Kara Cardinal, Marine Projects Manager

Kara Cardinal and I woke up early to walk the docks in Westport and catch Quinault Indian Nation fisherman (Tony) and Natural Resource Consultants (NRC) staff (Jeff Cox) before they left Westport in search of lost and abandoned crab pots to pluck from the seafloor. The Nature Conservancy has partnered with the Quinault, NRC, and NOAA to use a specially designed line cutter and hydraulic pump to remove crab pots that have been buried deep in the sand or caught in-between rocks. 

Jeff demonstrated how the specially designed crab pot line cutters work. It was amazing to see how the white tubing pumps water into the sandy seafloor to help remove buried crab pots. These derelict crab pots are a menace because they can continue to catch crab, impede other fishing practices, and entangle marine mammals. The hope is that by removing these lost pots, the waters close to Westport and the Quinault Nation will be safer for boaters and marine organisms alike.

Learn more about our marine work here.