HOW DOES MARINE DEBRIS IMPACT HUMANS, WILDLIFE AND ECOSYSTEMS? Lessons in this section demonstrate that wildlife can ingest or become entangled in marine debris, and that invasive species riding on debris can change ecosystems.

MARINE DEBRIS Impacts: Materials for Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: You Are What You Eat: Plastics and Marine Life
from PBS Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures

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?

When plastics break down, they become smaller microplastics, and even smaller nanoplastics.

Lesson 2: Albatross Bolus Dissection
from Winged Ambassadors, Lesson 4

What types of marine debris are most often ingested by seabirds and why? Students use photographs of regurgitated albatross boluses to perform a “virtual dissection” and analysis, comparing the amounts of prey and non-prey items found in several boluses. They then use what they have learned to create a model of a bolus, with which they can educate others.

Reflection / Extension:
What are the most common types of marine debris found in albatross boluses? What is it about those items that lead to the ingestion by sea birds?


Lesson 3: International Pellet Watch
from International Pellet Watch

What is the link between small plastic pellets and marine pollutants? Plastic pellets (also called “nurdles”) are small pre-production pieces that are shipped around the world to factories that melt them to produce a variety of products.  Pellets are often lost during transit, and because they float can be found throughout the ocean and on beaches everywhere. Not only do these pellets contain chemicals that could harm wildlife if ingested, they also attract and accumulate additional toxins from the water bodies in which they float.  Explore the International Pellet Watch website to see data of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) from pellets that have been collected from beaches around the world. Students can collect pellets from a local ocean beach and send them to IPW for analysis and inclusion in the research project.

Reflection / Extensions:
Where are the pellets with the highest levels of toxins found? What factors might account for the high levels of toxins found in pellets from these areas?  Predict what levels of toxins you would expect to see in the pellets you collected. On what information is your hypothesis based?


Lesson 4: Tsunami Debris Species Risk
from Tsunami Debris BioBlitz, Oregon Sea Grant

What impacts can tsunami generated marine debris have on ecosystems? Students use scientific models as a tool to evaluate the many kinds of risk tsunami marine debris poses. They then explore the risk posed by live organisms that have colonized tsunami marine debris.

Does tsunami generated marine debris pose a greater risk of spreading invasive species than regular marine debris? Why or why not?


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 ecosystems?
  • How does marine debris impact wildlife?
  • How does marine debris affect humans?
  • Wildlife can become entangled by marine debris
  • Wildlife can be negatively impacted by ingesting marine debris
  • Marine debris can contribute to the spread of invasive species
  • LS2.C - Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning and Resilience - If a biological or physical disturbance to an ecosystem occurs, including one induced by human activity, the ecosystem may return to its more or less original state or become a very different ecosystem, depending on the complex set of interactions within the ecosystem
  • ESS3.C - Human Impacts on Earth Systems - Sustainability of human societies and the biodiversity that supports them requires responsible management of natural resources, including the development of technologies