A crew of three removing lumber and a boat from the marsh grass
A debris removal crew uses a boat to remove lumber from the water
An old boat on the banks of the marsh filled with debris which was also removed from the area.

Large-Scale Debris Cleanup

In the wake of several devastating hurricanes, including Hurricane Florence in 2018, stakeholders developing the Marine Debris Action Plan for North Carolina began focusing on the significant number of abandoned and derelict vessels (ADVs) and large-scale marine debris deposited by the storms in our estuaries, islands, and wetlands. The debris, made up of materials from docks, piers, houses, and other coastal structures included pressure-treated and creosote lumber, plastic and polystyrene floats, building materials, household trash, and lost fishing gear. The need for large-scale, coordinated cleanups became very apparent, launching the first clean-up project in 2019.

Graph showing running totals of marine debris collected through the large scale cleanups. (For reference, a typical household toilet weighs an average of 100 lbs. Which means that an equivalent of around 35,000 toilets have been removed from our estuaries!)

Current Projects

Marine Debris Removal in the Central and Southeast Regions

In 2020, the Coastal Federation partnered with the Division of Coastal Management (DCM) to continue the large-scale hurricane marine debris cleanup from Carteret to Brunswick County. The U.S.D.A and the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Emergency Watershed Program provided nearly $1.9 million in funding that was matched by about $500,000 from state appropriations to the Division to clean up marine debris from Hurricane Florence.

This funding also addressed abandoned and derelict vessels that were littering the coast. The project focused on cleaning up debris from the public trust waters, lands, and dredge spoil islands in and around the Rachel Carson Reserve, Hammocks Beach State Park, Permuda Island, and Masonboro Island Reserves, their respective counties, and Brunswick County.

Since field crews began removing debris in the central and southern region in July 2020, a total of 656.23 tons (1,312,460 pounds) of debris has been removed so far (4/20/2023) under this project. That weight is equivalent to more than 4 blue whales!

Additionally, the Federation received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation of $1.3 million in 2020 to clean up marine debris and abandoned and derelict vessels from Hurricane Michael and Florence along the southern and central coasts. A total of 319.47 tons of debris has been removed (4/20/2023). 

In 2022, The Coastal Federation received $500,000 from the N.C. General Assembly to remove marine debris from the coast of North Carolina. This funding supported the Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project in 2022, general hurricane marine debris removal efforts as well as abandoned and derelict vessel removals. A total of 130.77 tons have been removed thus far (4/20/2023)

Image of a Blue Whale from NOAA for Marine Debris Comparrison
Photo Credit: NOAA

More than 30 commercial fishermen and women, working in crews of 3-4 people with small skiffs have been scouring the coast for lumber, floats, polystyrene, piling, and other debris from waterfront structures. The debris is collected by hand and loaded into dumpsters for disposal. Each crew picks up an average of 2,000 pounds (1 ton) of debris each day. Household debris and consumer trash only make up about 10-15% of the debris that is being found.

Donovan Smith, supervisor for the central region crew shared, “I couldn’t believe how much debris is out here. It would be great if we could clean up all down the coastline. I’m a commercial fisherman on the side, so it’s important to me to keep the water clean. All the debris, trash, and pollution are not good for wildlife, fish, and oysters. It’s not good for anything.”

“People should really pay attention to how these things are being built and maintained along the coast. It probably would be cheaper for the property owner and the public to build these more solid than to replace them with every storm”, said southeast field crew leader Joe Huie.

Added to the tons of debris are the many Abandoned and Derelict vessels (ADVs) that were scattered all along the coast during hurricanes and tropical storms Mathew, Florence, and Michael. Vessel removals began in March 2021 and are focused on the ADVs from hurricanes Florence and Matthew. Moran Environmental Recovery Commercial Diving Division is contracted for these removals along with several local sub-contractors and local crews of fishermen.

Marine Debris Collected

Carteret County 434.64Tons
Onslow County 427.80Tons
Pender County 121.57Tons
New Hanover County 181.24Tons
Brunswick County 204.98Tons

NOAA Marine Debris Program in the Southeast Region

The National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program is supporting the Federation’s work with marine contractors and local municipalities to create model building codes and construction specifications to ensure docks and piers are built stronger to better withstand the forces of future hurricanes. For future preparedness, the Federation is also working with NOAA to develop best management practices and a case study on large-scale marine debris removal for distribution by NOAA for other regions. This funding also supported additional debris removal from Pender, New Hanover, and Brunswick Counties. A four-person crew of fishers from Sneads Ferry collected 115 tons of debris from Topsail Sound and Middle Sound between November 2019 and May 2020. An additional 1,000 lbs. of debris was collected by volunteers during clean-up events at the Morris Landing Clean Water Preserve on Stump Sound.


Click here to read more about the project from the crew’s perspective.

Tackle Trash

You can help clean up our coast—from hurricane debris to microplastics.

Previous Projects

NC General Assembly Funding for Marine Debris Cleanup in Central and Southeast Regions

In 2019 the North Carolina General Assembly provided $400,000 in funding to the NC Department of Environmental Quality to remove Hurricane Florence debris in Carteret and Onslow Counties. The project focused on consumer debris and heavy wooden debris from damaged docks and piers that had washed up after Florence. During 6 months, crews of fishermen and women, and locals worked tirelessly by hand and using small boats to clean up 43 miles of marsh and dredge spoil islands along the Intracoastal Waterway near Swansboro, the lower New River, and Stump Sound. Over 200 tons of consumer and wooden debris from Hurricane Florence was picked up, along with three abandoned and derelict vessels. In order to maintain habitat quality and not cause disturbance to the surrounding marsh vegetation, the crew members hauled out wood by hand to piles that the contractor could reach with heavy equipment from the waterway.