Pollution that Needs a Solution: Marine Debris in the Gulf of Mexico

Latest update July 22, 2019 Started on October 1, 2016

We want to know everything about marine debris in the Gulf of Mexico. Where does it come from and how is it transported through the environment? What are the impacts? And can we find a solution to all that pollution?

October 1, 2016
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We recently received word that we have been awarded a Trident underwater drone and we are so excited to get to work with it! Mentioned in some of our previous posts, we have an ongoing marine debris monitoring program on 3 barrier islands off our Mississippi coast. Currently this program is limited to walking transects on the beach, so with the ROV we are going to be able to expand our efforts to learn more about what has been left behind in our oceans. On average we sample about 20,000 square meters of beach area on each island with our land transects, so we wanted to come up with a sampling method that could resemble that same area. Because 3 transects would be difficult to cover we decided that we would mark one large area covering approximately 20,000 square meters just off the shoreline and run a grid pattern within it. This is depicted by the picture below from Horn Island with our land transects marked in pink, purple, and yellow, and what would be the ROV area.

A day taking the ROV out would look like: Launching the boat at 7am from Point Park in Pascagoula; Going to Horn island; Walking land transects to collect & record debris; Using ROV to “drive” along back and forth within a grid (space to be established in our first outing) to survey debris; Record types and quantities of debris that we see, and collect it if possible; Repeat at Petit Bois and Dauphin Islands

After a number of transects and sets have been completed we would analyze the data Ultimately we would like to use the results to create an action plan of how to start collecting all debris that we sample.

Our primary use would be for the debris sampling, but secondarily, we would also like to implement the ROV to assist with mapping of submerged aquatic vegetation in Back Bay of Biloxi. We are interested in mapping vegetation in this area because it is thought to be an important nursery habitat for fish populations, but not much work has been done to document what truly exists there. In addition, having more concrete information about what debris is in the water would add to the results from our economic impact study we have going on with local shrimpers.

In The Field

Last year, our lab submitted a grant to the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program to start an environmental education & stewardship program for high school students in Mississippi. Participants go through a 40-hour training course to receive certification, then complete stewardship projects and additional training hours throughout the year. We're happy to say that we received funding! This will allow 60 students to participate in the program for free from 2019-2021.
We're in the middle of the first training course now. The purpose of the training course is to get students acquainted with local ecosystems, how those ecosystems are managed, and any associated environmental threats. Of course, being on the coast, we made sure to incorporate marine debris & microplastics into our curriculum. Hence, today's class! Students heard from Mandy, our lab's marine debris specialist, about how marine debris & microplastics are specifically impacted the Gulf Coast - the very coast most of these students grew up with. Mandy had students collect & process their own water and sediment samples and sort through them for microplastics. Seeing microplastics in their own samples impacted the students a lot more than simply hearing about it in a classroom could.

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We have been told about National Geographic’s partnership with Sofar to award organizations their new Trident underwater drone and we are amazed by all of its capabilities. We heard about a number of organizations receiving one of these fascinating drones and read about their different expeditions, from sighting sharks to investigating marine debris like we are interested in doing. There are vast possibilities of what can be done with a device like this which makes us extremely interested in what we specifically could do. We are going to be submitting an application for one with the hope that this could help with obtaining a visual of the waters around the Mississippi Gulf Coast where we have been removing debris and collecting data. We have had plenty of work on land in the local areas, but being able to see into the waters, especially around the barrier islands, would be very beneficial to advancing our knowledge about what is present and how to approach changing this problem. Often times when we are out on the boat on the way to and from the islands for sampling or while we are in the sound and south of the islands for other projects we notice large amounts of floating debris. We are only seeing the surface of the water and this is hardly a fraction of where all the debris could really be. We frequently wonder how much litter is really hiding in the waters and settled on the bottom unknown to us. With a drone like this we would have an opportunity to answer some of these questions that we have wondered about for so long, AND find ways to act on what we discover. If we do end up getting this drone we are thinking about making a new expedition just to track what we are learning with it so stay tuned!

In The Field

Spring barrier island marine debris collection
We are excited to say that this project has now run for a full year with successful results removing litter. We are hoping that even though we are getting back into summer months and there is going to be more boat traffic and people spending time on the islands that debris will not increase. This time we went out we collected more single use plastics, aluminum cans, many cigarette butts, and others.

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With our derelict crab trap project up and running and going well we wanted to up-date our blog with the link to details about it. Click on the link to our website below for more information on this project, to learn how to sign up, and to follow maps of where all crab traps are being caught.


We hosted a workshop for local shrimpers yesterday (Dec. 5) to provide them with more information about the Derelict Trap Reward Program and give them an opportunity to register to be a part of it. Twenty-seven shrimpers registered for the incentive program, which starts January 1, and each has been given an ID number to track how many traps they bring in. Registration remains open so other shrimpers will still be able to register throughout the life of the program. There are 4 drop off locations across the coast where the shrimpers will be depositing the crab traps that they have collected.
Most of the shrimpers also filled out a survey by Dr. Ben Posadas to be considered for the marine debris economic impact study that will take place next summer. We’ll continue collecting surveys from interested shrimpers for a few more months so we have a good pool of applicants for our study.

Fall barrier island marine debris collection
Today was our third trip to Horn, Petit Bois, and Dauphin Islands to continue our island marine debris monitoring program. This trip we collected 6 garbage bags of single use plastics, glass bottles, toys, and many different household items, and similar things were picked up during our quarterly trip in August. Attached are some pictures showing the litter removed from our beautiful islands.

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We have just completed our annual Mississippi Coastal Clean-up day with 2,649 volunteers participating at over 30 cleanup sites across our 3 coastal counties which span 50 miles. Similar to data from previous years some of the most common items found were single-use plastics including beverage bottles and caps and food wrappers. This year to add an educational component a number of organizations set up many booths in Harrison County to effectively show kids and adults alike the detrimental impacts these plastics have on the marine ecosystem. To learn more about the items collected and the Mississippi Coastal Cleanup Program look through the graphics here.


We have begun hosting monthly beach cleanups along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. With a rotating list of locations, this gives locals more opportunities to help keep the beaches clean and to gather data on marine debris year-round. This monthly engagement not only provides data but promotes awareness on the issue of debris on the coast to keep the conversation going. We gathered community suggestions on sites that needed extra attention to give citizens an opportunity to bring volunteers to multiple locations that may see increased trash build up throughout the year.

As of November 30, 2017 the EPA officially decided to fund our proposal for our Marine Debris Impact Incentive Project in the Mississippi Sound, but now they have finally released our funds to begin work on the project. Due to the delay, the project will now start on January 1, 2019 and run for 2 years. We had a team meeting today to discuss our next steps, and we are looking forward to where this project can go. This project is a multi-disciplinary collaboration encompassing several organizations Mississippi State University Extension Service, Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, and the Mississippi Coalition for Vietnamese-American Fisher Folks & Families.

This year we decided to host a special cleanup for the day after July 4th. The Mississippi coast is a favorite destination for Independence Day festivities but unfortunately generates a great deal of firework debris. The trash resulting from this yearly event had yet to be quantified so we launched a cleanup effort similar to the bigger Coastal Cleanup. This event took place on a smaller scale that spanned only 10 cleanup sites, but volunteers still collected over two tons of trash. The top two items were fireworks (7,897) and cigarette butts (1,382). In conjunction, we also hosted a small camp for kids 7-12 to teach them about our marine life and marine debris. About 8 kids attended. Due to the positive response, we are going to have another cleanup in 2019.

Today we began our marine debris monitoring program that we will be conducting on 3 barrier islands in the Mississippi Sound: Horn, Petit Bois, and Dauphin Island. We will be walking 3 100-meter transects on the north (closest to the mainland) side of each island and collecting debris from the shoreline up to the vegetation line. As we collect the debris we are categorizing it to keep track of what types of materials we have seen - plastics, processed, paper, etc. Once we are done collecting it, it is all brought back to our lab where it is weighed and disposed of properly, away from marine habitats. This project is intended to be conducted quarterly to be able to thoroughly track the amount and impact of this debris on the islands, and provide insight into seasonal trends.

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Started in 1988, Mississippi Coastal Cleanup has been a community engaging effort to cleanup Mississippi’s coastline, waterways, and barrier islands. Not only does this event help remove debris, but it also provides data on the most common types of debris. In addition, this event makes an impact on local people by giving them the opportunity to recognize how much debris is present and how it can affect wildlife. Tragically, this year volunteers came across a live bird that had become tangled in fishing line and needed to be freed with the help of The Wildlife Care and Rescue Center and Ocean Lily Alliance. This year we collected a staggering 1,336 bags that added up to 26,178 pounds of marine trash. The Mississippi Coastal Cleanup is a part of the International Coastal Cleanup put on by the Ocean Conservancy, but due to their set cleanup day falling within hurricane season and Mississippi so often being impacted by them, Mississippi’s date is pushed back. For more details and statistics on what was removed check out the graphics added.

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We have just submitted an application to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to work with local shrimpers to study and remove marine debris from the Mississippi Sound. Ryan Bradley, the director of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United (MSCFU), approached us with the idea a few months ago. Ryan has been shrimping for nearly all of his life, and uses his position at MSCFU to advocate for environmentally and economically sustainable fishing in the Gulf. Ryan informed us that marine debris is a hindrance to shrimpers in the Mississippi Sound because catching this debris in their nets results in time, catch, and money lost. Derelict crab traps - a result of boat propellers cutting trap lines, high tide and storm events, or vandalism - are a common form of marine debris encountered. Derelict traps also pose an environmental threat by continuing to catch marine wildlife. We will incentivize shrimpers to properly dispose of derelict crab traps through a rewards program and to collect data on marine debris encountered while fishing. This will provide baseline data on the types, abundances, and locations of marine debris in the Mississippi Sound. In addition, we will work with Dr. Ben Posadas to estimate the economic impact that marine debris has on the shrimping industry. We’ll also collect data on marine debris that washes up on the shores of our barrier islands.

In The Field

The Microplastics Citizen Science project was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Alliance Gulf Star Program and began January 1, 2017 to engage the public in active participation in citizen science as well as contributing meaningful data regarding microplastic distribution in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Initial trainings were held at the 2017 Gulf of Mexico Alliance All Hands Meeting, followed by a 12-day trip along the Gulf from Biloxi, MS to Key West, FL for training sessions which were conducted by members of our Coastal Research team. The data collected from this region will then be added to a Gulf-wide database. This two-year project has three goals: 1) to increase awareness of the microplastic marine debris issues by connecting with and involving the public 2) to develop educational materials for distribution by project partners and trained citizen scientists to advance community environmental literacy 3) to acquire estimated microplastic abundance in the Northern Gulf of Mexico.

Sediment samples are collected at high, high tide at the wrack line. The top three centimeters of sand within a 0.25m² quadrat is collected, then poured through a 5mm sieve into a 5 gallon bucket. The sand is then transferred to a gallon Ziploc bag and labeled with sample #, GPS coordinates, date, and time collected. Water samples are collected by the liter off surface waters where there is minimal suspended sediment and labeled.

Sediment samples are run through the density separator, which will allow microplastics to float up and out of the sediment. Collected in a sieve, the microplastics can then be observed under a microscope. Water samples are filtered using a vacuum pump and filter funnel. The filter accumulates with microplastic samples which can then be observed under the microscope.

Microplastic samples are categorized as follows: film, fiber, fragment, and bead. Overall, the majority of microplastics found are microfibers, with 90% incidence in water samples and 60% in sediment samples. For an interactive map showing the distribution of these samples, see the link below:


Expedition Background

Marine debris is a global issue that significantly reduces the quality of life for both humans and animals. However, few education, outreach, and research projects address marine debris, and public perception of debris issues has remained relatively unchanged due to the lack of proven links to the aspects of coastal life people care about. Our goal is to better understand the types, abundances, and distribution of marine debris in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and work with the public to increase awareness of marine debris issues and implement solutions.

First step: funding. We just submitted a grant to the Gulf of Mexico Alliance Gulf Star Program to work with citizen scientists to collect data on microplastics in the Gulf of Mexico. Microplastics, defined as pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm, are a subset of marine debris that science is only now starting to study in much depth. They have been found in some of the most remote locations on the globe, from the Arctic to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Studies have found they can be ingested by marine and aquatic animals, which likely has implications all the way up the food chain. If funded, this grant will supply sampling gear and training support to 13 organizations across the U.S. Gulf, ranging from Corpus Christi, TX to Key Largo, FL, to train citizen scientists to collect and process beach and ocean water samples for microplastics. This project is a good way to start interacting with the public immediately, and the results will help inform our future research.

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