Casting a Wide Net: A Community Approach on Marine Debris in the Niagara River Watershed

Posted Thu, 01/23/2020 - 11:00

Guest blog by: Wendy Paterson; Community Engagement Manager, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper

Three people, each in their own kayak, collect trash along a river.
Volunteer, Andrew Wagner, collects litter as part of a pilot Waterkeeper Kayak Cleanup in Cayuga Creek in 2019. A group of 30 volunteers removed 540 pounds of marine debris during the cleanup (Photo: Waterkeeper Community Engagement Coordinator, Marcus Rosten).

Western New York State (WNY) lies in the heart of the lower Great Lakes Basin and includes the Niagara River Watershed. The Niagara River Watershed is notable for its important habitats, which supports lake sturgeon, muskellunge, lake trout, walleye, and northern pike, and has been internationally recognized as an important migratory route for birds. For 30 years, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper (Waterkeeper) has been preventing litter from polluting local waterways through land-based cleanups in WNY.

A map of the Niagara River Watershed.
The Niagara River Watershed (Photo: Waterkeeper Community Engagement Manager, Liz Cute).

WNY is no stranger to monumental environmental issues. The Erie Canal knocked on its doorstep in the 1800s, opening the door to invasive species, and the tragedy of Love Canal spurred the environmental movement in the 1970s. Distinguished as a significant habitat by the New York State Department of State Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats designation program, marine debris negatively impacts the long-imperiled coastal fish and wildlife habitats of the Niagara River Watershed. However, unlike other pollution sources of the region, it is one every community member can take direct action to remove and prevent. The WNY community continues to fight ongoing sources of pollution and advocate for positive change to protect our prized natural resources.

A bird stands on top of a floating tire located in the Niagara River.
Common Tern, Sterna hirundo, on a tire floating down the Niagara River in 2019 (Photo: Waterkeeper Community Engagement Coordinator, Marcus Rosten).

The newly established partnership between the NOAA Marine Debris Program and Waterkeeper creates a direct connection with a region that has been shown to be one of the largest contributors of microplastics to the Great Lakes (Baldwin et al., 2016). With the funding provided by a NOAA Marine Debris Program Removal Grant, community volunteers will be able to remove over 20,000 pounds of marine debris and couple the effort with a robust pollution prevention program. Waterkeeper’s short-term goal is the removal of marine debris in Great Lakes waters, improving habitat and reducing the likelihood of entanglement for resident wildlife, such as the New York state species of special concern, the eastern spiny softshell turtle.

Several sticks and small logs float in a pool of water sprinkled with marine debris.
 Dense amounts of marine debris captured in a Niagara River Coastal Habitat in 2019 (Photo: Waterkeeper Community Engagement Coordinator, Marcus Rosten).

The project includes in-water and land-based debris removal efforts, marine debris educational art creation and installations, and pollution prevention outreach and workshops for recreational and subsistence anglers. Over the next two years Waterkeeper will be embarking on four new additions to its long running litter removal efforts:

  • Regular in-water cleanups via kayaks
  • Educational art displays
  • Monofilament fishing line recycling bins
  • Angler-focused pollution prevention workshops

The educational art displays will be hosted at partner organization facilities such as the Buffalo Zoo and the Aquarium of Niagara. The workshops will be provided to anglers in multiple languages (possibly Spanish, Karen, Arabic, and Somali) and intended to be part of the region’s refugee and immigrant resettlement programs, with the help of local partners including Jericho Roads and the International Institute. The monofilament recycling bins will be built and maintained by the Niagara Musky Association and Waterkeeper volunteers.

Three people stand on a fishing jetty having a conversation.
Waterkeeper Fish Consumption Intern, Hannah Latragna, talks to an angler about best practices when eating fish from our local waters in 2017. Waterkeeper will be expanding on this work to include pollution prevention best practices when fishing in 2020 (Photo: Community Engagement Coordinator, Ron Zietz).

Ultimately, Waterkeeper plans to engage 8,000 people in marine debris removal, pollution prevention, education, and data collection by November 2021. This collaborative community approach to marine debris removal will encourage long-term behavioral changes that will empower the recreational fishing community, local residents, and visiting tourists to take direct action against a local source of water pollution and inspire a sense of responsibility for the Niagara River Watershed. The individuals that participate in this project will come away with an unforgettable awareness about the impacts of marine debris on coastal habitats, fish species, wildlife, and drinking water.

Casting a Wide Net: A Community Approach on Marine Debris in the Niagara River Watershed

Posted Thu, 01/23/2020 - 11:00

For citation purposes, unless otherwise noted, this article was authored by the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

The Marine Debris Blog is no longer accepting comments but continues to display past contributions.

John mikula

Mon, 01/27/2020 - 21:33

Will you be removing down trees in the Cayuga creek in the falls

Hi John,

Great question! To learn more about the exact details of this project, please reach out to the Great Lakes Regional Coordinator, Sarah Lowe ( She will be able to provide the most current information on removal projects.

Andrea Holden

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 10:41

This endeavor is on my radar. I am a docent at the Burchfield Penny Art Center and I have designed a community art project/ installation based on the negative effects of single use plastics. This project could be replicated in other venues as part of your waterway clean up theme for the coming years. Feel free to contact me or pass my contact along.

Hi Andrea, to chat more about the educational art pieces please contact Thanks!

Chuck Godfrey

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 12:17

I have a question as to what constitutes marine debris and where it is located. Are we talking just about industrial/plastic, etc. type debris, or would trees and other large woody "debris" be included? Would this be just in Lake Erie and the Niagara River or extend to the tributaries to these also?
Chuck Godfrey - WNY Trout Unlimited - pres.

Thank you for your question! Marine debris is any solid, man-made item that ends up in the marine and Great Lakes environment. Examples may include things such as small pieces of plastic up to large abandoned and derelict vessels. Large woody debris would not be characterized as marine debris under our mandate. In the Great Lakes region we work within the Great Lakes watershed, including any tributaries that influence the lakes. Let us know if you would like any further information!