Estimating the Effects of Marine Debris on Coastal Economies

Posted Wed, 09/25/2019 - 13:14
Several people relax on a beach.
Marine debris can impact wildlife and habitats, but did you know it can also impact the economy? (Photo: NOAA)

Imagine you’ve planned a big trip to the beach with your family and friends, loaded up the car with supplies or jumped on a plane, and traveled to your vacation spot, only to find a beach littered with plastic beverage bottles, stray fishing line, chip bags, cigarette butts, and other debris. Would you stay and play, or be on your way? What if there were no debris, would you be more likely to return in the future? These are the kinds of questions we asked to better understand the relationship between marine debris and the coastal tourism economy. 

In the United States, the tourism and recreation industries rely heavily on healthy ocean and coastal resources, as well as the aesthetic quality of the environment. Unfortunately, marine debris is a pervasive issue in many coastal areas, where tourism and recreation contribute $124 billion to our gross domestic product (GDP). 

In order to better understand the relationship between coastal tourism economies and marine debris, the NOAA Marine Debris Program funded a study to investigate how the presence of marine debris can impact the recreational use of beaches and influence the economy in four selected coastal areas: Gulf of Mexico beaches in Alabama, Atlantic Ocean beaches in Delaware and Maryland, Lake Erie beaches in Ohio, and Pacific Ocean beaches in Orange County, California. 

This study found that the abundance of marine debris on beaches can have a substantial impact on coastal economies that depend on tourism and the effect was strongest when the amount of marine debris is increased. Most notably, the study estimated that when the amount of marine debris on beaches is doubled, there could be a significant negative impact to coastal communities from a decrease in the number of days visitors spend on the beach and their spending in the local economy. The estimated economic losses from an increase in marine debris were greatest in Orange County, California, where doubling the amount of debris resulted in an estimated decrease of $414 million tourism dollars spent in communities, and a decrease of nearly 4,300 jobs. 

The potential benefits from a decrease in the amount of debris on beaches were greatest for Lake Erie coastal beaches in Ohio. In this community, reducing marine debris to almost zero resulted in an estimated increase of nearly $217 million tourism dollars spent in communities, and an increase of over 3,700 jobs. 

This study deepens our understanding of the economic impact of marine debris to coastal communities that depend on beach recreation and illustrates the importance of prevention and cleanup efforts. By preventing marine debris, we can stop it from ever entering our ocean, Great Lakes, and waterways in the first place. The NOAA Marine Debris Program works with students, educators, non-governmental organizations, industry, and other organizations across the United States to stem the tide of marine debris by changing behaviors related to common marine debris items and raising awareness through outreach and education. 

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