Marine debris is a problem that’s easy for most people to ignore on a daily basis – but it’s not something you can ignore when it’s tangled in your trawl net, inside the stomach of the fish you catch or under your microscope in the lab.
To help address the problem in the Great Lakes, staff from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program have partnered with Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab on a variety of education and outreach programs that focus on preventing marine debris and minimizing its harm on the environment. Marine debris, especially plastics, has direct and indirect impacts on wildlife and the ecosystems of our oceans and other waterways.
“Marine debris is a global problem, not just an ocean problem,” explained Sarah Lowe, Great Lakes Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program. “Essentially the same types of debris are found in the Great Lakes: There are the general litter-type items, there are microplastics problems, and there’s derelict fishing gear that we see in both places, so it’s really one and the same issue.”
Most plastic debris breaks down into smaller pieces, but does not fully degrade in the water. These microplastics particles, which include microbeads found in personal care products like facial scrubs, are the subject of much current research because little is known about what happens to them after they go down the drain or break down in open water.
“Microplastics can be ingested by wildlife,” said Lowe. “It’s been shown that fish have ingested microplastics and there’s some beginning evidence of birds ingesting plastics as well. The question then becomes what is it doing in the organism once it’s ingested?”
In addition to research, education about marine debris is an important focus for both the Marine Debris Program and Ohio Sea Grant. In partnership with The Ohio State University’s Stone Lab on Lake Erie, the organizations held a free three-day workshop on marine debris for teachers and informal educators in June 2015.
The thirteen participants trawled for debris in Lake Erie and then spent time analyzing their trawling finds. With the help of lab microscopes and guidance from instructor Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, participants viewed microplastics up close.
The following day, during a fish dissection lab led by Sarah Orlando, Ohio Sea Grant Extension educator and Clean Marinas Program manager, they used the microscopes to compare fish gills with the microplastics, judging which plastics would be filtered out and which may be ingested. Fortunately, none of the fish dissected during the workshop showed evidence of having ingested microplastics, Orlando said.
The educators also participated in a beach clean-up at South Bass Island State Park with the Alliance for the Great Lakes and created monofilament fishing line recycle bins to take back to their communities.
“I think it was a good introduction to the topic for a lot of the educators,” said Lowe. “They really enjoyed the workshop and will take a lot of it back with them to use in the classroom.”
Ohio Sea Grant Education & Outreach Assistant Sue Bixler said the workshop strengthened her knowledge of the subject and helped her come up with ideas for a few educational activities she’s currently working on.
The educators who attended taught at levels from elementary school through high school, and there was even one community college teacher, Lowe said. In addition to the cost of the workshop, grant funding through the NOAA Marine Debris Program and Ohio Sea Grant also covered transportation for participants.
Educators in Ohio’s Ninth Congressional District will also be able to involve their students in continued efforts to educate the public about Great Lakes marine debris by participating in a public service announcement contest launched by Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur’s office. The competition is open to students in grades 9-12, and entries close on March 1, 2016.
“The topic of marine debris has been a major component in the outreach and education efforts for Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab this past year, and we are very excited to be able to help co-sponsor this contest raising awareness of this important Lake Erie issue,” said Dr. Kristin Stanford, Stone Lab’s education and outreach manager.
To reach out to the general public about marine debris, NOAA and Stone Lab are collaborating on a display housed at Ohio Sea Grant’s Aquatic Visitors Center at Put-in-Bay. The display, which is still under construction, shows debris that has been found on nearby Lake Erie beaches to make visitors aware of the kinds of things that cause problems near their vacation spot, and will also emphasize what people can do themselves to avoid contributing to the
marine debris issue.
“We want to make sure that we’re getting the message out there that prevention is key,” said Lowe. “While we definitely encourage clean-ups for debris already in the environment, keeping it from getting there in the first place is the best solution.”