Blog Post: Encountering the Marine Debris Crisis in Indonesia

By Katie DuBois

I took in a deep breath then let it out quickly as I approached the group of middle schoolers gathered around a single desk.

I blurted out, “Apa kabar?” One of my few memorized Bahasa Indonesia greetings.

Half a dozen young faces turned towards me.  There was a brief pause before they shrilly responded,

“Biiiiiaaak!!” and promptly collapsed into a pile of laughter.

I grinned and moved into the circle to check on their progress.  The students were hand drawing a bar graph depicting the different types of marine debris we had surveyed on a nearby beach.  We didn’t share a language, but we could communicate through our data.

Barrang Lompo
The beaches of Barrang Lompo, Indonesia are hidden under marine debris.

At the time I was a graduate student research assistant working in Indonesia as part of a team of scientists led by Dr. Susan Williams. On this particular day we were on Barrang Lompo, an island off the coast of Sulawesi, teaching local students how to collect and graph data on marine debris (1).  Barrang Lompo is less than a mile across, home to about 5,000 people, and surrounded by some of the most diverse coral reefs in the world. Yet to stroll along Barrang Lompo’s beaches would entail slowly navigating through heaps of marine debris including plastic bags, plastic bottles, and other plastic bits that have rapidly accumulated on shore. 

Students from the Barrang Lompo middle school surveying marine debris on their local beaches.  

Communities on such islands are most directly impacted by marine debris, but the effects of modern societies’ reckless usage of plastics are still hidden to most of us. You probably heard in passing about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where ocean currents have gathered 80,000 metric tons of floating marine debris, swirling in the center of the Northern Pacific Ocean (2). You probably saw the heart wrenching photos of marine animals that have ingested, become entangled, or been smothered by marine debris (3). More recently, you likely heard that pieces of micro-debris (mostly plastic < 1 mm in size) are being eaten and incorporated into the bodies of many marine animals where the particles slowly leach toxins (4). While these impacts of marine debris are serious, they are distant and unfathomable to most of us.

For the students on Barrang Lompo, the immensity of our global marine debris crisis is tangible.  That morning I knelt on the beach with these children, scooping our marine debris samples into a bucket for sorting back at their school. As we finished our surveys, I looked over my shoulder at where we had collected our samples, perfect squares of sand among the collage of debris remaining on the beach.  

marine debris workshop
Led by Dr. Susan Williams, this team of scientists from Indonesia and the United States ran a full day marine debris workshop with the Barrang Lompo middle school.  From left to right, top row: Steven Rantelimbong, Christine Sur, Eka Lisdayanti, Dr. Rohani Ambo Rappe, Musdalifa Mandasari, Nenni Asriani, Katie DuBois. From left to right, bottom row: Nur Tri Handayani, Dr. Susan Willams, and Jordan Hollarsmith.
Students from the Barrang Lompo middle school learned to collect and graph data on the different types of marine debris found on their local beaches.  Students presented their data to the entire class at the end of the day.


(1) Sur C, Abbott JM, Ambo-Rappe R, Asriani N, Hameed SO, Jellison BM, Lestari HA, Limbong SR, Mandasari M, Ng G, Satterthwaite EV, Syahid S, Trockel D, Umar W, Williams SL (2018) Marine debris on small islands: Insights from an educational outreach program in the Spermonde Archipelago, Indonesia. Frontiers in Marine Science 5.

(2) Leberton L, Slat B, Ferrari F, Sainte-Rose, Aitken J, Marthouse R, Hajbane S, Cunsolo S, Schwarz A, Levivier A, Noble K, Debeljak P, Maral H, Schoeneich-Argent R, Brambini R, Reisser J (2018) Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Science Reports 8:4666.

(3) Coe JM & Rogers DB (Eds.). (1997) Marine Debris: Sources, Impacts, and Solutions. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

(4) Andrady AL (2011) Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin 62:1596-1605.



Blog Post: Where has all the bull kelp gone?

by Jordan Hollarsmith

Under the unseasonably warm June sun with the Seattle Space Needle as our reference point, Dr. Jamey Selleck and I don our thick wetsuits. The air may be warm, but the water is still frigid. Our small boat bobs in the water as our captain, Brian Allen, scans our surroundings.

“Nothing.” He remarks with resignation.

We sigh, finish connecting our hoses and checking our gauges, then plunge into the icy water.

urchin barren
A small urchin barren dominated by green urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis) which have grazed all of the kelp.

While others may visit the Puget Sound looking for orcas, I was here looking for bull kelp (Nereocystis leautkeana). Bull kelp is a large seaweed that attaches at the sea floor and floats on the surface, creating something akin to a forest underwater. And just like their terrestrial counterparts, kelp forests provide critical habitat for many species of marine animals. For millennia, the bull kelp forests of the Puget Sound provided bountiful food for people who lived in and traveled through these inland waters. But slowly and subtly, bull kelp beds started shrinking and disappearing. Now, the once-common sight of bull kelp bobbing on the waters’ surface is a rarity. The million-dollar question is, why?

I’m out on the boat with Jamey and Brian trying to answer that very question. Jamey is a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal agency charged with managing our nation’s marine resources. Our boat captain, Brian, works with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving marine ecosystems in the Puget Sound. Also involved are experts in remote sensing, Kate Tiedeman and Aniruddha Ghosh from the University of California-Davis, resource managers with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, and the many tribal nations whose ancestral lands abut the sound. The potential consequences of kelp loss at such a huge scale make this is an all-hands-on-deck situation.

puget sound
Brian Allen (Puget Sound Restoration Fund) adjusting the anchor with a backdrop of the Seattle skyline.

As Jamey and I settle onto the bottom with 25 feet of green-tinged water above us, I begin to understand why the cause of kelp disappearance remains so elusive. We visit three sites, all of which used to have bull kelp, none of which do now. The first site is covered in green urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis), kelp-eating invertebrates infamous for their ability to turn kelp forests into barrens of rock. Maybe it’s all a giant urchin barren! The lightbulb alights in my head as I picture the millions of acres of urchin barren currently stretching across the Northern California coast. But the next site is covered in an invasive seaweed (Sargassum muticum) that dominates the canopy without an urchin in sight. Could bull kelp be outcompeted by the invasive? The lightbulb starts to flicker. The final site is a rich diversity of native algae with no urchins or invasive species, but none of these native algae grow to the surface and create the important underwater forest habitat. The light bulb flickers and dies. What is going on here?

Back on the boat, my eyes drift to the land surrounding the Puget Sound. It is scarred by clear-cut patches marking recent and decades-old logging sites. For over a century, people have denuded the steep hillsides in this rain-soaked region, leaving watersheds prone to landslides and rivers choked with mud. That mud combines with other land-based nutrients and pollutants and eventually travels to the sea where can reduce the light that bull kelp needs for energy and deposits those nutrients and pollutants, upsetting the careful natural balance which determines which species thrive and which suffer. Some of my colleagues and I think that this mud from clear-cut logging, combined with ever-warming temperatures from global warming, may be a major reason the kelp is disappearing. However, like anything in ecology, the full answer will be anything but straightforward. 

A forest of the invasive seaweed, Sargassum muticum.