Marine Debris in Virginia: The Issue...

Marine debris is of local, regional, national, and global  concern. It has become one of the most widespread  pollution problems in the world’s oceans and waterways, impacting wildlife, human health and safety,  habitats, and economies.

As much as 80% of marine debris comes from  land-based sources such as plastic bags and food  containers. Abandoned or derelict fishing gear, vessels,  and other water-based sources also significantly  contribute to the problem.

In Virginia, the most problematic and abundant  types of debris are: fishing gear (commercial and  recreational); cigarette butts and balloons; food and  beverage containers; and plastic bags.

What is the Virginia CZM Program doing to address this issue? 

Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan Available!

VA Marine Debris Plan Summary Publication Front CoverIn December 2104, Virginia became the first state on the east coast to have a plan in place to address marine debris.

For years, Virginians have worked to decrease litter and marine debris through prevention efforts as well as removal of litter and debris.

Now, Virginia has a plan to better coordinate these efforts.  The Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan charts a course to reduce the amount of trash and marine debris from land-based and water-based sources in Virginia - for ecological, social and economic benefits - through:


The Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan was developed as part of the Virginia CZM Program's Ocean Planning Initiative and Section 309 Ocean Resources Management Strategy to address the growing problem of marine debris (through funding to Clean Virginia Waterways at Longwood University to coordinate development of the plan with a team of partners.) The plan will guide the work of a collaborative team of Virginia agencies, community groups, citizens, and other stakeholders for the next decade.  Having a plan in place also will help Virginia meet one of its goals as a member of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO). One of MARCO's water quality issues of concern is marine debris.    

Download the Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan (complete plan; PDF)

Download the Virginia Marine Debris Plan Summary & Look Ahead (publication shown above - a summary outline of Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan providing highlights of projects/accomplishments to date as well as next steps in implementing the plan; PDF)

Clean Virginia Waterways website

Near Term and Specific Steps of the Plan:

  • On-going Leadership and Coordination. Establish an ongoing Virginia marine debris advisory committee.
  • Balloon Reduction Campaign. Develop and implement a social marketing campaign targeting behaviors that will reduce balloon litter in the marine environment. (See below.)
  • Legislation and Policy. Analyze existing legislation and policies and provide recommendations to support land-based waste minimization of the most common items found as marine debris (e.g., single use plastic bags, food and beverage packaging, balloons, cigarette butts.).
  • Revenue. Identify existing and potential revenue streams to sustain statewide marine debris and litter prevention.

Goals beyond the near-term are described in general terms in the Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan, and will require further work to develop specific steps.

Current Project: Helium Balloon Debris Reduction

The Virginia CZM Program and Clean Virginia Waterways have begun a new social marketing campaign to reduce helium balloon releases and debris, with funding from the NOAA Office of Coastal Management and Marine Debris Program. Read more about this form of debris and this project... Released balloons drift out over the ocean and eventually fall to the water. The color quickly wears off and the balloons resemble jelly fish–a favorite food of sea turtles. Birds also are easily entangled in the balloons and their ribbons. As part of the Virginia Balloon Litter Study, researchers have conducted surveys on several barrier islands. The chart below shows the relationship of balloon litter to other litter items found on South Hog Island on July 17, 2014.

Chart showing balloon and other debris removed from ES barrier island in one day

How Do We Know We Are Making a Difference?

In 2013 the Virginia CZM Program received funds from NOAA to establish a monitoring program that will submit marine debris data to NOAA's national database. With these funds, the Virginia Aquarium and Clean Virginia Waterways are monitoring three sites: Chincoteague NWR, Fisherman Island NWR, Back Bay NWR and Grandview Nature Preserve. This effort will help us understand the types and amounts of marine debris, accumulation rates and the effectiveness of prevention policies and programs as they are put in place.  See the Virginia CZM Program grant webpage for more detail.

Virginia CZM Program Marine Debris Reduction Grant Projects

(For project details, click on the links in the table below.)

Project Title Grantee  Grant Year & Task Funding 

Virginia Marine Debris Summit

Virginia DEQ – Virginia CZM Program
(partnering with Virginia Sea Grant and Virginia Aquarium  
FY 11 Task 95.02 $6,000

Marine Debris Reduction Plan for Virginia

Longwood University – Clean Virginia Waterways FY 11 Task 95.03 $52,020
Virginia Ocean Plan
(project deliverables included staff support for development of Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan)
Virginia DEQ – Virginia CZM Program FY 12 Task 95 $98,000
Monitoring Marine Debris in Virginia's Coastal Zone Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation FY 13 Task 81   $45,000

Virginia Ocean Plan
(project deliverables included staff support for development of Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan)

Virginia CZM Program, Virginia Commonwealth University FY 13 Task 95.01 $81,884
Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan Refinement and Implementation of Balloon Reduction Social Marketing Campaign Longwood University – Clean Virginia Waterways FY 14 Task 95.03 $65,000
Other Funding Sources      
A Rising Concern: Reducing Balloon Release and Debris through a Social Marketing Campaign Virginia DEQ - Virginia CZM Program (partnering with Longwood University – Clean Virginia Waterways) NOAA MDP FY 14 $50,000

Top 10 Items reported by volunteers statewide during the 2013 Virginia Waterways Cleanup

 1. Cigarette Butts
 2. Beverage Bottles (Plastic)  
 3. Food Wrappers (candy, chips etc.)
 4. Beverage Cans (metal)
 5. Grocery Bags (plastic)
 6. Beverage Bottles (glass)
 7. Bottle Caps (plastic)
 8. Other Plastic Bags
 9. Straws, Stirrers (plastic)
 10. Cups and Plates (foamed plastic)

Virginia CZM Program logo

Joyful Sendoff Campaign Logo

Released balloons are a common and deadly source of marine debris.  To reduce the practice of balloon release at celebratory events, the Virginia CZM Program has launched a new campaign to encourage the use of alternative ways to celebrate wedding sendoffs.  Visit the Joyful Sendoff campaign website at

2nd Virginia Marine Debris Summit Proceedings and Presentations Available!

Virginia Marine Debris Summit logo

Visit the Summit webpage to download the Summit Summary Report and view the presentations

Impacts of Virginia Marine Debris

Turtle skeleton with balloon ribbon protruding from mouth

Helium released balloons contribute significantly to the problem of marine debris in our waterways. Marine animals also consume plastic bags, balloons, and other types of marine debris when they mistake it for a food source or ingest it accidentally during normal feeding habits (NOAA). Ingesting debris items can cause throat or digestive track obstruction and damage to the gut, resulting in malnutrition or death. The photo above shows the skeleton of a Kemp's Ridley sea turtle, a critically endangered species, that was found on Fisherman Island, Virginia with the string of a balloon protruding from the mouth. A latex balloon attached to the ribbon was found in the turtle’s esophagus. The Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Team found a second balloon in the lower GI tract. (Photo: US FWS Northeast Region)    

Improperly discarded cigarette butts are consistently on the top ten debris items found in Virginia during annual clean-up events. Cigarette butts contain cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that persists in the environment. 

sea turtle strangled by fishing line marine debris - photo courtesy of Ocean Conservancy

Lost, abandoned, or discarded fishing gear can damage sensitive habitat, capture or entangle both target and non-target animals, and pose human navigation safety hazards. 

plastic and other marine debris

Food and beverage containers constitute a significant portion of the plastic found in the ocean and coastal waters. Plastic in bottles, caps, cups and carry-out containers may degrade into smaller pieces of plastic, but continue to be detrimental to marine life. 

plastic bag marine debris

Plastic bags rank near the top of the lists of marine debris collected in the U.S. and worldwide. Plastic bags are also one of the most common forms of debris linked to marine animal serious injuries and mortalities. Sea turtles mistake the bags for jellyfish. Their abundance, propensity for dispersion in the environment and adverse animal interactions make plastic bag debris a serious problem.


Virginia Marine Debris Articles and Publications

Marine Debris & Microplastics: Sources & Solutions for Coastal Virginia in Rivers & Coast (a newsletter of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

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Virginia Department of
Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 1105
Richmond, VA 23218
(804) 698-4000

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