Conserve Wildlife Blog

Marine Debris

September 6th, 2012

Threatens NJ’s wildlife

by Ben Wurst, Habitat Program Manager

Trash collected from 112 osprey nests from as far north as Monmouth and south to Atlantic City, New Jersey. © Ben Wurst

Marine debris (specifically plastics) have become a  serious problem in coastal areas throughout the world, especially in the Pacific Ocean where gyres create large floating “garbage patches.” I work out on the back bays and salt marshes throughout the coastal region of New Jersey as I help to monitor and manage ospreys and their nesting platforms. Every time I’m out I encounter trash. Most of it accumulates along the wrack line on the higher portions of the marsh where storm surges, high winds, and during spring tides (during full and new moon phases) push it onto the marsh. This debris then makes its way into the nests of ospreys because this is where they collect most of their nesting material.

Currently there are around 500 nesting pairs of ospreys that nest throughout NJ. Around 80% of population (387 pairs in 2009) nest along the Atlantic Coast. While conducting surveys this summer, in late June and early July, I decided to collect debris from the nests I surveyed (112 nests) from Monmouth Beach south along the coast to Atlantic City. In previous years I only removed debris that could entangle and kill young or adults birds, including ribbon, string, and mono-filament. As you can see from the photo above the amount of debris is alarming.  We found all sorts of trash, most of it was plastic (bags, mylar balloons, ribbon, bottles) and a few other things like hats, a newspaper, a Croc, PVC pipe, and a crab trap. We built a box to showcase the trash. Come out and see it this weekend at the Beach Plum Festival at Island Beach State Park on September 9th.

Why do ospreys use trash as nesting material?

We don’t really know why but our best guess it that it is plentiful in the environment. One fact is that most ospreys collect nesting material from within view of their nest. Since debris and the natural nesting material (sticks, eelgrass, and grasses) tend to end up in the same higher portion of the marsh then they take and use it all. Another thing that might make some of the shiny plastics (plastic sheeting, bags, balloons, ribbon, rope, and other nick-nacks) more desirable to them is that some birds can see further into the UV spectrum of light so theses types of items might appear differently and be more attractive to them. We don’t yet know if trash plays any sort of role in their reproductive cycle. In a species of highly territorial Black kites in Spain, researchers found that birds that were more “fit” used more white plastic in their nests and that weaker birds in a less desirable nesting territory used less plastic. The researchers found that kites with a lot of plastic in their nests were rarely challenged, while ones with very little plastic “were challenged daily, even hourly” (

What we do know is that plastic and marine debris is a big problem and it can kill or harm many different forms of life. It is a global problem affecting everything from the environment to the economy; from fishing and navigation to human health and safety; from the tiniest coral polyps to giant blue whales. Marine debris also comes in many forms, from a cigarette butt to a 4,000-pound derelict fishing net.

Marine debris is a problem we can solve together.

Although marine debris is found worldwide, we can all help with the smallest actions to reduce the amount of debris found along our coastline. Reduce, reuse, recycle, and participate in local beach or stream cleanups. If we each do a little, together we can make a big difference.

Here are ways you can get involved:


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2 Responses to “Marine Debris”

  1. Bill Shadel says:

    We’ve recently begun using an app developed by Marine Defenders as a tool to inventory derelict boats and docks in Jamaica Bay. It was developed primarily to track oil spills but might be of use in your work:

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks Bill! I’ll have to check it out.