What is Marine Debris?

By David Jensen, July 2022


On coastal beaches, marine debris is mostly made up of cigarette filters, plastic bags and plastic water bottles. On the remote shorelines, it’s derelict fishing gear, and abandoned and wrecked vessels including their engines and their cargo.

Whether it’s litter left on a local beach, or a wrecked fishing vessel that came from the other side of the world, marine debris is a huge environmental problem. It can injure or kill marine and coastal wildlife, damage habitats, affect the life of coastal communities and threaten human health and safety.

Plastics and marine life

Plastics form the majority of marine waste. As explained in a National Geographic Encyclopedia entry, plastic does not biodegrade quickly and some new biodegradable plastics are designed to break down only when they heat up in a landfill or compost pile and so cooler ocean temperatures prevent them from truly degrading. Instead, like most plastics they break down into tiny particles called micro plastics no bigger than a grain of rice.

As plastics get smaller and smaller, they release chemicals, including bisphenol A (BPA) which can interfere with animals’ reproductive systems. Fish are at particular risk and when exposed to BPA produce fewer healthy offspring.  Plants and algae can absorb BPA through the water and a fish already exposed to the chemical ingests even more when it eats algae. The top predators such as sharks and dolphins, which eat the fish, accumulate the most chemicals.


BC Government report

This report, dated February 2020, summarizes the source of the problem as being abandoned vessels, mooring buoys, ghost fishing gear, and debris from aquaculture as well as polystyrene foam (used as flotation for docks, floats, aquaculture facilities, and other marine infrastructure). In the marine environment, Polystyrene easily breaks up into small pieces that can be ingested by wildlife and contributes to micro plastics pollution.

Lonepaddle Expedition 2022

This year, as I paddle from San Josef Bay to Cape Palmerston and then north to Cape Scott, as well as the usual marine garbage, I’m expecting to find debris from the 109 shipping containers that were lost in heavy seas off the MV Zim Kingston in October 2021. It is not clearly documented what was in all of the containers, although two did contain hazardous chemicals, and early clean-up efforts on Cape Palmerston Beach found piles of twisted blue synthetic material and more than 70 refrigerators suspected as coming from MV Zim Kingston. It’s important to remove the debris as soon as possible before it’s broken down into those smaller bits that can be mistaken for food and eaten by marine and coastal wildlife.

What you can do

If you would like to get on board and help Lonepaddle in our efforts to clean up BC’s remote shorelines, you can make an e-transfer donation or send us a cheque.

And we can all help with the plastic problem by refusing single-use plastic such as plastic bags, straws and water bottles.

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