Marine debris – Why is it a BAD thing and how is NVT contributing to awareness?

Kellyn Whitehead
10 October 2019

We are in a time where more and more people are becoming increasingly aware of the trouble our planet is finding itself in – and that we are responsible for 99% of the negative impacts on the environment. One of these man-made impacts that is being highlighted in a big way is marine debris. When one decides to be brave and type in “marine debris” into their search engine, the amount of information that hits you is astonishing - even more so when you narrow it done to something like microplastics.

To understand the impact of this problem on the ecosystem, let us start with the basics – what exactly is marine debris? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines marine debris as, “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment.” So, as you can see by this definition, marine debris is a man-made problem having unthinkable negative consequences for our marine environment. This blog will highlight two major threats – fishing-related marine debris and plastic-related marine debris.

Fishing line and nets are contributing greatly to marine life entanglements including birds; whales; dolphins; seals; and turtles, with many of these entanglements leading to death. These entanglements are largely caused by fishing line and pieces of fish nets being discarded in the ocean and along the beach.

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In 2015 the Nature’s Valley Trust (NVT) was joined by a German student wanting to work with us for her Master’s project. The main focus of her project was interviewing shore-based fishermen and their catch per unit effort while fishing. She also had a second, smaller component of her project looking specifically at marine debris along the beaches of Nature’s Valley and Plettenberg Bay. The data gathered on marine debris had found that 11% of the people using the beach were fishermen, yet they were contributing to 39% of the marine debris that were found on the beach. This led to NVT developing a long-term marine debris research project, the installation of fishermen bins at all the beach entrances in Nature’s Valley, and an awareness pack for fishermen.


After implementation of our fishermen bins and educational resource packs we have found that fishermen remain approximately 11% of our beach users, but fishing-related marine debris being picked up on our beaches has decreased to less than 15%. This is an example of how raising awareness and educating the community can help alleviate the impact – but awareness alone cannot rid the impact entirely and big corporations and law enforcement need to start playing a bigger role.

Plastics found along our coastlines and in our oceans is becoming a major concern for the health of these ecosystems.


We are seeing an increase of cases where necropsies done on whales; dolphins; turtles; and seabirds are showing an alarming amount of plastics in their stomachs – in most cases the resulting cause of death. Many marine animals mistake plastic for food and ingest it, an example of this is turtles – turtles eat jellyfish, and a thin plastic bag floating in the ocean looks exactly like a jellyfish! Turtles then consume these plastic bags, which remain in the stomach leaching harmful chemicals and causing starvation.


Plastics do not biodegrade, they breakdown into small pieces and remain in the ecosystem. These smaller pieces are known as microplastics and are cause for great concern.


Microplastics work their way through the food chain and have even been found in zooplankton – further consumed by crustaceans – consumed by fish – consumed by larger mammals, birds and humans.


NVT have now started a new research project which falls under the bigger marine debris project, looking specifically at microplastics. This project was developed after the large amount of microplastics the team were finding during marine debris surveys. From this project, NVT will be developing educational material to help raise awareness for this growing concern for our marine and coastal ecosystems.

What are ways that you can help with the plastic problem?

You can start with trying to implement the five R’s – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose and Recycle – in that order. Keep away from single-use plastics like straws; plastic bags; take-away coffee cups; etc. Rather keep reusable shopping bags in your car, parachute bags are easy to roll up and keep in your handbag, AND are made from old parachutes – BONUS! If you have to use a straw, keep a bamboo or stainless-steel straw in your bag and bring your own bamboo coffee cup with you to your local take-away coffee shop.



Lots of people think that they are just one person and how can one person make a difference? If everyone does their little bit to help, all those one’s add up into many and as many we can make a big difference to help the environment.

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