National Ocean Month: What You Can Do to Protect Public Waters


June is National Ocean Month and June 8 is World Oceans Day, making it a great time to spotlight the importance of oceans and what we can do to protect them.

Covering over 70 percent of the planet, oceans connect us all. Whether you live close by or thousands of miles away, oceans are vital to our well being. They impact our weather, are home to marine life, provide us with food, and are a place to work and play for millions.

Unfortunately, plastic pollution is becoming a big problem in our oceans. Bottle caps, cigarette lighters, bags and plastic packaging that we discard on land find their way into rivers and streams and are carried out to sea. The trash mixes with abandoned boats, fishing nets and shipping refuse to make up swirling masses of marine debris that can form large, floating garbage patches. The larger plastics can also break down into tiny beads or fibers, creating microplastics that are hard to clean up.

Colorful and clear plastic balls, bottles and trash cover a white sand beach next to blue ocean waters.
Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore. Photo by Susan White, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tiny Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge has become a poster child for marine debris awareness. This picturesque tropical island sits close to the gyre, a Pacific Ocean current that pulls ocean debris into a widespread mass known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. More than 21 metric tons of debris accumulate on Midway Atoll each year. 

That trash is impacting the wildlife on Midway. Adult seabirds ingest plastic debris and fishing line and then feed the debris to their chicks, while endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals and Green sea turtles get entangled and trapped in abandoned netting on the reefs and beaches.  

A dead and decomposing bird lays on a beach with it's body open and filled with plastic bits.
Albatross parents on Midway mistakenly feed their chicks over 4 metric tons of plastics from the ocean every year. Pictured here is the unaltered stomach contents of a dead albatross chick photographed on Midway. Photo by Chris Jordan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Working with Hawaii and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees and volunteers scour the beaches for trash, dive along the reefs to remove snagged fishing line, and rescue wildlife that’ve become trapped and entangled. Last year, they removed nearly 100,000 pounds of marine debris from Midway Atoll, Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary and the rest of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Since 2006, the partnership has removed over 350 metric tons of trash from Papahānaumokuākea. As part of an innovative program, the marine trash is then used to produce electricity for Honolulu homes.

On a wide sandy beach, a small group of people sit in a boat surrounded by piles of collected trash.
Pictured here is some of the marine debris volunteers and federal employeed collected at Papahānaumokuākea. Photo by NOAA.

Trash isn’t just a problem in remote areas of the Pacific Ocean. It affects ocean waters, beaches and marine life worldwide. Parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands along the coast are working to clean up plastic items, including tires, straws and balloons that harm wildlife and impact visitors’ public land experiences. 

National park and wildlife refuge employees, along with volunteers across the country, are pitching in to keep our shores clean. For example, last fall, volunteers at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia collected over 2 tons of waste on the beach -- enough to fill two dumpsters with trash. Biscayne National Park volunteers removed more than 14,000 pounds of debris last year from their Florida park. To deal with plastic that piles up on the remote shores of Alaska, the National Park Service teamed with public and private partners to clean up 28 beaches in five parks, while also studying the types and amounts of marine debris. And at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of Oahu, volunteers and staff work with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii to keep the beaches safe for endangered wildlife, picking up over 6,000 pounds of marine debris in 2018 alone.

Two men and a woman wearing work clothes kneel on a sandy beach and pose next to a pile of old balloons they collected.
More than 100 balloons collected at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

You can be a good steward of public lands and waters by:

  • Collecting all your belongings and properly disposing of trash or recycling after a trip to the beach.
  • Not releasing balloons.
  • Reburying any holes you dig in the sand.
  • Picking up your pet’s waste helps protect the ocean and other waterways from harmful bacteria and excess nutrients that could lead to toxic algal blooms.
  • Safely disposing of fishing line to ensure the success of future anglers and wildlife alike. 
  • Volunteering at many of the clean up days in your area -- contact your local park or wildlife refuge for more information.