Marine Debris Growing Problem for Beaches, Wildlife

Little Compton, R.I., resident Geoff Dennis, with help from his black lab Koda, relaxing to the right, picked up nearly 2,400 plastic bottles from local beaches last year. (Courtesy photo)

Little Compton, R.I., resident Geoff Dennis, with help from his black lab Koda, relaxing to the right, picked up nearly 2,400 plastic bottles from local beaches last year. (Courtesy photo)

By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor

LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. — Geoff Dennis walks the local coastline with his black lab Koda almost daily, and he is disgusted by the quantity of trash that accumulates. So every day he picks up every bit of it he can find, and he records how many of each item he collects. He even saves much of it so he can document the annual accumulation with a photograph. He said the problem seems to be getting worse.

Last year, for instance, he picked up 2,380 plastic bottles, 1,330 mylar balloons and 395 drinking straws.

A quahogger for 30 years, Dennis said he “got a taste for trash” while monitoring piping plovers at Goosewing Beach for The Nature Conservancy about a decade ago.

“It really bothers me. The first time I walked with the dog, I came back with over 100 mylar balloons,” he said. “If I can start a conversation with people about it, that’s great. But most people just don’t care.”

Dennis estimated that about half of the trash he finds was dropped recently by people using the beaches. The other half drifted in on ocean currents and could have come from anywhere. He sometimes finds items covered in gooseneck barnacles, a species not found locally that Dennis said probably drifted north on the Gulf Stream.

“Over a typical year, the largest volume of stuff I pick up is commercial fishing gear,” he said. “You get huge pieces of netting all over the place, little pieces of green twine, pieces of tires they use on the draggers.”

A year’s worth of mylar balloons collected by Geoff Dennis in 2016 from Little Compton beaches. (Courtesy photo)

A year’s worth of mylar balloons collected by Geoff Dennis in 2016 from Little Compton beaches. (Courtesy photo)

The problem of marine debris and beach trash is overwhelming. According to the documentary, “A Plastic Ocean,” about 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. Much of it is still out there just waiting to be consumed by fish, sea turtles, albatrosses and other marine creatures. The plastic that isn’t consumed by wildlife eventually washes up on a beach.

July Lewis, who coordinates beach cleanups throughout the state for Save The Bay, said there are two aspects to the issue of marine debris: aesthetics and wildlife impacts.

“No one wants to come to a beach that’s covered in trash,” she said. “It makes a difference in how people can enjoy our beaches.”

From a wildlife perspective, however, it can be a life-or-death issue. Sea turtles consume plastic bags and latex balloons that they mistake for jellyfish; whales that feed on large quantities of plankton can’t separate out the microplastics from the edible microorganisms; and bits of plastic get caught in the gills of fish and the stomachs of birds.

“Even if it’s not fatal, it’s a burden on these animals,” Lewis said. “It’s hard to calculate exactly what that burden is and what the mortality may be from it, but it’s increasing because we know that the amount of plastics in our ocean is increasing. Most everything that lives in the ocean has some plastic in them.”

Lewis noted that monofilament fishing line is especially dangerous to marine life, because animals can easily become entangled in it.

“It’s meant to be invisible and unbreakable, so it’s a serious entanglement hazard to marine life,” she said.

Nearly 1,500 pieces of fishing line at least a yard long were picked up on Rhode Island beaches last September as part of the International Coastal Cleanup. In addition, Lewis said the event’s 2,205 volunteers removed about 46,000 cigarette butts, 7,500 plastic bottles, 4,800 glass bottles, 13,000 pieces of plastic, 10,500 food wrappers and 5,700 plastic bags from 65 miles of Ocean State shoreline.

Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access, a Middletown-based nonprofit that organizes dozens of beach cleanups on Aquidneck Island annually, said the problem of plastics in the ocean continues to increase.

“By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish,” he said. “That’s a pretty scary statistic.”

In the past 10 years, his group has removed nearly 95,000 pounds of debris from Aquidneck Island beaches.

“We’re still finding debris left on the shoreline from the storm surge of Hurricane Bob and Hurricane Sandy, some of which has been out there for 20 years,” he said.

Clean Ocean Access has adopted a unique technology used at marinas on the West Coast to help address the problem. The group has installed a trash skimmer in Newport Harbor that uses a Dumpster-sized contraption with a motorized pump to suck floating debris — as well as oil and other pollutants — into the container for proper disposal. Between August and December of last year, it collected more than 6,000 pounds of debris. McLaughlin aims to install four more at other marinas around the state next year.

“It’s like watching paint dry,” he said. “It looks like it’s doing nothing, but when you come back eight hours later, it’s collected a lot of stuff.”

With Earth Day approaching, McLaughlin and Lewis encourage Rhode Islanders to join in some of the many local beach cleanups taking place this month. Save The Bay-sponsored cleanups can be found here, or join Clean Ocean Access at a cleanup of the Cliff Walk on April 22 from 10 a.m.-noon.

Clean Ocean Access is also sponsoring a screening of the film “A Plastic Ocean” at the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport on April 26 at 6:30 p.m.

“In the grand scheme of things, picking up someone else’s trash on the beach isn’t changing people’s habits,” Dennis said. “But in my little niche, it’s making a difference.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

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