Keywords: Water quality, Species and food webs, Birds, Nearshore habitat, Marine debris, Marine birds, Salish Sea Currents magazine

Volunteer researchers are tracking the plastic and other debris washing up on Puget Sound's beaches. They hope the data can be used to protect sea creatures from the growing amounts of trash littering the world's oceans. [A version of this article first appeared in the COASST blog.]

It is the wrack zone that is so difficult to figure out—where it begins, where it ends. “See, there’s a piece,” says Adelia Ritchie, pointing to a short scrap of seagrass, and then another, and another. “You can see there’s sort of a whole band all along here.”

“But what about up there?” Gretchen Waymen-Palmer says. A few yards up the beach, the band of seagrass bits and pieces is thicker and more obvious.

“I think we should go lower, because that’s clearly the surf zone,” Ritchie says of the small waves gently lapping the beach on this bright, sunny mid-September day. She and Waymen-Palmer walk between the two candidate bands, talk over their relative merits. One begins to sense a creeping irony in the name of this beach on the Kitsap Peninsula, near the small town of Hansville: Point No Point.

But there is a point. Ritchie and Waymen-Palmer are part of a citizen science effort run out of the University of Washington called the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, or COASST. Once they have settled on what is wrack and what is not, they will scour that strip of beach for all the marine debris they can find, cataloging each and every piece. In this, they will help track what portion of the little to not-so-little bits of trash that drift throughout Puget Sound have ended up here. All of which will reveal what patterns there might be in the sourcing and impact of marine debris from northern California to Alaska, so that something might be done to reduce or at least manage the stuff.  

Plastic fragments found during small debris survey. Photo: Eric Wagner

Plastic fragments found during small debris survey. Photo: Eric Wagner

A growing threat

Whether it comes in the form of discarded fishing gear that continues to catch fish (and other animals) long after its commercial use is exhausted, or as little pieces of plastic that seabirds mistake for food, marine debris is a huge threat to a wide range of creatures around the globe. Plastic pollution in particular promises to be a gift that keeps on giving. As Stephen Smith and Ana Markic, two Australian researchers, noted in a 2013 study in PLOS ONE, even as plastic fouls beaches and oceans from the high Arctic down to Antarctica, global production of plastics is predicted to be more than 300 million tonnes by next year, a 13% increase from a decade ago. So pervasive and subtle has the problem become that researchers at the University of Plymouth, in England, recently showed that some types of weathered plastic pollution can be indistinguishable from pebbles of natural origin.

Within the Salish Sea, several federal, state, and local groups have been working since the early 1970s both to remove marine debris and educate the public on ways to prevent its introduction into inshore and coastal waters. Outside of a NOAA program, however, few citizen science programs are dedicated to studying marine debris in a systematic way.

The COASST marine debris project seeks to add a more quantitative component to the act of a beach cleanup. The foray is a new one for the program. As its name would indicate, COASST was conceived in 1999 to focus on dead seabirds. At the time, Julia Parrish, a fisheries professor at the University of Washington, wanted to know the baseline rates for beached birds along the Pacific Northwest coast. That way, in the event of an oil spill or some other mass mortality event, its severity could be better quantified.

COASST has steadily expanded in geographical extent, with volunteers walking beaches from northern California to Alaska. But as the years passed, and the issue of marine debris rose in prominence, Parrish started to wonder if there was a way to mobilize COASST volunteers to tackle it, too.

In 2014, Parrish received a grant from the National Science Foundation to expand the program. Developing the marine debris protocol took, in the words of COASST science director Hillary Burgess, “a lot of trial and error,” but in the end, Parrish decided it made the most sense to consider the trash from the point of view of the organisms that might encounter it. “We wanted to focus on sourcing and impact, rather than identity,” Burgess says. “Where did that piece of debris come from? And what can it do to wildlife?” If you are a gull, in other words, do you care more about what kind of soda or beer those six pack loops held, or the fact that your head can get stuck in them?

The COASST marine debris project depends on citizen science volunteers to collect data. Photo: Eric Wagner

The COASST marine debris project depends on citizen science volunteers to collect data. Photo: Eric Wagner

Ongoing surveys

Ritchie’s morning started at the Hansgrill, a café nearby, where she met up with Waymen-Palmer, and Sheryl and Todd Ramsey. Together the four of them are responsible for a stretch of beach a little less than a mile long that encompasses the county park on the end of the point. Every month, they survey four randomly generated stops, determined beforehand, and reached by a designated pacer.

After plotting strategy, they had driven to a boat launch at Point No Point. It was Sheryl Ramsey’s turn to pace, and she set out from a parking lot. Once she reached the 606th footfall, Todd Ramsey stretched out a rope five meters long with Sheryl’s footprint as its center, creating a virtual, vertical strip from the top of the beach down to the water. The strip was then subdivided with little orange flags into a progression of horizontal bands: From the vegetation just above the beach, to the jumble of wood and logs at the top of the beach, to the bare sand, to the wrack, and last but not least the surf. The Veg, Wood, Bare Sand, and Surf bands were easy enough; the Wrack, not so much.

Ritchie, Waymen-Palmer, and Sheryl Ramsey eventually settle on the thin band of seagrass near the bottom as the lower boundary of the wrack. “Sometimes we look a little like Keystone Cops,” Ritchie says and she grabs more orange flags. She grins. “We have to, you know, wrack our brains.” She has been a marine debris volunteer for about a year, having lived near Point No Point for a half dozen years. She has a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry, and spent much of her career working on projects for the Department of Defense in varying capacities. (“How many chemists do you know who have gotten to ride in F-16s?” she asks at one point.)

For Ritchie, the issue of marine debris first came to a head a couple of years ago, when a garbage scow “overturned or sank or something” near the point. Junk filled the beach to an astonishing degree, “just all sorts of plastic things that really have no business being in the water.” She and her cousin picked up twenty pounds of stuff. But when they went to clean more of the beach, a few property owners—save for the county park, most of the beach is privately owned—shooed her away. It was their beach, their taxes, they would clean up their own trash. Fair enough, thought Ritchie, but she was tuned in now, and started paying attention to the debris she saw on her regular walks. Shortly after, COASST happened to be hosting a training in nearby Poulsbo, and Ritchie went. “The training was six hours long,” she says. “We needed every minute of it.”

Now that the site is arranged, the survey can begin. Although surveys can be concerned with debris of all sizes, Ritchie and her team deal only in medium (2.5 – 50cm) and small (<2.5cm) debris; another team handles the larger stuff, like the lumber or occasional cargo crates that wash up. Everyone scours the different bands, collecting every piece of trash they find. Each item goes into a plastic bag, separated by size and band where found. In the past Ritchie has found fossils, hypodermic needles, a fishing float and rope that now hangs from her garden fence at home. “It’s a constant source of wonder,” she says. “You think, How did that get here?”

But today they have to look hard to find anything. “Surveys on days like this are a lot of fun,” Todd Ramsey says. “Except for all those people who go out and pick up our trash before we get here. It’s like, Hey, they’re taking all our fun!”

After the survey, volunteers characterize debris from the comfort of a table in Hansgrill. Photo: Eric Wagner

After the survey, volunteers characterize debris from the comfort of a table in Hansgrill. Photo: Eric Wagner

A sense of stewardship

This notion that it might be fun for people to go out on the beach once a month and look for garbage (or dead birds) strikes one as a somewhat counterintuitive appeal; most citizen science projects ask their participants to engage in more pleasant activities, like tracking blooming flowers, or watching (live) birds. Still, COASST has managed to muster several hundred people from four states. The key, says Yurong He, a sociologist who works as a postdoctoral researcher with the program, is to foster a sense of stewardship among the corps of volunteers—not just for the beaches they survey, but also the data they produce.

“People come to the program wanting to know about their beach,” He says. As they learn about their site, they become attached to it. (Often, they live close to it.) But as volunteers spend years with the project, their interests modulate, He has found through a series of surveys. The longer they stay with COASST, the more their own feelings begin to align with the program’s goals. They use its lingo. Rather than speak only of beaches and birds (or debris), they also talk of results and studies, and the importance of long-term monitoring work. Their sense of altruism increases: They are working toward a greater good.

Affecting the greater good when it comes to plastic pollution might seem a daunting task, especially when volunteers find refuse that washes up from far, far away. But it does not have to be. “The coast has many nested scales of jurisdiction,” Burgess says. “Learning about the local patterns in debris can tell us about sources that can be acted upon at a local level.”

For the time being, though, the marine debris program is focused on building a robust database as a rich resource for managers. “It takes time and money to dig into the data,” Burgess says. “Right now we have funding to do trainings and provide materials, but we haven’t been able to do as much analysis as we have with beached birds.” Until such funding materializes, she says, anyone who wants to take a crack at the data are welcome to them.

Taking stock

After ten or fifteen minutes of working their way through the different bands, she, Waymen-Palmer, and the Ramseys have finished. They gather their gear, and Sheryl Ramsey starts off down the beach to the next point, which is 538 paces away. The team will repeat their ritual two more times, until they have reached the end of their strand. Later, back at the Hansgrill, Ritchie will spread a plastic sheet across one of the tables and unload their haul. Then she, Waymen-Palmer, and the Ramseys will catalog everything, piece by piece: What it is (if they can tell), how big it is, how weathered it is, whether it is made of plastic, whether it has things growing on it, whether it has loops (which animals could stick their heads through), whether those loops are sharp, whether there is a barcode, and so on. When they are finished, the garbage will go into the trash, where, one hopes, it will stay this time.

But for now, Ritchie and Waymen-Palmer walk a short distance behind Sheryl Ramsey, who steps evenly and deliberately. They scan the beach along the way, perhaps out of habit, until Ritchie spots a lump on the sand just ahead.

“What’s that?” she asks. She and Waymen-Palmer go over to the lump. The thing is a dead bird. It is lying on its back, its legs hanging limply, its wings at its sides. The body is eight or ten inches long, with a black back and white belly.

“Do you know what species it is?” Waymen-Palmer asks.

“I’m not sure,” Ritchie says. “I think it’s a murre.” This makes sense. Around the outer coast and in the Salish Sea, this is the time of year the bodies of young murres begin to show up on the beach. They have fledged recently, but making a living as a seabird is hard, and many die, usually of starvation.

“It’s kind of sad to see,” Ritchie says. “Poor thing.” She takes out her phone and snaps a photo of the murre. Then she and Waymen-Palmer walk on, leaving the body be. They are here to count debris of human origin, after all. Dead birds are not part of their mandate.

About the author: Eric Wagner writes about science and the environment from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, and High Country News, among other places. His most recent book is Penguins in the Desert published by Oregon State University Press. He is currently writing a book about Mount St. Helens.

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