A Sea of Debris by Dr. Lenore Tedesco
Originally published in
Cape May Magazine July 2014
A Sea of
Debris Our oceans are filled with items that do not belong there. Huge amounts of consumer plastics, metals, glass bottles, paper, textiles, derelict fishing gear, and other lost or discarded items enter the marine environment every day, making marine debris one of the most widespread pollution problems facing the worldâ€™s oceans and waterways. By Lenore P. Tedesco for The Wetlands Institute
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The issue of marine debris was briefly in the news as the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane was confounded by satellite images of marine debris being mistaken for wreckage in the ocean. However, most often, marine debris is not on people’s minds, yet it is a threat to the environment, the economy, and human health – and it’s preventable! Any human-generated trash that enters the marine environment (oceans, beaches, bays, and marshes) is considered marine debris. Much of it originates from inland litter, carried to the ocean by wind or water. Plastics make up the majority of debris in most areas. While commonly found marine debris can be worn away and broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, it generally does not biodegrade entirely. Many of these items last for incredibly long periods of time in the ocean and on beaches – many in excess of hundreds of years! Cigarette butts can last 1 to 5 years, plastic bags 10 to 20 years, aluminum cans 80 to 200 years, plastic beverage bottles 450 years. Just how long glass bottles persist is unknown. As these materials are used commonly in society, their occurrence as marine debris is overwhelming. The high-intensity use of Cape May’s beaches and marshes during the tourist season increases opportunities for debris items to be lost to the environment. Food/candy wrappers, beach toys, plastic grocery bags, caps/lids, monofilament fishing line, fishing lures, floats and buoys, and cigarette filters are found to be the most prevalent of the items collected during beach clean-ups led by The Wetlands Institute each fall and spring. Balloons, plastic bags, fishing gear, and plastic pieces are also commonly found in the local back bay and near-shore waters. Not surprisingly, greater amounts of debris are found during fall beach clean-ups following the busy tourist season, where the increased use of marine resources provides additional opportunities for litter to find its way onto our beaches and into our waterways. In addition to seasonal marine debris accumulation, Cape May County is still coping with large articles of debris that remain from Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The occurrence of these items in ocean and on beaches can have long lasting, detrimental effects because they can also be harmful to many animals including fish, dolphins, whales, turtles, birds, seals, sea lions, and people, too. Animals can mistake debris for food. Plastics are impossible to digest and can cause illness or death. Entanglement from debris can trap, injure and/or drown animals. Derelict traps and fishing gear may cause damage to boats, propellers, and other equipment.
The problem of marine debris is preventable and there is a lot that everyone can do to help reduce and remove marine debris from area beaches and waterways.
Reduce Your Potential Litter Footprint
Many components of land-based marine debris are accidentally introduced into the marine environment. Of the 20 million visitors to Cape May County each year, 91% will recreate along the beaches on the Atlantic Coast or Delaware Bay. An important way to minimize marine debris is to prevent accidental loss of items. A key way this can be accomplished is by reducing the amount of throw-away (e.g. bottle caps, straws, plastic bags, food/candy wrappers, storage containers) and easily lost items taken to the beach. This can dramatically reduce the amount of litter that remains on the beach or is lost into waterways. It’s also a more sustainable approach with numerous other added benefits.
Monofilament Recycling Stations
Monofilament line plays a critical role in almost all recreational fishing. It is very popular with anglers as it comes in a range of diameters or strengths that can be used for a wide variety of targeted fish. Unfortunately, either by accident or through neglect, some of this monofilament line can make its way into our waterways. Monofilament fishing line lost to the natural environment can stay in the environment for a very long time. It is estimated to take over 600 years to decompose! It also poses a major threat for entanglement of animals.
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In an effort to reduce the amount of monofilament fishing line that ends up in local waterways, The Wetlands Institute has aligned efforts with Boat U.S. Foundation’s “Reel In And Recycle Monofilament Recycling Program.” The Wetlands Institute staff and volunteers have installed more than 22 monofilament recycling stations at local marinas, fishing piers and tackle shops throughout Southern New Jersey. Collected monofilament is recycled into raw plastic pellets that are used to make new plastic products such as park benches or tackle boxes. Through this program, The Wetlands Institute hopes to inspire anglers to be more responsible when utilizing monofilament fishing line, and to promote understanding on how monofilament line can become a hazard when lost to the natural environment.
How Can You Help? Get Involved! Educate others on the harmful nature of marine debris. Remember that the land and sea are connected, no matter where you are. Reduce, reuse, recycle! Use reusable water bottles, shopping bags and biodegradable trash bags. Carefully remove debris along shorelines or within waterways if you encounter it. Sign up for a beach sweep and help clean area beaches near you!