Lessons in this section demonstrate that wildlife can ingest or become entangled in marine debris.

MARINE DEBRIS Impacts: Materials for Grades 4-5

Lesson 1a:  Seabirds: Getting Out of a Bind and The Early Bird Gets the Plastic
from Oregon Institute of Marine Biology GK-12

Lesson 1b:  Sea Lions: How Much Can an Entangled Sea Lion Eat?
from The Marine Mammal Center

How does marine debris affect the health of ocean wildlife? Students use a model to make observations about how an animal entangled in marine debris might be affected. Then they play a game that demonstrates how plastics in the ocean can be ingested by animals.

Describe some characteristics of marine debris (material, density, shape, color, etc) that could lead to entanglement.  Identify characteristics that could lead to ingestion.  Can animals easily avoid entanglement or ingestion?

Lesson 2: Plastics in the Water Column
from Monterey Bay Aquarium

How does an animal's feeding behavior make it vulnerable to marine debris? Students relate the location of plastics in the water column to the feeding behavior of various marine organisms. They discuss how marine debris can cause problems for different animals inhabiting a variety of ocean depths.

Review debris collected on campus or at the beach. Based on what you have learned, which items are most likely to cause harm to sea birds? Marine mammals? Filter feeding organisms? Which items would be most likely to affect organisms that live on the bottom of the ocean?

Lesson 3: Lethal Loops
from Oregon Sea Grant

How are sea lions affected by loop-shaped marine debris? Students focus on one characteristic of some marine debris – the “loop” shape – and learn how marine debris items with this shape negatively impact sea lions.

Describe/design an alternative to a plastic loop that could end up as marine debris. Create a PSA encouraging others to “Lose the Loop”.


Lesson 4:  The Probability of Human Impact
from NOAA Office of Marine Sanctuaries

How can we calculate the probability that marine debris will end up in food chains? Students will explore the mathematical concept of probability in the context of marine debris in the ocean. Using a spinner with items an animal could potentially ingest, students calculate the probability that the animal will encounter marine debris instead of food. By altering the spinner, they can see impacts that increased or decreased amounts of marine debris in the system could have on marine animals.

Does the probability of ingesting marine debris increase as the amount of debris increases? Why or why not?  Brainstorm ways humans can reduce marine debris in the ocean, and use mathematical concepts to demonstrate how such a change could positively impact marine wildlife.

More about this focus area

Marine debris impacts wildlife and ecosystems worldwide. From entanglement of and ingestion by wildlife, to economic costs associated with cleanup and loss of tourism dollars, marine debris doesn’t just affect ocean animals or those who live at the beach, but indirectly affects us all.  These background materials may be used to introduce the topic of marine debris impacts.

  • How does marine debris impact wildlife?
  • How does marine debris impact ecosystems?
  • How does marine debris affect humans?
  • Wildlife can become entangled by marine debris
  • Wildlife can be negatively impacted by ingesting marine debris
  • Humans actions that address the problem of marine debris can help reduce negative impacts on wildlife
  • LS2.C - Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning and Resilience - When the environment changes, some organisms survive and reproduce, some move to new locations, some move into the transformed environment, and some die.
  • LS4.D - Biodiversity and Humans - Populations of organisms live in a variety of habitats. Change in those habitats affects the organisms living there.
  • ESS3.C - Human Impacts on Earth Systems - Societal activities have had major effects on the land, ocean, atmosphere, and even outer space.  Societal activities can also help protect Earth’s resources and environments.