Marine Debris Visual Identification Assessment

Date of Award

Spring 2017

Project Type


Program or Major

Civil Engineering

Degree Name

Master of Science

First Advisor

Nancy Kinner

Second Advisor

Phil Ramsey

Third Advisor

Weiwei Mo


Estimates of marine debris are often based on beach surveys conducted by volunteers/citizen scientists. Few studies have documented the veracity of their observations and the factors that may affect their accuracy. Our laboratory-scale experiment identified potential sources of error associated with visual identification of marine debris (1-2 cm long) during shoreline surveys of sand beaches. Characteristics of the survey site (beach characteristics), observer (personal characteristics), and debris (color and size) may be important factors to consider when analyzing data from shoreline surveys. The results of this study show that the ability of individuals to accurately identify plastic fragments depends on the plastic and sand color, and density of shell fragments, as well as the time taken on the survey. Most suggestively, the high accuracy of blue plastic counts (95%) and the under-counting of white (50%) and clear plastic fragments (55%) confirmed the hypothesis that a significant amount of clear and white plastic fragments may be missed during shoreline surveys.

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