Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I spy...25 miles out at sea

Start of a beautiful day looking for garbage...and whales!

This past Monday, July 9, 2012, I was invited to go on a whale watch on the Atlantic Queen out of Rye Harbor and also to see (and participate) how Blue Ocean Society is collecting their Pelagic Marine Debris data.  It was a gorgeous day and yes, it was a "for fun" trip but also a "for work" trip (don't hate me because I have a cool job:)).  We were heading out to Jeffrey's ledge which is the normal route for the AQ and there is usually success in finding whales and Monday proved to be no different.  It takes about an hour and a half to get to Jeffrey's and so I took this opportunity to go to the back of the boat and bug the interns in charge of collecting the pelagic debris data.  I wanted to know how they were recording the data and other information.  I was also asking them to fill me in on their experiences this summer regarding what they were seeing off the boats, and the quantities and what strange things they encountered while recording the debris data.

There were two designated interns that are on the look out for debris and they were stationed on the second deck of AQ and in the back.  They were equipped with a data sheet where they were to log GPS coordinates of every piece of debris they saw, the type of debris(bags,bottles, food wrappers), what it was made of (plastic, foil, paper), condition (new or worn) and weather there was anything growing on it. They also record the sea conditions, air temperature, swell height, wind speed, visibility, the time for high tide, cloud cover and wind direction. From the moment we left the harbor until we came back we began looking for debris in the water.
pelagic data sheet
As we were steaming out to Jeffrey's I was asking the interns if they saw a lot of debris every day and they pretty much said that it varies, some days there is a lot and some days not so much.  One of the interns said that even in the short time she has been doing this this summer she has seen some really weird things but the weirdest thing she has seen to date was a big piece of plastic that was most likely the molded packaging for something. They also said that balloons floating on the water are pretty common items.  An hour into the trip and I was beginning to think that it would be a low litter kind of day and then- there it was- almost exactly 1 hour and approximately 25 miles out at sea- we saw our first plastic bag.

Here is what is so sad about this for me, aside from the fact that there is a plastic bag floating in the ocean in an area where whales and other marine creatures are feeding,  the fact that we even have to be on the lookout for this stuff.  Instead of concentrating on what other cool creatures are out and about 25 miles offshore, we are constantly combing the water for trash.  After we saw that first bag the hits kept on coming. In fact for the next ten minutes we recorded 9 more pieces of litter- so every minute brought another data point.  Within half an hour we had collected the bulk of the data with 6 plastic bags, 3 plastic bottles, styrofoam, foil wrapper and the winner- a plastic bucket.

A plastic bottle is becoming ubiquitous in the ocean- 25 miles out

About an hour went by as we slowly followed the whales and we were still on the lookout for debris and except for the plastic bottle pictured above we didn't see anything else.  As we began to head back to Rye Harbor, we ended up recording 7 more pieces of debris by the time we reached the harbor, including more plastic bottles, bits of plastic and paper, a paper bag and the plastic lid to a container.

All in all it was a gorgeous day but I couldn't help feeling a bit deflated. It reminded me that our environment is changing. Will my children grow up looking for garbage instead of shells on the beach (my 3 year old already is) and for floating plastic pieces instead of dolphins and whales and sharks? That is why I hope the work we are doing and data we are collecting will be used to raise awareness and educate people to keep that from becoming our reality.

Final tally:
8 plastic bags
7 plastic bottles
1 paper bag
1 piece of paper
1 piece of styrofoam
1plastic bucket
1 balloon string
1 plastic container top
4 pieces of plastic
1 foil wrapper

Monday, July 9, 2012

Beach Adopters Wanted!

We've had a great week in our Adopt-a-Beach program - two new groups have joined!  Thanks to the Greengard Center for Autism for adopting Rye Harbor State Park and Medtronic Advanced Energy for adopting the north end of Foss Beach!  I did a cleanup with folks from Greengard today and we had a beautiful morning at Rye Harbor State Park, where we picked up 10 pounds of litter on the Rye Harbor jetty and nearby beach. Thanks to Kristen, Melissa and Elliot for their help today!

I'm looking forward to meeting up with folks from Medtronic this week also, to get them started with cleanup supplies. Would YOU like to join our Adopt-a-Beach Program? We have many beaches available, and all you need to do is commit to cleaning your site once each month, filling out a data card during the cleanup, and sending it to us so that we can use the data to learn about marine debris and target our pollution prevention programs.  We provide all supplies!

Here are the beaches available for adoption:
  • Sections of Hampton Beach-Hampton, NH
  • Foss Beach, Rye (1 section)
  • Pirate's Cove, Rye
  • Hilton Park, Dover Point
  • North Beach, Hampton
  • Beane Farm, Greenland
  • Great Bay Farms, Greenland
  • Goat Island, Piscataqua River
  • Peirce Island, Portsmouth
  • Sections of Salisbury Beach-Salisbury, MA
  • Short Sands Beach - York, ME
For more information, check out our web site or e-mail jen(at) 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Is this what you want all of our beaches to look like?

"Un desastre ecologico-an ecological disaster"

On Monday June 18, my husband, myself and two young boys woke up excited to meet up with my sisters and their families for our annual "at the beach" vacation on the North Coast of Honduras.  Usually we go to Tela, Honduras but this year we decided to try something different and instead head a bit more west to the town of Omoa, Honduras.

Omoa, Honduras- "A" marks the spot.
Now, as a Honduran, I am aware of the horrible poverty and corruption that rules this country and that the lack of funding for ecological and environmental health is really non-existent so I was under no delusions that what we would encounter would be pristine by any stretch of the imagination, but what we actually found was beyond my wildest imagination.

As we were driving from our hotel in San Pedro Sula,  I was getting a review of the house that we had rented and so far so good. A good sized, clean, swimming pool that would be perfect for the kids and enough room for all 12 of us to fit comfortably. The drawbacks were an infestation of ants and only one room had air conditioning- which was not what we had been led to believe- but really- who cares?  Then my sister got a text from her husband. He and the kids had ventured out to the beach which had been portrayed in the brochure as nice and clean and essentially private.  His text said this "Tenemos un desastre ecologico!" "We have an ecological disaster".  I thought he was kidding. My sister did not show me the picture he had attached. Let me say again...I thought he was kidding. At the very least I thought he was making fun of what my reaction would be knowing that I work on marine debris and that I would be aghast with the condition of the beach which in my past experience has been somewhat dirty. Unacceptable by my standards and most Americans but then you get over it and enjoy it nonetheless.

We finally got to the house and it is typical humid, hot, tropical weather and I loved it! We unpacked but  we decided it would be better to hit the pool which was right there than to hit the beach that day.  We'll save that for tomorrow.  I asked my brothers in law about the condition of the beach.  Was it really that bad? Were you just exaggerating?  Their answer was a resounding no and that in fact it was so bad that there was no way we could or should go swimming in the water.  If the beach was that bad- the water had to be worse. Sigh... so much for the beach vacation.  I resigned myself to the inevitable discovery of a trashy beach.  The next day, I decided to brave it and went down to the beach with my sister and some of the kids just to see how bad it really was.  I really thought I was prepared for what I would find. In fact, although I was disappointed, I also was not surprised that this would happen here- well because they have other more pressing priorities- like 60% unemployment and hunger.

When I reached the beach, at first I couldn't wrap my head around what my eyes were seeing and the when I did- my eyes filled up with tears and there was a pit in my stomach- because even if I wanted to spend my vacation picking up a beach- there was no way I could do it because this is what I found...
The first pile of trash. Notice the number of PLASTIC shoes,utensils, bottles, bottle caps etc...

More shoes and more plastic. Plastic everywhere.

It went the entire length of the beach. A bit more exploration and I discovered that even beyond the massive piles of garbage, in the areas that were less trashed, if you looked at the sand, initially, you would think that there were a lot of shell fragments, but upon closer inspection you realized that it was just more bits of plastic mixed in with the sand.  in fact, this was the strategy that they used to " clean up" the trash several days later. Instead of bringing in machinery to scoop it up an haul it away which was the only way to deal with this amount of trash, they instead brought in a dump truck of sand and dumped it on the piles of garbage and then essentially rototilled it until it was a nice mix of plastic bits and sand.

Want some sand with that plastic?

To be fair- this beach- is dirty like many other beaches in Honduras. That is a fact.  However, it is normally not this bad.  The owners of the house blamed it on the rains. They blamed everything on the rains and sort of shrugged unapologetically when we complained. But something still didn't seem right. How could there be so much debris on this one beach and it wasn't even that big of a beach? Semana Santa -Holy week- in April is THE party holiday in Honduras.  My sisters said that in general the ocean is the peoples garbage can and that especially that time of year- everything goes into it- but it was hard to believe that two months after the holiday that all of this garbage would show up.  As it turns out, while some of the garbage could definitely be traced back to Semana Santa festivities, the rest seems to have originated from Utila, one of the Bay Islands off of the North Coast.  According to my brother in law- there was some sort of "Jam" music festival a short while before and the ship that was carrying all of the garbage from Utila had its motor break.  Now I have no idea why on earth they couldn't fix it or why it couldn't have been pushed back to land or whatever- as I have no idea of the size of the ship- but in any case orders came from the owners of the ship to dump all of the trash in to the water. So they did.  I have searched for corroboration of this story online but can find nothing, although that is not surprising either, so I am putting this out there with the warning that this is speculation only.  But whatever the reason for why the beach was in this condition- it is heartbreaking and really unacceptable regardless.  What is worse for me though is the apathy and the so what attitude the locals have. Just add this to the rest of the other stuff in their lives that they can't do anything about.  Sadly, even if they could, I am not sure they would do anything more than dump more sand on top of it.

Honduras could be so beautiful if the people in charge would let it. Not sure if that is in the cards for them.

In short- here in New Hampshire we CAN do something about it. learn from this and use it as a motivator to keep our oceans clean and healthy and garbage and plastic free. Don't let our beaches turn into seaside garbage dumps. Care.