Apologies for the dearth of posts last week; I was caught up in the flurry of readying for a SEANET recruiting trip to Cape Cod. The trip was, you’ll be glad to know, quite successful, and we filled a room with potential recruits as well as interested members of the public. Some of our long-standing, most dedicated volunteers were there too: Jerry Hequembourg, Mary Myers, and Diana Gaumond were in the crowd, and if I missed anyone else, forgive me! Thank you to Diane Silverstein, Mark Faherty and Bob Prescott of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for hosting me and for getting the word out!
Now I am scrambling to get all our newest recruits assigned to beaches, but I did go out this morning to do my own SEANET walk on Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts. I was, at first, surprised to find the beach looking remarkably clean of human generated wrack. Normally, my beach is strewn with picnic detritus, cigarette butts, plastics in various stages of degradation, balloons, and monofilament fishing line. Today, entire stretches of the beach were clear of all that, and I picked up only three plastic water bottles along the whole walk.
Then I remembered that this past weekend was International Coastal Cleanup Day and Salisbury is always a target beach. The cleanup crew apparently did a great job, though it’s always discouraging to see how quickly the dog feces and plastic begins to pile up again.
Down on Linnell Landing Beach in Brewster, MA (known affectionately to Seanetters as WB_02) the aforementioned Diana Gaumond and her husband John decided to do their own beach cleanup and dropped me a note about the experience:
In recognition of Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup Day, we took some trash bags and cleaned up trash on WB_02 (in the places not otherwise occupied by live persons). This stretch of beach looked generally pretty clean, but a closer look at the wrack revealed a more serious picture. Though we didn’t find any dead birds, we found many objects that could kill birds. There were over 550 pieces of human generated rubbish, and over 300 of these were small pieces of plastic that could be ingested by birds. There were also numerous long coils of fishing line, wire, and balloon ribbon which could entangle birds. Besides these, the most numerous items were plastic bottle caps and straws, cigar/cigarette tips, casing from ammo and fireworks, tampon applicators, and a dozen of those old favorite sewage discs – the gift that keeps on giving (thank you, Hookset). We picked up about 4.5 lbs. of stuff and will clear up the rest of the one mile stretch of WB_02 when it becomes vacant.
John also sent a tally and breakdown of what they found, and you can see their report here. Diana and John point out one of the biggest problems with our plastic pollution crisis: rather than being an issue of large, floating plastic bottles and other large items that would, theoretically, be easy to spot and scoop up from marine waters, the plastic is actually quite insidious. As it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, those fragments get closer and closer to the size of normal food items for seabirds. When we open up seabird stomachs at autopsy, we find numerous pieces of worn plastic, mostly no bigger than a pencil eraser. It’s these easily overlooked and almost impossible to collect pieces that pose a grave threat to the birds. And as the plastics continue to break apart, there is an organism at every level of the food web ready and willing to take it up as if it were sustenance. Even filter feeding shellfish take up tiny beads of plastic as they sieve the water for food. If you’d like to learn more about plastics in the Atlantic, and current research on the subject, please check out the Sea Education Association’s website.
John asked if there is some sort of reporting system in place for such marine trash, and in fact, there’s an app for that! The Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative developed its Marine Debris Tracker, which is available for either iPhone or Android. The tracker automatically GPS tags the debris as you report it, so as people use the app, the database can generate a map of where and when the debris is being reported.
Funnily enough, on the FAQ page for the Tracker, a question on how best to survey for debris is answered with a suggested protocol remarkably familiar to Seanetters: walk on a regular basis (daily, weekly, monthly, etc) year-round, and select a set start and end point so that you are walking the same distance each time. There are also formal sampling protocols you can request from NOAA by emailing MD.firstname.lastname@example.org.
This has been a good prompt for me, and I plan to download the Tracker today and start recording the debris I encounter on my SEANET walks. If you have the time and the interest, I encourage you to do so too. If you do try it out, let us know what you think!