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Marine Debris in Virginia

image of marine debris on beachMarine 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

In October 2014, Virginia became the first state on the east coast to have a plan in place to address marine debris.  


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.

Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan (Download the full document: October 2014. 57 pages; 2 MB; PDF)
Appendices, October 2014. (53 pages; 2 MB; PDF)

Bay Journal article discussing the Plan

Virginia Marine Debris Plan Summary & Look Ahead (A summary outline of the Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan providing highlights of projects/accomplishments to date as well as next steps in implementing the plan. March 2016; 20 pages; 17+ MB; PDF)

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.

The Virginia CZM Program's Ocean Planning Initiative and Section 309 Ocean Resources Management Strategy addresses the growing problem of marine debris through funding to Clean Virginia Waterways at Longwood University to coordinate development and implementation of the plan. The plan guides 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 helps 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.  

Current Project: 

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 received a NOAA Marine Debris Program grant to pilot a new campaign to encourage the use of alternative ways to celebrate wedding sendoffs.  Visit the Joyful Sendoff campaign website at  

Virginia CZM is now collaborating with partners in the other four Mid-Atlantic states - Delaware, Maryland, New York and New Jersey - and the District of Columbia, on a region-wide balloon release reduction campaign.  Additional funds from the NOAA Marine Debris Program will make this happen.  More about this campaign will be shared as it is designed and implemented.    

Also read more about balloon litter at

2014 - 2018 Virginia Marine Debris Monitoring Report Available!

Bottle caps and balloons are the most frequently found litter items on Virginia’s beaches according to a new report by the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center and Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University.

For four years, aquarium researchers and trained volunteers, conducted monthly surveys of four beaches: Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge,  Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge and Grandview Nature Preserve.

On these relatively inaccessible beaches, over 15,000 debris items were found in the four small survey areas that ranged from 1/5 acre to .4 acres.

The study, funded by Virginia CZM through grants from NOAA, sought to understand the scope of the marine debris problem in coastal Virginia by identifying hotspots of debris accumulation and understanding the products and material types that are most frequently found on beaches.

Download and read the report to learn more about the most frequently found debris types at each location, potential sources and drivers of differences in debris loads between sites, and specific debris items of interest (e.g. smoking debris, straws, bottle caps, balloons). 

(Based on 20 years of data)

  1. Cigarette Filters
  2. Beverage Bottles (Plastic)
  3. Bags
  4. Cups, Plates, Forks, Knives, Spoons
  5. Food Wrappers/Containers
  6. Beverage Cans
  7. Caps & Lids
  8. Beverage Bottles (Glass)
  9. Straws, Stirrers
  10. Building  Materials
  11. Balloons
  12. Rope
  13. Clothing, Shoes
  14. Fishing Line
  15. Oil/Lube Bottles
  16. Tires
  17. Toys
  18. Fishing Buoys, Pots & Traps
  19. Cigarette Lighters
  20. Six-Pack Holders

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.


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

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