More trash talk

2 03 2015
The waste-to-energy plant (incinerator) in Haverhill, MA. I was apparently up in arms about as soon as it opened in 1989. I was nine.

The waste-to-energy plant (incinerator) in Haverhill, MA. I was apparently up in arms about as soon as it opened in 1989. I was nine.

I am always on the lookout for topics to write about here, and when I get a request from a reader for a specific post, I am both happy to oblige and relieved not to have to cast about for a theme. Seanetter Warren Mumford is a Cape Cod resident but was unable to attend the film screening of Trashed and subsequent panel discussion last week, and he asked me to provide a bit more of a synopsis on what occurred. If you’d like to view the film itself, you can stream it, or find it on iTunes. In general, it covers the end result of our global overconsumption of goods, and our tendency toward blindness as to where those goods end up. Landfills, incinerators, recycling plants all feature in the film, as do the places where our trash ends up inadvertently, including, I hardly need tell you, dear readers, the oceans. I was on the panel after the film primarily to speak to the impacts of trash (especially plastics) on marine wildlife. Jessica Donohue is a Research Assistant at SEA Education Association, and brought her expertise on sampling plastics directly from the oceans, and Dave Quinn, Regional Waste Reduction Coordinator for Barnstable County (Cape Cod), spoke to issues of recycling, composting, reusing, and attempting to reduce our overall waste stream wherever possible. The questions from the audience ranged widely from topics of contaminant induced infertility, to cancer clusters, to styrofoam recycling (very challenging, as it turns out), to composting and plastic bag bans.

Highly recommended.

Highly recommended.

I am currently reading the book Toms River by Dan Fagin, about the fate of a small town in New Jersey ravaged by the blithe dumping of chemical wastes from a dye manufacturing plant over multiple decades, so I have been, for the past week, more consumed than usual by matters of waste and waste disposal. Some of the discussion after the film screening centered around what we might do to combat this issue of our mountainous waste problem, and it seems to me fairly consistently the problem that we do not pay the appropriate price for what we use. The statistics in Toms River on the volume of waste water generated per gallon of dye produced is appalling, and as I read, I considered what a poor job we do reflecting those true costs in the sticker prices on consumer goods. The environmental costs of cheap plastic bottles, bags, food containers, and so on, are not captured in the amount we pay, nor in the what the companies must pay to produce and distribute those goods. Dave Quinn brought up the idea of extending the responsibility of these manufacturers to encompass the entire lifespan of these products (or at least more of it since plastics stay with us for thousands of years). If the producers had to consider, and pay for, the ultimate disposal of their products or their products’ packaging, might things not turn out differently? Certainly we would expect the cost of that non-recyclable, non-reusable juice container to go up, and perhaps that would drive down demand for the most egregiously packaged items.

We discussed what consumers might do as well, and in the film, a small urban shop is featured where shoppers buy all items directly out of bulk bins and take them home in their own reusable containers. This shop was a lovely idyll, but I couldn’t help but bring up the issues of environmental justice and uneven access to high quality food, let alone to high quality food responsibly distributed. I tried not to be flip as I described my teaching work in the small, but rather depressed city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the underclasses may have access to no food at all save what they can get at the corner convenience store. This was by no means meant to discourage the opening of more environmentally minded retail shops, but simply to raise the issue that we have a very long way to go before they will be routine in places outside the liberal bastions of the posher cities or their suburbs. For my student population, it’s hard for me to get them to simply throw paper in the recycling bin rather than the trash can right beside it. This flabbergasts me, but it’s a good lesson in how little many of my students think about issues that keep me up at night. Trying to break down that barrier is part of why I teach.

Film screening this week for my Cape Cod friends

19 02 2015

Hello, dear Seanetters and miscellaneous readers. I apologize for the relative dearth of posts lately–having a full time teaching job, as it turns out, really limits the time I have to blog about dead birds. This week, however, I will be finding a bit of time on Saturday to talk about dead birds and trash. I was very kindly invited to serve on a panel following a screening of the film “Trashed” at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater on Cape Cod. This program is jointly sponsored by Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and WCAI and the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.


I am going to try to comport myself as a true Seanetter and do you all proud. If you’re local, perhaps I’ll see you there, and if not, perhaps you may elect to make some popcorn and stream it on Netflix sometime. Wish me luck, and I will see you all back here next week.

Arctic seabirds sound their warning; who’s listening?

9 10 2014

This past weekend, New Hampshire Public Radio, my preferred news venue, wrapped up their fall fund drive. I listen even during the drive, possibly out of a self-flagellating penance for not actually donating. There’s something satisying about the guilt. During the fund drive, the announcers were pushing their drawing for a free trip to Costa Rica. “Unbelievable! The biodiversity is higher than anyplace else on Earth!” You’ll get no argument from me on the merits of a Costa Rican getaway, nor on the diversity of species to be found there. But for certain species groups, the highest biodiversity comes not down near the tropics, but near the poles.

I’ve just been reading a report on Arctic seabirds from the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) group. In it, the authors point out that the cold (though ever warming) waters of the northern oceans have historically been a nutrient bonanza on which these birds can rear their young. Now though, the convergence of the mutliple evils we’ve managed to work on our oceans appear to affecting many of these species quite profoundly.

Seabird populations are challenging to study and count. Aside from the breeding season when they come onto land, many of these long distance seafarers lead a nomadic existence and pinning down their numbers is difficult. For some species, we don’t have reliable census data even for the breeding colonies, or, if we do, only for the past few decades or so. These limitations make it hard to pick up on anything but catastrophic population crashes.

What researchers are finding now, is a disconcerting emptiness on many of the colonies. In Iceland, historically a hotbed for seabird breeding, scientists now find empty puffin burrows, eggs or dead chicks rotting in abandoned tern nests, and entire swathes of islands devoid of much bird life at all for several years running. Seabirds tend to long lives, and one or two bad breeding seasons are easily borne. But as more and more years like this pass, where the adults either return to the colony and fail to rear any chicks, or simply don’t attempt to breed at all, the consequences for the future grow more grim. These adults will continue to age and will ultimately die, even if they live 30 or 40 years before that happens. If there have been no young birds coming up to take their places, the results are clear. What still isn’t clear is why these breeding collapses are occurring. The CAFF report points to changes in sea ice, altered prey distributions, and increasing frequency of extreme weather events as possible players. A 100 year storm, after all, can wipe out many adults in a breeding population. When those 100 year storms are coming every four or five years…a population only has so much resilience.
We do know that seabirds will respond to prey availability changes by altering their foraging behavior. This graph depicts the type of prey brought back to the nest by thick-billed murres. Looking at the blue and yellow sections of each bar, we see the shift beginning in the 1990’s from the ice-associated polar cod to capelin as ice breakup came earlier and earlier in the season.


Whether or not an alternative prey is equally appropriate for rearing nestlings varies with the prey. Such shifts seem to coincide with decreases in chick survival in some species, so it does appear that one fish is not necessarily as good as another.

Pollutants in the foraging waters and in the prey are still an issue, with mercury levels in some seabirds high enough to affect breeding success, and persistent organic compounds like flame retardants and pesticides in eggs at concentrations high enough to make them unfit for human harvest and consumption. Some researchers even point out that warming oceans boost the metabolisms of the fish swimming in them, which could make them able to swim just a bit faster and evade their avian pursuers. For birds already on the thinnest of margins of survival, even an effect so slight would be piling on their troubles.

One thing is perfectly clear in reading through all these reports and into the research itself; while empty-headed commentators on the pretend news try to drum up paranoia and conspiracy theories about the existence of climate change, the scientists are keeping their heads down, scanning for the few eggs or chicks still viable, certain in the knowledge that climate change is wreaking havoc already, and we may be watching these birds disappear.

The long reach of marine pollution

13 01 2014
The Manolis L as it went under in 1985.

The Manolis L as it went under in 1985.

Back in May last year, I posted here about the Manolis L, a Liberian registered ship that sank off Newfoundland, Canada in 1985. Last year, the ship apparently began leaking oil from its current resting place under 250 feet of water around Fogo Island. Remote controlled submersible robots revealed a cracked hull. In July, the Canadian Coast Guard installed a collecting device called a cofferdam on one side of the ship, and a neoprene seal over another compromised area. At the end of December, however, locals began reporting obvious oil on the surface of the waters near the wreck, and hunters have been documenting oil on many of the eiders they’ve killed. The Coast Guard responded to this most recent increase in oil leakage by examining the wreck again. They found that the neoprene seal appears to be working, but that the cofferdam has shifted about fifteen feet off the site of the leak. They suggest that recent harsh weather and wave action likely dislodged the device allowing oil to escape. Engineers and oceanographers are currently evaluating potential solutions to this problem, but in the meantime, local residents have been trying to publicize the issue and place additional pressure on their government to address the issue more quickly. One of these citizen groups has formed a Facebook page to allow residents and interested outsiders to follow any developments in the case, and we encourage you to keep an eye on what’s happening with our neighbors to the north. SEANET was invited to follow their site over the weekend, and we certainly will, with interest. 

Photo: Newquay Beachcombing

Photo: Newquay Beachcombing

We also received a report this week from the other side of the Atlantic, where a beachcombers’ group has begun reporting small plastic discs on their beaches. These discs look suspiciously similar to the ones released from the Hooksett, NH sewage treatment plant back in March of 2011. It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that the discs have bobbed their way across the ocean on the Gulf Stream and are now gracing our compatriots in the old country. This is another group we will be following to see where else these discs turn up, and all the other oddities and sad cases our UK friends find. 

Under the rug: the limitations of dilution

5 11 2013

I’ve noticed this image making the social media rounds lately, and find it to be a striking depiction of the plastics problem.

It's getting harder to make things disappear in the ocean.

It’s getting harder to make things disappear in the ocean.

For decades, we’ve been dumping trash into the waters, swearing by the adage “dilution is the solution to pollution.” In some respects, it’s still true. The world ocean has a vast capacity to dilute toxic substances and render them less harmful. As usual, however, we’ve either underestimated or chosen to ignore our vast capacity to alter our environment. While plastic pollution is a particular interest of mine, this week I’m focused on a different sort of problem–the impact of runoff on the marine environment.

Harmful algal blooms are increasingly in the news, and I was just reading of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggesting that these blooms are no longer to be treated as extreme or unusual events, but rather as our new normal. While the paper describes a bloom of toxic algae in Lake Erie, the problem is not limited to freshwater bodies. These blooms are driven by a process called eutrophication, where fertilizer runoff from the land gives algae in the water a huge growth boost. These algae overgrow, then die, and are broken down by bacteria that consume oxygen in the process. Huge numbers of algae feed huge numbers of these decomposing bacteria, and before long, those bacteria have sucked most of the oxygen out of the water creating a dead zone that cannot support fish or anything else that needs oxygen to survive. Strong ocean currents may dissipate the runoff, diluting the fertilizer, but in more sheltered areas like bays, the problem can become quite severe. Cape Cod in Massachusetts is dealing with this problem as  septic systems leach excessive nutrients into the sandy soils and thence out to the bays.

NASA satellite image shows  a bloom of toxic algae as green scum on the surface of Lake Eerie.

NASA satellite image shows a bloom of toxic algae as green scum on the surface of Lake Eerie.

The problem is not new, though the scale of it continues to grow. I have been participating in an online workshop for community college instructors this week, and today’s web video explained the process of retrieving deep sediment cores from the seafloor. Dr. John Kirkpatrick of the University of Rhode Island pointed to a dividing line in a core of sediment from off the New England coast. There was an abrupt shift from a pale gray sediment to a dark, almost black column. That shift, dating back to the advent of intensive clear-cutting and agriculture in the region, resulted in widespread erosion of soils and other debris no longer held in place by tree roots. Manure from livestock also flowed into the sea in a similar, though less industrial version of what we see today.

It’s the nature of humans to forget what we can’t see. Out of sight, out of mind has long been our approach to ocean health. I have the same tendency, and the image of that sediment shift struck me quite strongly. Not only does it drive home the fact that nothing discharged into the ocean really disappears, it underscores the fact that the ocean’s memory is long, and we are a very young species. What we do matters to the oceans, and we can make a shift. This particular problem is manageable, and solvable.  There’s still time, though, as the poem goes, it’s later than you think.

Beaches looking all spiffed up!

30 09 2013

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!

A good turnout for last week's SEANET training at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary!

A good turnout for last week’s SEANET training at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary!

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.

A beautiful day by Rock Harbor in Orleans, MA. A girl could used to this job...

A beautiful day by Rock Harbor in Orleans, MA. A girl could used to this job…

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.

unnamedJohn 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

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!


Gleaned from the seabird literature

6 05 2013

I always keep my ear to the ground for any seabird science that might be of interest to you, dear Seanetters, and today, I have two items for your perusal!

Manx shearwater in flight near Iceland.

Manx shearwater in flight near Iceland.

The first is a study on the behavior of Manx Shearwaters. These birds nest in underground burrows in colonies mainly in the UK and undertake epic migrations down to the southern Atlantic Ocean during the winter. Breeding surveys can document numbers of chicks hatched, and the genetics of mated pairs, and so on. At sea surveys can determine where shearwaters may be found in large numbers over open water at various times of the year. But to track individual birds throughout their annual life cyle, that was a feat impossible before the advent of high tech, extremely lightweight tracking devices. A team out of the University of Oxford studied Manx Shearwaters using these devices, which can record several years’ worth of data on location, dive depth and duration, and amount of time spent resting on the water’s surface. Their paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface  indicates that during the breeding season, the birds must make long commutes out to foraging territories where they will repeatedly dive, surface, and then often take-off for another  flight in what one researcher called a “tortuous” search for food. During their long migrations, the birds stop for focused foraging off the coast of Brazil on the way south, and then in the western Atlantic on their return flight north. The birds also appear to rest more toward the ends of those migrations, an action with which I anthropomorphically sympathize.

The information on the concentrated foraging activities of the Manx Shearwater may also shed some light on the topic of a second paper, this one in Science. The article, entitled Tracking Marine Pollution, focuses on seabirds as top-of-the-food-chain predators particularly vulnerable to concentrating toxic molecules in their tissues. Their extensive foraging trips and migrations mean they may accumulate these chemicals over a huge geographic range. The article focuses both on the ubiquitous marine plastics, as well as the less obvious but more insidious threat they pose: plastics in the water tend to accrue multiple man-made chemicals, sopping them up like little sponges. When seabirds ingest plastics, not only are they at risk from physical damage–obstructions, perforations of the stomach or intestine, simple starvation–but they are also taking in what many researchers term a “poison pill”–a concentrated dose of the pollutants in the water all around them.

Plastics retrieved from the stomach of a Greater Shearwater.

Plastics retrieved from the stomach of a Greater Shearwater.

We often find plastics in the stomachs of Greater Shearwaters here in New England, but our colleagues in the southeast rarely find it in birds washing up on their shores. The interplay between the two articles described above could shed a great deal of light on that phenomenon. Tracking Greater Shearwaters with multi-year data loggers could tell us whether the birds tend to stop and forage in areas with known accumulations of plastic. The fact that the data loggers can tell whether a bird has stopped to forage or just to rest on the surface is an incredible boon to science. We know some seabird colleagues in Canada are working hard on the subject of Greater Shearwater migration, and their work combined with the development of new technologies makes for some exciting times for us, seabird enthusiasts!

A shipwreck’s long legacy and a tenacious ooze: the lesser known spills

1 05 2013

Profound environmental disasters like the BP spill in the Gulf garner justified public outrage. Yet all over the world, news comes in almost every day of smaller spills, many of which are never reported outside a local news outlet. When these events fail to make international headlines it’s easy to think that oil spills are rare. But while major, catastrophic spills are, these smaller events are troublingly common.

This past month, I’ve been following two stories of varying severity on either side of the Atlantic. The first, an ongoing spill of a little known chemical called polyisobutene (PIB) has fouled the feathers of multiple seabirds off the English coast. Unlike crude oil, PIB is translucent, and therefore mostly invisible on the carcasses of beached birds. But closer inspection of these birds often reveals a glue-like coating that obliterates the feathers’ water-proofing capacity and causes sand, rocks and other debris to stick to the birds. As with oiling events, the birds mostly die of hypothermia or from toxicity after they preen the chemical off and ingest it.

Guillemots have been particularly hard hit by the PIB spill this year.

Guillemots have been particularly hard hit by the PIB spill this year.

PIB is an additive to ships’ engine oil that increases engine efficiency. It is currently legal to discharge the substance into the water under certain circumstances. The justification seems to have been that “small” amounts of the chemical will dissipate in the water and be unlikely to impact seabirds or other marine life. This event, which is estimated to have killed well over 1,000 seabirds (and this is undoubtedly an underestimation, based as it is on only the birds that have washed up on shore) is bringing up debate over the chemical in the UK, with conservation groups, animal welfare organizations and even fourth grade students calling for a ban on its discharge. The severity of this event in the UK may indicate more than one single discharge, or may be the result of an illegal dumping of a large amount of PIB. What is clear now, if it was not before, is that this chemical is harmful to wildlife. We will follow the progress of the challenges to PIB discharge in the UK and keep you informed of any developments in this story.

Fogo Island, site of the leaking shipwreck.

Fogo Island, site of the leaking shipwreck.

A second event, much smaller scale and commanding far less attention, is currently occurring off Fogo Island in Newfoundland, Canada. Weeks ago, shifting sheens of oil began to appear on the water there. The source seemed to be somewhere underwater, so the Canadian Coast Guard deployed submersible robots. The videos the robots collected indicate that oil is seeping from the cracked hull of the Manolis L., a Liberian-flagged ship that evidently ran aground on January 17, 1985. At that time, 3,200 barrels of fuel oil spilled, and after that initial event, the ship was left where it had foundered in the hope that the additional oil would remain contained within the wreck. After a 28 year reprieve, luck appears to have run out. As of yet, it’s unclear what can or will be done about the situation, but we will also keep an eye on this unfolding situation for you. The only way these events continue to be tolerated is if conscientious people fail to pay attention and fall into complacency. And I know that doesn’t describe our SEANET readers.

Death by hair elastic: the sad case of a dead duck

16 01 2013

Are you feeling too happy? Is your mood unacceptably elevated? Are you experiencing a sensation of optimism over the nature of humanity and the future of our environment? Well let me fix that for you.

A gull at work, cleaning up the mess. (photo by D. Tracey)

A gull at work, cleaning up the mess. (photo by D. Tracey)

Seanetter Dan Tracey went out for his walk on Salisbury Beach State Reservation in Massachusetts last month. At the waterline, he saw a Great Black-backed Gull tearing into a fresh carcass. Turns out, that gull had been banded by Dr. Julie Ellis, but it flew off before Dan could get its i.d. As he approached the now abandoned dead bird, he found it to be a gorgeous male Red-breasted Merganser. On closer inspection, he found the depressing part of the story: a hair elastic was wound around the lower bill and head of the duck, rendering him unable to eat. Presumably, he starved to death, ending up as a meager and interrupted meal for that banded gull.

Hair elastic fatally entangling a merganser's bill and neck. (photo by D. Tracey)

Hair elastic fatally entangling a merganser’s bill and neck. (photo by D. Tracey)

I sometimes incur the amused or irritated dismissal of friends when I talk about the impact of balloons released into the air, or plastic bags discarded by the road. Most things find their way into the oceans, and this dead bird is only one of many suffering lethal impacts from seemingly insignificant bits of human trash. People may dismiss our pleas, or laugh off the issue, but I am hoping that pictures like this one will affect at least some folks out there. The birds we find dead like this are only a small fraction of the birds that die, so I assure you, this is a big issue. The solemn lesson this bird gives us: Keep track of your crap, everyone! And spread the word far and wide!

SEA expedition underway in North Pacific

16 10 2012

The Sea Education Association (SEA) sent out its latest research team earlier this month. While the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” has received vastly more attention over the past decade, SEA has long studied the issue of plastic contamination in the North Atlantic. In 2010, they sailed from Bermuda out into open water collecting data on the nature and extend of plastics in our home ocean.

Earlier this month, a SEA research vessel headed west from San Diego bound for Honolulu. While underway, the scientists and students on board are collecting samples, data and (inevitably) a lot of plastic from the waters of the North Pacific. The expedition’s website is a great resource for students, scientists and Seanetters alike, and is a blend of sailor’s journal (“Those of us in A watch have just finished dawn cleanup…), photo gallery, data repository, and email exchange with students all over the United States following the expedition from land.

There’s a little something for everyone, so I encourage you to check it out. After all, it may be happening on the Pacific, but I don’t have to tell you readers that ours is truly a world ocean, and there’s no problem in the Pacific that isn’t also ours on the Atlantic. So this SEA expedition too, is one we should all share.