Ocean: A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man - who has no gills.
The tongue in cheek musings of Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary contain within them more than a little truth. It often seems that humanity is not really suited for this planet, and this is most evident at the place where the oceans wash up against our dry one third of the world. The beaches and coastline, which offer some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, have become the gathering places for hundreds of tons of discarded trash, plastic bottles, fishing nets, and cigarette butts.
The massive volume of trash on our beaches presents a number of intractable problems for humanity, and will require a significant change in the way people think about their personal consumption and how it affects the environment. This is indeed a long-term challenge, although in the meantime it is critical to mitigate the problem. This is why Coastal Cleanup Day has become an important annual event, not only for picking up trash, but also for educating the public about the issue of ocean debris.
Coastal Cleanup Day started in 1984, through the efforts of Judie Neilson, a manager in the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service. It came to California the following year, organized by the California Coastal Commission. The Center for Marine Conservation, known today as The Ocean Conservancy, organized a Coastal Cleanup Day in Texas in 1986, and later brought the concept to the world, establishing International Coastal Cleanup Day. Since then, the event has grown tremendously, becoming the largest volunteer event in California, with more than 71,000 participants in 2011.
According to the California Coastal Commission, last year’s Coastal Cleanup Day had 2,048 volunteers in Marin County alone. They picked up 8,814 pounds of trash and 1,921 pounds of recyclable materials. Statewide, 71,794 volunteers picked up 790,902 pounds of trash and 554,874 pounds of recyclable materials. International Coastal Cleanup Day had almost 600,000 participants in 2011, who picked up more than nine million pounds of trash throughout the world.
California Coastal Cleanup Day was held at dozens of locations around Marin County on Saturday, September 15, including Muir Beach, Kirby Cove, Rodeo Beach, Bothin Marsh, and McNear’s Beach. I took part in the event at China Camp State Park, where 32 volunteers fanned out along the beaches around China Camp Village, with buckets and garbage bags in hand. The event was sponsored by Friends of China Camp (FOCC), a committee of the nonprofit Marin State Parks Association that is now the official operator of the park, in partnership with California State Parks. From the broad, sandy beaches of China Camp Village to the small hidden pocket beaches around Rat Rock Cove, we picked up a total of 150 pounds of garbage and 25 pounds of recyclables. The most common items we found were plastic bags, beer bottles, food wrappers, and cigarette butts.
The impact of ocean trash goes far beyond the mere littering of beaches. The threat to wildlife is one of the most damaging consequences of the unhealthy state of our oceans. Small pieces of plastic can be mistaken for food by fish and marine mammals, toxic chemicals can leach into the food chain, and debris can be injurious to animals. Sea lions are a good example of animals that suffer because of ocean trash, particularly with fishing lines and netting. These marine mammals are naturally curious and will poke their long snouts into floating garbage, often getting entangled in fishing lines, plastic banding, and other debris.
The Marine Mammal Center, which sponsored a Coastal Cleanup Day event at Rodeo Beach, treats a lot of sea lions with entanglement injuries. This rescue hospital gets calls all the time about an animal on a beach or a dock, wrapped in plastic, fishing line, or wire. It is an especially bad problem for young sea lions, who are still growing and can get an entanglement deeply embedded in their skin as their size increases against the restrictive wrapping.
One recent case involved a 437 pound adult male sea lion, who had packing strap wrapped around his neck and deeply embedded in his skin. A Marine Mammal Center team rescued him at Pier 39 in San Francisco, where he was spotted on one of the floating docks. He was named Dart Man, because his rescue involved a specialized dart gun, which was used to sedate him so the entangled packing strap could be removed. Dart Man was brought to the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands, where he underwent a medical examination and was found to be in very good health. A couple of days later, he was released back to the ocean, where the salty water can help heal deep wounds.
Here on the California coast, we have begun to see the trash that has crossed the ocean as a result of the tsunami that swept across northern Japan last year. Beaches in California and Oregon have been reporting confirmed findings of tsunami debris since June and more is expected to come in over the next few months until ocean currents start to deflect the debris back towards Hawaii. The arrival of tsunami debris makes Coastal Cleanup Day a good educational opportunity this year, giving a vivid demonstration about how trash can travel across vast distances.
The Ocean Conservancy has issued the following guidelines for reporting tsunami debris found on beaches:
- For significant debris sightings, send a photo and as much information as possible to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has a dedicated email address for these reports: DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.
- For debris that poses a risk to beachgoers, call local authorities at 911.
- For potentially biohazardous material, contact HAZMAT authorities.
- For potential navigational hazards, contact the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area Command at 510-437-3701.
Coastal Cleanup Day finished off with a celebratory picnic at the Bay Model in Sausalito. Participants from the dozens of locations where the event was held in Marin County were welcomed to stop by and enjoy a nice barbecue along the waterfront. The beaches and coasts of California and around the world are cleaner places after the work that was done by these dedicated volunteers. But in order to truly solve the problems facing our oceans, we must fundamentally change the way we think of disposable items.
Reuse and recycling are critical components of this change, along with wise use of everyday items such as water bottles and plastic containers. President John F. Kennedy put our connection to the ocean in very evolutionary terms when he stated that “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch - we are going back from whence we came.”