Monitoring marine debris: a move toward trash-free seas

Seven miles of unspoiled beaches.

Little St. Simons Island is a treasure in more ways than one, but one of those treasured pieces of the island is the seven-mile stretch of undeveloped beach. There are days when you can be on the beach and not see another person for hours!

However, many of our visitors are surprised by the sight of trash on our shores. How can an otherwise pristine beach with so few visitors collect so much manmade debris? The answer is that it washes in from the water. What we see on our beaches is only a tiny fraction of what is traveling around in the oceans.

You never know what might wash ashore! This keyboard was found on North Main Beach this summer.

100,000 marine animals die each year from debris-related causes. On top of adding pollutants to the water, plastic debris can be confused with food and ingested or can entangle and trap wildlife.

Inspired by the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, we are initiating a marine debris program in which our goal is to hold regular beach clean-ups once a month and to initiate a conversation about this debris. So far, we have had great success! Since September, we have collected 198 pounds of debris, with our most common item being plastic beverage bottles.

There are some challenges to removing debris on a beach that doesn’t allow motorized vehicles, but that won’t stop us from removing a few crab traps.

In addition to removing the debris from the beach where it has the potential to be swept back out to sea, we are recording the kinds of debris we find. This data is submitted to a larger database managed by the Ocean Conservancy.

As we collect this data, we can begin to understand the sources of marine debris, we can learn how to mitigate it, and we can inform policymakers and consumers. The Ocean Conservancy has been collecting data for over 25 years, and consequently, as we learn more as a society, we are making steps to lessen our impact.

“Cleanups alone, while powerful tools for gathering data and raising awareness, cannot solve the problem. Individuals, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations are stepping up to prevent dangerous items from reaching the water in the first place.”- Tracking Trash: 25 Years of Action for the Ocean (International Coastal Cleanup)

To participate in a cleanup on the island or to learn more about the science of marine debris, talk to a naturalist next time you visit!

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