Buoying it the right way: transitioning 6 million styrofoam buoys to a non-polluting alternative in South Korea’s 200,000 ton oyster industry

This project aims to develop and launch an Aquaculture Improvement Project (AIP) to address polystyrene microplastic pollution resulting from oyster farming practices in a marine region on South Korea’s coast. The end goal of this work is to replace 70% of the styrofoam buoys in the region with environmentally responsible alternatives by 2022, solving a major microplastic pollution issue for Northeast Asia and the global society.


What seafood sustainability challenge or need is this collaboration addressing?

South Korea is the second largest oyster producer globally after China with annual average production of 260,000 tons. Almost 80% of this total production comes from the Tongyeong region on the South Gyeongsang coast, which exports to US, Japan, Canada, Hong Kong and EU. Tongyeong is a mecca of oyster production in South Gyeongsang, with the greatest concentration of oyster cooperatives in the region.

The process of industrial oyster farming, however, can pollute the oceans. According to one research study (Shim Wonjun et al, 2015), the marine debris pollution level of the Korea coast is very high compared to other countries. In this region specifically, microplastic (<2 mm) is present in almost all areas, occurring in over 90% of sampled ocean sites including farming seas. The study also found that most of the detected microplastics were styrofoam particles and that microplastic-styrofoam was found inside oysters and mussels. This shows that the high microplastics density in this region directly relates to and affects the oyster farming itself. The total surface area of oyster farming in this region is about 3,466 ha, and the average number of styrofoam buoys per ha is about 1,800, leading to an estimate of six million styrofoam buoys in use. As the styrofoam and plastic rope used by these farms degrades or is lost in this densely farmed area, microplastics are accumulating in the ocean and adversely impacting on the marine ecosystem and food web (Mi jang, Shim Wonjoun et al, 2016). Finally, human health is also threatened by this pollution via consumption of shellfish containing microplastics.

This project seeks to address the severe microplastic pollution caused by oyster aquaculture through the development and launch of an AIP which focuses on Styrofoam buoy reduction, among other needs.


Please describe your vision for how your team will approach the problem, how collaboration is essential to success, and what ideal outcome or deliverable will result.

The local community, which relies heavily on oyster farming for their livelihoods (more than 20,000 people work in this industry), is very concerned about the future and sustainability of oyster farming in this region. There is a group of motivated community members, including oyster farmers, who having been conducting clean-ups, outreach to government officials, and who want to reduce or remove styrofoam buoys and improve aquaculture to reduce impacts on the oceans. We will work with them and other stakeholders to scientifically assess the relationship between microplastic pollution and farming practices, engage relevant stakeholders, develop an improvement workplan to address deficiencies found in the assessment, and establish an Aquaculture Improvement Project (AIP).

Already government has acknowledged the issue at hand, and has set preliminary goals for reducing the use of styrofoam buoys by 70% and cleaning up discarded buoys by 2022. However, there is no specific plan in place to achieve these goals and there has been a reluctance to draw a direct line between the microplastic pollution and aquaculture practices, which is inhibiting movement toward a solution.

This proposal applies to the beginning phases of a long project, which involves raising and mobilizing the support for the development and launch of an AIP which will ultimately change farming practices and improve ocean health and the sustainability of oyster farming in the region.

The end goals of the project are to:

  1. To replace styrofoam buoys with environmentally responsible alternatives;
  2. Clean up the marine environment in line with goals the government has set; and
  3. Demonstrate a successful model for solving a major microplastic pollution issue for Northeast Asia and the global society.

How can this sustainability challenge benefit from the experience and expertise of the seafood community?

Given that most of the oysters farmed in Korea are exported, support from international buyers (corporate seafood sector) and other international actors will demonstrate to the government and farmers the market incentive and need for change. Further, the South Korean ‘sustainable seafood movement’ is very young, so this project will benefit immensely from the expertise and consultation of those who are veterans in improvement projects, certifications, market leverage, funding generation, etc. Lastly, with an estimated six million buoys deteriorating into 90% of the surrounding watershed, this is an issue of huge proportion which will require the efforts of many.


Final pitch: What makes this project unique, and uniquely valuable to sustainable seafood?

This project is timely and offers an opportunity to address an urgent and enormous sustainable seafood and marine debris issue. Ocean plastic pollution is rapidly gaining traction as an important environmental concern. Related to this is the specialized issue of microplastics, which has been prominent in the media both because of the harms microplastics cause to marine wildlife through ingestion and their potential impact to humans from contaminating the marine food chain. Coupled with the significance and scaled of the Tongyeong oyster fishery, this is a unique opportunity to make a larger-than-average positive impact on the environment.

This project would lay the groundwork for the first AIP in the world which specifically addresses styrofoam (polystyrene) marine debris and microplastics, potentially catalyzing similar marine debris improvement projects across Asia. The outcomes will have far-reaching benefits by developing a model for alternatives to styrofoam use in aquaculture. Moreover, the results will have implications for styrofoam use in other fishing contexts, given they are widely used in Asian fisheries as tools for gear marking and FAD construction.


Jie-hyun Park, Ocean Outcomes, South Korea

Business sector or primary seafood-related activity: NGO and fisheries improvement
Key areas of expertise: Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, South Korean fisheries and aquaculture, Marine Protected Areas, government engagement and policy
Role on the team: Korea Program Director, Ocean Outcomes

Dr. Namhyuk Hur, South Korea

Business sector or primary seafood-related activity: Academic
Key areas of expertise: Food system expert
Role on the team: Scientific Advisor

Mr. Yongho Jang, CEO of Songjeong oyster fishery and local oyster farmer, South Korea

Business sector or primary seafood-related activity: Aquaculture, Industry
Key areas of expertise: Farming, aquaculture

Dr. Changmo Ma, Researcher, Korea Maritime Institute, Dept. of Farming and Industry, Korea

Business sector or primary seafood-related activity: Government/Academic
Key areas of expertise: aquaculture policy, research

Other Team Members

Lynn Kavanagh, Global Ghost Gear Initiative
Perry Broderick, Ocean Outcomes
Rich Lincoln, Ocean Outcomes