No Silver Bullet: Addressing Shotgun Wad Debris in San Francisco Bay

Posted Tue, 04/28/2020 - 06:15

The Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS) is one of the NOAA Marine Debris Programs’s (MDP) longest running Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project (MDMAP) partners. Six years of data collection at locations along the Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo county coastline revealed the types and frequency of marine debris on the surveyed shorelines, as well as one particularly interesting and problematic type of debris. The survey data indicated that shotgun wads, the plastic piece inside a shotgun shell that separates the shot from the powder, are one of the top ten most commonly found plastic items on all surveyed beaches. These shotgun wads likely come from waterfowl hunting, year-round shooting ranges, and target shooting fields along the San Francisco Bay and Delta. Wads eject up to 30 meters from the barrel of the gun, which makes them difficult to locate and properly dispose. When hunting nearby or over water bodies, as during waterfowl hunting, these wads end up in the environment and travel downstream and are deposited on the coastline. This issue is not unique to the San Francisco Bay, and has been identified in other parts of the country and world. The Surfrider Foundation’s “Wad Watcher” project has compiled reports of shotgun wads across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

A white, five gallon bucket holds shotgun wads.
A bucket of shotgun wads collected at Drakes Beach in December 2019 (Photo: Kate Bimrose).

Because shotgun wad debris is so ubiquitous on the Sanctuary’s shorelines and there is no “silver bullet” or one solution to this problem, GFNMS, Greater Farallones Association, and Root Solutions came together, with funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, to try to tackle this issue by changing behaviors related to shotgun wads. The first step of this project was to interview hunters online and in person about their views on the problem of shotgun wads as marine debris, and their willingness to take action. The survey results showed that 80% of hunters were not aware that shotgun wad debris is an issue, and the same percentage were either somewhat or extremely concerned about the issue. This indicates that once they become aware of the issue, hunters are compelled to do something about it. Many hunters are ardent conservationists that want to maintain and protect habitats, and have no intention of adding to the marine debris problem. Removal of shotgun shells, which eject just a few feet from the gun chamber, has long been practiced by hunters. Now, thanks to this project they are aware of the presence and impacts associated with plastic wads and are primed to look for and remove these debris from our environment.

In California, there are few options for alternative ammunition, such as biodegradable wads, and there are state laws restricting the purchase of ammunition online. In order to encourage proper disposal of shotgun wads and reduce debris in the environment, disposal receptacles were installed at two local hunting reserves, Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Eden Landing Ecological Reserve. The receptacles and accompanying signage were installed in early 2020 and are expected to remain in place during future waterfowl hunting seasons. They serve as a visual reminder to pick up wads, provide an easy disposal option, and raise awareness among the hunting community. Initial results from this pilot season and follow-up surveys of hunters who had access to the receptacles indicate that there is a willingness and desire among the hunting community to reduce their contribution to marine debris. In order to better understand the effectiveness of these measures, GFNMS is also continuing to conduct MDMAP surveys at four shoreline sites to track changes in the amount and types of marine debris found in the San Francisco Bayover time.

The “No Silver Bullet” project serves as a pilot marine debris prevention campaign customized for the hunting community. Results and recommendations can be scaled up and transferred to other parts of the U.S. that want to tackle the issue of shotgun wad debris, creating a future where hunters can enjoy their sport, protect the environment, and leave no trace.

Several blue, plastic shotgun wads.
Shotgun wads are a common type of debris found on the beaches in the San Francisco Bay Area (Photo: Surfrider San Francisco).


No Silver Bullet: Addressing Shotgun Wad Debris in San Francisco Bay

Posted Tue, 04/28/2020 - 06:15

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.

Jack A Sobel

Thu, 04/30/2020 - 12:28

What about the related problem of lead into the environment from the other part of shotgun shells? The current Administration made the use of lead shot on public lands legal again after the prior Administration solved this problem by outlawing lead shot on public lands & (some?) waters. Do national marine sanctuaries allow the use of lead shot within their boundaries? If so, why?

Hi Jack,
Thank you for your comment about laws in the National Marine Sanctuaries. I'm currently waiting for a response to your question from staff at the Sanctuary and will reply soon. 

Lead shot at the Fed level on Fed land been illegal since...early 90s as I recall, maybe even late 80s, can't recall exactly when I had to switch over. States followed suite. Cal went to 100% non lead 2 years ago for hunting (not target shooting).
What is your source that he lead ban was reversed?


Wed, 05/06/2020 - 16:07

Why not go back to the cardboard wads that many of us grew up with?

Anna K

Sun, 05/24/2020 - 01:03


Richard James …

Fri, 06/12/2020 - 17:47

Hi Jack,

Lead ammunition is no longer permitted in California. Lead shot in shotgun shells was phased out several years ago. Effective July 2019 rifle and pistol ammunition can no longer contain lead. Google it, lots of info on CDFW site and others.

Regarding cardboard wads. Long ago when I hunted doves and quail and operated the reloading press for my father, he used a plastic wad (shot cup was the term used). Shot cups are designed to create various shot patterns with different loads and different choked barrels. A choke on a barrel is how tightly the bore diameter is necked down in the last few inches of the barrel. The smaller the diameter, the tighter the pattern. Read here to learn about chokes -

When lead was banned, replaced by steel (or tungsten for well-heeled shooters, $5 a shot), hunters had to re-learn how far was too far to shoot at a bird. With lead and a tight choke, I imagine a good hunter could bring down a duck at 60-70 yards (a guess by me). Steel is nowhere near as dense as lead and disperses much quicker. So a well engineered shot-cup (wad) is an important part of each round. To this day, many birds are wounded because a hunter shot as though they were using lead, while using steel, causing a lethal (much later) wound, allowing the bird to fly out of reach.

Many hunters use loads that not only have steel or tungsten pellets, but also have powder amongst the pellets to cushion the pellets during the violent trip out the barrel. As far as I know, this buffer is made of plastic (sigh). Here is one manufacturer -

Hope this helped.

Hi Richard. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I'm pleased and not surprised that California is ahead of the feds at this point in time, especially given what this administration is doing with reversing and rolling back decades of conservation and environmental protection (see link below). The lead shot ban is just one of a long list. Not all sanctuary waters are within California's jurisdiction, so I'm still concerned that lead shot may now be legal again in federal waters. I'm not an expert on shotgun pellets, but doesn't the increased velocity of lighter steel and tungsten pellets offset at least most of the impact loss due to their lighter weight?

To clarify in Ca. Lead ammunition for lead ammunition for other purposes...yes. That is in california. Geesh, non hunters and outdoorsman, and non reloaders trying to figure something out that is clearly written and obeyed by outdoorsmen.


Wed, 10/12/2022 - 10:43

I collect a lot of shotgun wads at the Albany beach. Would it be helpful to establish a collection receptacle at the beaches for tracking purposes?

...Thanks for reaching out about this issue, Aimee! Our California Regional Coordinator suggested a great first step might be reaching out to reach out to the City of Albany Office of Sustainability or County or Alameda County Waste Program representatives. The project in this blog relied on data collected in surveys Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project (MDMAP). If you're interested in establishing an MDMAP survey at Albany Beach, I can connect you with the project!


Fri, 10/14/2022 - 17:15

... Hi Aimee – Surfrider has a data collection initiative tracking plastic shotgun wads in the wild. Please photograph, count and post your images to the San Francisco Chapter's website.