Marine Trash:
A Coastal Threat to Southern California
Amy Bird
"The very survival of the human species depends upon the maintenance of an ocean clean and alive, spreading around the world. The ocean is our planets life belt"
-Jacques Cousteau

The marine trash present within the Southern California Bight (SCB) comes from different sources within the area. The major contributors are fisheries, beach goers, and non-point polluters. High population growth, puts high demands and development on ocean resources in order to support the increasing population making the pollution problem worse. At present time, little legislation exists to eliminate the garbage deposited into the ocean because of the difficulty to monitor such occurrences. We went to four local beaches and counted five hundred and eleven pieces of marine trash. Forty percent of the trash was of organic composition such as wood debris the other sixty was an assortment of plastic articles. The highest concentration of trash is located in Newport Beach with a total of 211 pieces counted. Consumption of marine litter can have negative side effects on marine organisms which causes starvation and eventual death of the animal. I conclude by offering some opportunities and recommendations on how a change in our behavior and the manner in which we live will help to eliminate the amount of pollution entering our local waters.

Key Words: Southern California Bight (SCB), marine trash, over-population, effects on marine organisms, and sustainability.


Population in the Southern California coastal region has increased since 1920 when the warm air and dry climate gave prospect to a better place to live and fertile soil to improve agriculture profits. However, with a growth in population there is an intense demand on ocean resources to feed the people and offer an income to families. From 1950 to 1980 the population in Los Angeles increased from four million to close to 12 million. Similar growth also occurred in San Diego and Santa Barbara. It was estimated that by 1980 southern California would have seventy five percent of the population living within the coastal region (UC San Diego 1965). The dense population in this area is putting major stresses on the Southern California Bight (SCB) by endangering natural habitat and the health of humans.

Figure #1 (Excite, 1998)

A major problem occurring in the SCB is marine debris. Items such as plastic bottles, fishing nets, beverage cans and egg cartons have frequently been found at beaches within the SCB. The source of the trash can be placed on either people aboard water vessels, land based facilities (drainage runoff, auto body shops, beach goers) and off shore oil operations. The effects of the garbage are felt throughout the ecosystem. The effects can be very profound because coastal wetlands and bays are probably the world’s most endangered habitats and are vulnerable to human disturbance and habitat destruction (Dayton, 1995). Humans, animals, and plants are all at risk to the effects of the debris.

The objective of this paper is to address the problems occurring at the coasts and to find solutions. It is crucial that a sustainable coastal region is created within the SCB in order to maintain all elements of life. According to Goodland and Daly (1996), sustainable development is defined as," development without growth in throughput of matter and energy beyond regenerative and absorptive capacities". If pollution continues to close down our beaches and kill the animals that live here, then we as people will be unable to reap the benefits and pleasures of the ocean. A balance between people and the oceans must be attained in order to secure all life in the SCB.

Social Aspects

It is important to look at the social elements of marine trash in order to see the important impact humans have on the environment and recognize that their relationship is tightly intertwined. The social elements connected to marine trash and its effect on the environment is best described by Robert Goodland and Herman Daly as social capital. Social capital can be defined as:

[s]ocial cohesion, cultural identity, diversity, sodality, comity, sense or community, tolerance, humility, compassion, patience, forbearance, fellowship, fraternity, institutions, love, pluralism, commonly accepted standards of honesty, laws, discipline etc. (Goodland 1003).

The role of social capital is very important when seeking a balance between human actions and the consequences on the environment because it consists of the different categories present in society. The health of the ocean water is directly related to the behavior of people. The effects of marine debris are inflicted on both the natural and social world. Examples of these effects are:

-degradation of surface waters and beach areas
-physical injuries to humans and life threatening interference with their activities
-ecological damage due to the presence of plastics and other debris
-alterations to natural ecosystems
-entanglement of birds, fish and mammals
-ingestion of plastics by marine animals (Clean ships, Clean ports, Clean oceans, 1995)

It is important to recognize the importance of the human population in connection with the environment. Goodland and Daily believe that by 2015 the worlds population will level off at 11.6x10 (1005). Currently, we are unable to supply enough food to a fifth of the population living through out the world; in both more developed countries (mdc) and lesser-developed countries (ldc). Population growth is also occurring here in Southern California is causing a huge demand on the resources of the local areas including the ocean. The reasons of growth are due to natural components and migration. The natural components involved with the population increase are important due to the direct relationship to the social institutions that have an influence on the health and values of the public. Migration is harder to determine as a reason for the influx, but the main reasons seem to be the wealth of the economy and good weather conditions. People love the warm climate of Southern California as well as the economic prospects within the area.

Within society there are different groups or fields that people take part in, they are labeled scientific, economic, and political ( UC San Diego, 1965). Each group has a unique opinion on the relationship humans have with the environment and play significant roles on how problems facing the environment should and will be solved. This is can be seen when looking for a solution of marine trash. The Scientific level consists of researchers, universities, environmental groups etc. Their initial objective is to locate information and facts concerning the health of the environment. Through the growth of technology and the accelerating scientific research more will be discovered in the coming age as to better the situation. It is the scientific community who is trying to find a sustainable relationship between humans and the environment by looking at the consequences of our actions.

The political level has a deep-rooted responsibility to implement laws and regulations to help maintain the integrity of the natural environment. However, the United States is a capitalist nation whose main focus is to make a profit. A major debate within the political arena is how to find a suitable ground where both the environment and the economy will thrive. The economist shares the concern for the environment, but places a larger focus on making a buck.

What can be done to safeguard protected areas from marine trash?

There are a lot of different factors in the behavior of garbage such as the proximity to the shore of discharge, winds and currents, water column stratification, and water production. Even if an area is labeled a zero-discharge zone, the rules do not protect the area completely, because marine debris can be transported over long distances ( National Research Council, 1995). The fact that garbage doesn’t follow the boundaries of a city, state or country, it is extremely important that the source of the trash is well informed of the laws and the consequences of pollution in an effort to stop the disposal into the ocean. For politicians finding a solution could be very difficult. The politician is placed in the middle of the debate between the economist and scientist due to their contrasting opinions. The scientist pushes the evidence of research, whereas the economist pushes for laws that can benefit a fisher. It is very difficult for a politician to stay neutral and act accordingly so that both groups are satisfied. However, if all three work together and try to establish a program, at a comprise, which will benefit everyone, things will improve. Programs such as recycling centers near the boat docks and popular beach hang out or increase the education of the effects pollution have on the animals and the people swimming in the waters will help eliminate the problem.

Technical Aspects

The contaminants in the SCB can be divided into two categories; point and non-point pollution. Point pollution is pollution that originates from a known source (i.e., shipborne garbage). Non point pollution is pollution whose source is unknown (i.e., agriculture). The major contributors of marine trash in the SCB are marine vessels, river runoff, offshore industry rigs and oil spills.

Point Source Pollution Sources

The international maritime community has taken steps to restrict garbage discharge from vessels to prevent environmental harm. Restrictions were laid out by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (1973) and its 1978 Protocol, together they are known as MARPOL73/78. MARPOL Annex V bans all overboard disposal of plastics and sets limits on other forms depending on the vessel’s location and distance from shore (National Research Council, 1995). The Committee on Shipborne Wastes is also analyzing the problem of marine debris because of the difficulty in separating the two. Annex V has placed restrictions on nine fleets, which are "recreational boats; commercial fishing vessels; cargo ships; passenger day boats and ferries; small public vessels (Coast Guard and naval auxiliaries); offshore oil platforms, rigs, and supply vessels; U.S. Navy surface combatant vessels; passenger cruise ships; and research vessels"(National Research Council, 1995). The sources of garbage regulated by Annex V are " all ships, where a ship is defined as ‘ …a vessel of any type whatsoever operating in the marine environment" (National Research Council, 1995). However, the true source of this garbage is from the people aboard these vessels due to the normal activities of their lives.

The only "all-inclusive" estimates of amount of garbage generated by U.S. maritime sectors were developed by the Eastern Research Group (1988) and later revised (Cantin et al., 1990). These estimates identified that recreational boaters generated the largest amounts of garbage, by weight, averaging more than 50 percent of the total and that day boats and fishing vessels each contributor close to 20 percent (National Research Council, 1995). One of the major difficulties with shipborne garbage is identifying its source. Vessel discards are difficult to isolate and identify in the marine environment; due to the littering of coastal waters by land generated wastes left on beaches. However, there is at least one way in which the source debris can be identified which is by "selecting particular types of sampling sites and then monitoring certain types of debris appearing there" (National Research Council, 1995). A good particle used to identify is plastic, because samples in the sand or water indicate the source. NRC, later have found that plastic can float for long distances which will disrupt the numbers of the plastics discarded in the local waters.

Research groups can determine the source of marine debris by looking at indicator items. For example, items like beverage cans or fast food containers indicate either beach goers or fishing and recreational boaters are dumping their trash in or near that location. Items such as 55-gallon drums or pipe-thread protectors are from offshore oil and gas operators (National Research Council, 1995). Items left behind from drift net fisheries in the north Pacific is estimated to be 20 % of the net entering the water per year (Dayton, 1995). A Japanese survey reported "217 ghost fishing nets on the surface along a 220 000nm track below the surface of the ocean, the direct source of this garbage comes from fishery vessels (Dayton, 1995).

Offshore Industry Rigs, Platforms, and Supply Vessels are generally owned and operated by different people. They are operated by contractual arrangements involving leaseholders, drilling contractors, and the offshore vessel operators (National Research Council, 1995). Contractual arrangements are significant because they cause major problems in regulations and maintaince of them. Different sectors follow an array of laws with differing standards and policies. Overboard loss of equipment and materials due to less-than-exemplary handling and management remains a major issue in this sector (National Research Council, 1995). A lot of pollution problems have surfaced in some of the beach communities in Mexico from the petroleum containers dumped off the oil rigs.

Non Point Pollution

The leading nonpoint source of water pollution is agriculture. However, the runoff from crops could be sharply reduced if the farmers reduced their use of fertilizer or placed the vegetation so that nitrogen absorbing plants are between the crops to suck up the nitrogen (Miller, 1997). Problems also stem from nonfarm use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides for the use on golf courses, lawns, and public lands. Using organic methods can alter these methods and consequences. As for livestock farmers, the problems arise with growing large numbers of animals in feedlots and barnyards located on land with a steep slope toward surface water. The pollution effects on the environment due to sewage and fertilizers containing Nitrogen are:

-Increased primary production in phytoplankton and benthic algae distorts competitive and predatory/prey interactions in biological communities areas
-Reduced light penetration through absorption
-Increased sedimentation of detritus from plankton communities
-Increased nutrient levels in benthos from sedimentary material (Kenchington,1990). The effects of agriculture have a huge impact on the environment unfortunately it is a source which is difficult to track and regulate due to run off and farmers wanting to make a profit at a low finical cost.

Urban runoff and storm sewers are the leading source of pollution in California’s coastal waters, followed by municipal sewage treatment plants (EPA, 1994). The oceans are degraded by this runoff which is created by construction and land development. Metals, pesticides, trace elements, and unknown toxic contaminants are the most frequently identified pollutants in estuaries, harbors, and bays (EPA, 1994). Large quantities of pesticides run off cropland and urban lawns; and industries discharge large amounts of toxic wastes, which are often in violation of the discharge permits. The chemicals enter the environment without a source, which creates a difficult situation for the regulators to maintain the area because there is no one to hold accountable.

Field Research

In order to get a better idea of what marine trash is and how it effects our local beaches, we decided to do an experiment. We went from Seal Beach to South Carlsbad stopping at Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach. With a transact measuring one meter square we randomly tossed it five times at each beach at different times within the day. Items such as cigarette butts, wood debris, and plastic byproducts were found at all the beaches. By far, the worst of them all is Newport Beach where a total of 59 pieces of plastic was counted within the five tosses. In comparison, Seal Beach had 34 pieces of plastic in the same number of tosses and South Carlsbad had 25 pieces. The conclusion for the differing numbers is related to population density within the proximity of the beach and the intensity of beach use. Another item with a large percentage in the transacts was wood debris ranging from twenty to forty percent of all the garbage within the square meter. Sorting through the garbage was a real eye opener by illustrating the severe misuse of the oceans.
Marine Trash
Beach- total # collected: 178 items 


number of plastic pieces percentage of wood debris
Seal Beach
Beach- total # collected: 63 items number of plastic pieces percentage of wood debris
Huntington Beach
Beach- total # collected: 211 items number of plastic pieces percentage of wood debris
Newport Beach
Beach- total # collected: 66 items number of plastic pieces percentage of wood debris
South Carlsbad
Effects on Animals

Little scientific information is known as to the effects of debris on the marine invertebrates, plant life or marine habitats in general (National Research Council, 1995). A major concern for biologists is the lack of information regarding trash in the ocean and how to assess the damage and when to implement precautionary measures. Plastic particles are a great concern due to the fact that they can range in size and they occur in huge numbers in the sea (Clark, 1986). The small pellets of polyethylene, polypropylene, and sometimes polystyrene, 3-4 mm in diameter are too small to cause a nuisance at the beaches; however, it is uncertain as to the harmful effects to animals who may ingest the pieces (Clark, 1986). For many animals the floating plastic fragments look to be authentic food and many seabirds mistake the pieces, "Plastics covered with fish eggs or encrusting organisms such as barnacles, algae, and bryozoa may even smell or taste like authentic food" (National Research Council, 1995).

Even though birds naturally digest and regurgitate hard, nonfood items such as fish bones it is believed that the ingestion of plastics may cause "intestinal blockage or a false feeling of satiation or may reduce absorption of nutrients, thus robbing the animal of needed nutrients" (National Research Council, 1995). Other analysis on marine animals such as sperm whales reveals that plastic drinking cups and children’s toys as well as large pieces of fishing net have been found within their stomachs. The trash consumed by sperm whales, or any mammals, could eventually lead to starvation because the animal’s stomach is filled with items that can not be digested. The need for concern centers on the fact that very little evidence has been collected regarding the consumption of plastics and other trash.

Another issue involving marine debris is the entanglement of marine animals and thus causing a dying off of a lot of animals. Marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds, fish have been entangled in the loops and openings of fishing nets, strapping bands, and other plastic items (National Research Council, 1995). The population of the Northern fur seal has had a major impact on their numbers as individuals and as a population. The reasons are that due to their behavioral characteristics they are more prone to getting caught (National Research Council, 1995). Another example of net entanglements is of the North Atlantic right whale, "more than 50% of these rare whales are estimated to bear marks and scares indicating that they have encountered fishing gear (Dayton, 1995). Other examples of threatened animals due to drift nets include humpback, fin and minke whales and Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals (Dayton, 1995).

Human Health Problems

The effect of marine debris is also a hazard for humans. The potential harm from those at the beach goes beyond injury due to a shard piece of glass or metal or another type of sharp objects. Such debris containing hazardous waste has a great ability of doing physical harm to users of the ocean. Examples of debris have been bottles of acids washing up on the beaches (National Research Council, 1995). The debris has also been known to disable divers and vessels. Divers sometimes become entangled in pieces of monofilament fishing line that have snagged on reefs or other underwater structures (National Research Council, 1995). Boat collision have occurred due to the floating trash, while smaller items have been reported to wrap around propellers or clog cooling water intakes, causing engine failure.

Problems and Opportunities

Restrictions to attaining a sustainable coastal area in the Southern California Bight (SCB) arise from technical, economic, and social problems. Environmental Sustainability (ES) refers to natural capital, and Goodland and Daly (1995) define natural capital as " our natural environment, and is defined as the stock of environmentally provided assets (such as soil and its microbes and fauna (Pimentel et al. 1992), atmosphere, forests, water, wetlands) that provides a flow of useful goods or services". In order to develop a sustainable relationship with the environment then we must learn not to deplete the assets of the natural capital. Sustainable development includes methods of conservation and management of natural resources.

Technical Problems

There are several problems inhibiting sustainable development in Southern California. Non point pollution and point pollution are the leading contributors. Other constrictions are related to the lack of legislation and regulation. According to the Clean Water Act of 1972 pollutants enter the water by two avenues:

1.point sources- sources with an identifiable, concentrated discharge point, including large industrial sources and sewage treatment plants

2.polluted runoff- runoff after storms or irrigation containing pesticides, fertilizers, oil and gas, and other types from farms, ranches…etc. (NWF,1997)

The non-point pollution problem is that a source is not known. Therefore implementing laws is not enough since it’s difficult for state and government agencies to stop the pollution.

The problems arising from point pollution is readily dealt with through the Clean Water Act, by establishing a federal/state partnership to control the discharge of pollutants from large point sources. While many large industrial and municipal polluters have dramatically reduced their pollution, 40% of U.S. waters still do not meet basic water quality standards (EPA, 1994). When the act was reauthorize in 1987, the main objective was that all waters be safe for fishing and swimming. Initially they focused attention on the large contributors of pollution, the industrial and municipal polluters, into the Nations watershed. Major improvements were seen; however, it is necessary that the entire watershed is analyzed, and all sources of pollution are considered.


The economic restrictions to attaining a sustainable SCB results from the growing demands and needs of the population. The marine resources within the state are an integral part of state, national, and world economies (UC San Diego, 1965). The resources of the ocean also carry qualities that can not be labeled as an "economic good" due to the value a person may place on the ocean, consequently categorizing it as an intangible item. Attempts to put dollar tags on intangibles should be examined very carefully before they are accepted. The important element in sustainability is that the excess pollution and degradation of the ocean must considered in costs (UC San Diego, 1996). Currently, excess amount of pollution enters the watershed cost free when done unnoticed. Therefore it is crucial that the users of the oceans realize the damage through cost of damage analysis.


The biggest social problem is the increase population at an exponential growth within the coastal regions of the state. Currently the U.S. population is at 263 million and is estimated to increase within the next 35 years to 345 million people (Miller, 1997). Since 1980, 80% of the U. S. population have moved to the coastal areas of the country (Miller, 1997). In general many problems occur to residents living in big cities, such as rising poverty, unemployment, crime, drug trafficking, and the homeless (Miller, 1997). The people within the mega cities along the coast, must tend to the human needs before they can focus on the environmental degradation happening as a result of the growing population.


Most of the economic and social problems are directly related to the conditions set up by the governmental laws and regulations. Politicians are in a peculiar place within society because they must come up with policies which will decrease pollution without having severe economic consequences. Many times when a law is passed, but the problem exists of maintaining it and making it work out in the environment. Many elements exist when trying to get a policy to work, like research, gathering information, and producing literature with recommendations that will work for these areas. It is hard for policy makers to get action from scientists and local government agencies. The battle of enforcing a law many times becomes more difficult than the original execution of passing it.


The problems facing the beach communities can not be easily treated. Social and economic elements contribute a significant amount of pollution, which aids in the degradation of the ecosystem. In order to produce legislation or conservation plans that work, all issues concerning the problem must be addressed. Technical problems can be handled through more guidelines, laws, and information through research on the problem. The social element can be combated through education as well as individual conservation. The economic demand can be handled through fines, subsidies, regulations and other incentives that would increase the value of the coastal community due to the high price of destruction.

The most significant resource this area has is the people who live here. Through education and implementation of laws a steady improvement will occur. However, in order to change the rate of degradation people in the beach community need to make sacrifices within their life, such as the types of foods they eat to the standard of living we demand. Change will happen, but it will take time.


The topic of conservation is one in which people become interested in when an ecosystem is falling apart and needs a lot of help. The problem with the mentality of "don’t fix it until it’s broken" does not benefit the environment on a long-term range. Conservation can be a great tool in saving the beach ecosystems from collapsing by involving the people who use the waters and who do not want to see it die. Through education and a desire to help, improvement can be made. A big problem surrounding the pollution is the lack of knowledge people have and the inefficient information given to people through television or newspapers. Programs like an organized beach clean up has the ability to involve people in making the beaches better, and it educates them of the problem. Such grassroots efforts can lead into international proportions. For example, the annual Center for Marine Conservation beach cleanup has now received the support of NOAA, EPA and the Navy and bringing hundreds of thousands of volunteers to the beaches on a regular basis (National Research Council, 1995).

Individual Conservation

The residents of beach communities or the surrounding region need to initiate grassroots activities within their local areas in order to help out the oceans. The activities need to go beyond the beach clean ups and move in to the direction of changing our daily lives. We as people need to become aware of the problem facing the environment due to our life style. For example, trying to cut down on products packaged in plastic or eating less fish. Through small steps at the local level. Change can occur resulting in cleaner oceans and beaches and consequently healthier animals living within the waters. The important thing to remember is that all aspects of society contribute to the pollution and devastation at the beaches and that we must attempt to stop a tragedy of the commons from happening within the SCB.

Education and Community Management

Many environmentalists are calling for a "earth-wisdom revolution", which is a new cultural change in the way we think about the environment and its resources (Miller, 1997). Learning how to work with the earth requires a foundation of earth education that relies on the interdisciplinary approach to learning and a lifelong commitment to such and education. Some of the most important goals for an education are developing respect or reverence for all life, become a wisdom seeker instead of an information vessel, and understanding as much as we can about the connections and interactions ( Miller, 1997).

The development of marine environment management plans is from a similar mind frame of the "earth-wisdom revolution". The underlying priority of management of marine environments is to achieve awareness and acceptance by communities and governments. Approaches to management of marine environments are evolving rapidly with the growing awareness of the sensitivity of marine environments and of their actual and potential value in terms of culture, heritage, recreation, research, tourism, and mariculture (Kenchington, 1990). Marine resource and environmental management is a field of study and practice for a wide range of professional disciplines, such as national park and reserve management, fisheries, recreation, and tourism. With a growth in awareness through education and management programs, a sustainable coastal region has a better opportunity to be formed.


Educating the public about marine trash can happen for all age groups and ethnicity’s. A particle class of people or those within in a certain age group does not cause pollution; it is a problem caused by all. The easiest form of education is within institutions of learning, schools and universities. Many schools are specialized in biological sciences including marine biology; two examples within LAUSD are San Pedro Marine Biology magnet and the North Hollywood Zoo magnet. Both programs have special classes in general topics within the sciences. Educating adults becomes harder, however through the television media and the newspaper campaigns to clean the oceans through local participation would help to teach the people of the problems.


-develop a coastal zone management program which will help to promote sustainable growth within the SCB

-create local programs for the residents to become involved with clean up and maintenance of area

-educate the world about the destruction of the coastal zone due to pollution

-implement laws that reinforce a lower input of marine trash in to the oceans

-develop more scientific evidence of the pollution and the problems facing the environment

Literature Cited

Clark, R.B. 1986. Marine Pollution. Clarendon Press, Oxford

Dayton, Paul K., Simon F. Thrush, M. Tundi Agardy, Robert J. Hofman. 1995. Environmental effects of Marine fishing. John Wiley & Sons: 205-232.

EPA. National Water Quality Report. 1994. Web Site. Http://

Excite. Maps. 1998. Web Site. Http://

Goodland, Robert, and Herman Daly. 1996. Environmental Sustainability: Universal and Non-negotiable. Ecological Applications 6: 1002-1017.

Kenchington, Richard A. 1990. Managing Marine Environment. Taylor and Francis. New York.

Miller, G. Tyler. 1997. Environmental Science. Wadsworth Publishing Co. California.

National Research Council. 1995. Clean ships, Clean Ports, Clean oceans. National Academy press, Washington D.C.

National Wildlife Federation. Background Information on the Clean Water Act. 1997. Web Site. Http://

University of California San Diego. 1965. California and use of the Ocean. University of California Institute of Marine Resources, San Diego.