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Coastal Hazards

Coastal Pollution and Water Quality Research

Picture of seal surrounded by coastal debris

Photo Credit: NOAA, Marine Debris Program (2014)

Marine pollution can originate from land, freshwater, or air and includes nutrients, chemicals, waste, particulates, light and noise. Common sources of marine pollution include wastewater and stormwater discharge, urban and agricultural runoff, accidental spills, marine dumping or lost fishing gear, and atmospheric deposition. Research on this topic examines marine debris, microplastics, marine contaminants, oil spills, and water quality monitoring (in alphabetical order).

  • Marine and coastal contaminants in coastal waters generally fall under two main categories: legacy and emerging. Legacy contaminants are well known and mostly regulated in their use (e.g., heavy metals, PCBs, DDT), but persistent in the environment. Emerging contaminants are more recently detected or recognized and their impacts are not well understood. Some examples include pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs), flame retardants, and natural and synthetic hormones.
  • Marine debris, or any persistent solid material that is disposed of in the marine environment, includes fishing gear, plastics, metals, textiles, and vessels. It is one of the most widespread pollution problems and no part of the ocean is unaffected by marine debris.
  • Microplastics are pieces of plastic debris smaller than 5 millimeters in length that result from degradation of larger plastic pieces, or in some cases are intentionally manufactured as polyethylene microbeads in health and beauty products as exfoliants (facial cleaners) or abrasives (toothpastes). Although microbeads first appeared in commercially-available products more than 50 years ago, they have only recently been recognized as a marine pollution issue with implications for coastal organism health.
  • Oil spills occur when liquid petroleum hydrocarbons (e.g., crude oil, gasoline, diesel) are released into the marine environment. The spill itself and the following clean up can cause both acute and chronic harm to marine organisms.
  • Water quality monitoring takes place to protect human uses and ecological function in coastal waters. For example, in shellfish growing areas, fecal bacteria may be monitored to prevent illness from human consumption of seafood. 

Oregon research highlights

A recent study in Oregon assessed the presence of several legacy and emerging contaminants in sediments and native Olympia oysters from Coos Bay and Netarts Bay (Granek et al. 2016). Researchers found a number of compounds of both categories in both media, including PCBs, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. Additionally, they identified variations in concentrations and compounds between the two estuaries and across sample season.

Oregon coastal water quality on public beaches is assessed through fecal bacterial monitoring. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and The Surfrider Foundation sample bacteria on beaches with high recreational activity and ecological significance to protect public health. Surfrider’s data are made publicly available to promote public awareness of water quality issues and provide potential solutions. View their most recent report here.


Granek, E. F., Conn, K. E., Nilsen, E. B., Pillsbury, L., Strecker, A. L., Rumrill, S. S., & Fish, W. (2016). Spatial and temporal variability of contaminants within estuarine sediments and native Olympia oysters: A contrast between a developed and an undeveloped estuary. The Science of the Total Environment, 557-558, 869–879.

Authored by Amy Ehrhart, Portland State University (2017)