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Marine Debris Takes Toll on Wildlife

Balloon Dress
Jessica Flory, right, with younger sister Hailey, wears a dress she made of balloon scraps found on the beach to call attention to marine debris and its toll on wildlife.
Photo Credit:Becky Flory

At Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, 16-year-old volunteer Jessica Flory wants to call your attention to a growing problem for wildlife. She’s wearing a dress she made from 87 balloons that refuge staff collected from a coastal island, where turtles mistake the mylar scraps for food and choke on them, and seabirds get strangled by balloon strings.

“I get lots of strange looks,” says Jessica. “Kids ask, ‘What is that you’re wearing? Is that trash?’ I say, ‘These are balloons.’  And the kids go, ‘Hey mom. Look. That’s a balloon dress, and she’s wearing that because she wants to save the turtles.’”

Balloons are just part of the mounting piles of manmade junk that now wash up on even the remotest world beaches, including those in the far Pacific and Alaska.

In photos and reports, wildlife biologists have documented harm to wildlife from the floating plastic, rubber and metal discards they call, collectively, “marine debris.”

Increasingly, staff at coastal wildlife refuges around the country are spotlighting the problem and suggesting ways the public can help.  Recent refuge actions include:

“There have just got to be more people to get the word out” about ocean debris, says Pamela Denmon, wildlife biologist at Eastern Shore of Virginia Refuge. “I have seen birds caught in balloon strings, the lures with hooks in them stuck in bird heads and bird necks. There are water bottles, caps all over the place on the beach. Mylar balloons look like jellyfish. Turtles feed on them.”

Both Eastern Shore of Virginia Refuge and nearby Chincoteague Refuge, 65 miles up the coast, display life-size sea turtle replicas, filled with sea debris, to show the harm done by ocean trash. The “trashtalkingturtles” were donated by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team, which collects beached marine mammals and sea turtles, often full of balloons and plastic bags.

Says Lou Hinds, manager of Chincoteague Refuge, “There are many people who would never discard paper out a car window, yet have no problem releasing hundreds of balloons into the air. Unfortunately, Mother Earth pushes these things back to ground, and it’s a mess.”

Natural Disasters Increase Awareness of Debris
Two recent natural disasters − Hurricane Sandy and the March 2011 tsunami in Japan – have increased public awareness of marine debris.
In October, Superstorm Sandy blew boats, docks and trees onto shore in Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey and New York. News accounts have cited refuges’ efforts to clean up the mess and recover damaged wildlife habitat.

The 2011 tsunami sent an estimated 1.5 million tons of debris adrift toward Washington, Oregon and California. Sections of barnacle-covered docks have floated into Olympic National Park and Oregon waters, fueling worries that marine pests aboard could disrupt coastal ecosystems. Scientists scraped and blowtorched the docks, then trucked them away for breakup and disposal. More tsunami debris is expected.

But drift litter is more than a storm phenomenon, as a growing body of research shows. A 2012 study submitted to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources by the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, part of the University System of Georgia, found sea trash all along the Georgia coast. The study cited more than 170 pounds per month of plastic trash on the beaches of Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge.

There are small signs that awareness-raising efforts are having an impact.

“It feels satisfying to pick up as much trash as we did, but it’s also eye-opening and somewhat sad that this is what our world is becoming,” says Kodiak High School senior Iris Blakeslee on a video she made about her Youth Conservation Corps team’s cleaning of Halibut Bay at Kodiak Refuge last summer. “I am definitely going to be more aware of packaging and how things are disposed of,  and let people know that [what I saw] is not something we want our beaches to look like.”

J.N. “Ding Darling” Refuge in Florida stopped the sale of single-use plastic bottles in September. “It’s our way to take a stand on the marine debris issue,” said supervisory refuge ranger Toni Westland. Some visitors have congratulated the refuge on the move.

Jessica Flory, the balloon-dress girl, recalls a woman telling her that she’d never again send messages in balloons. “I never thought about the ones that don’t make it” to their destination, the woman told Flory.

But refuge staff know they face an uphill – make that a sea-wide – challenge. Even as he praises the YCC crew for their cleanup of Halibut Bay, Kodiak Deputy Manager Kent Sundseth is thinking ahead to the next cleanup.

“Unfortunately, there will be more [garbage] there again,” he says.   

Photos of marine debris on refuges.

Some Things You Can Do to Reduce Marine Debris

  • Use less disposable plastic and Styrofoam.
  • Don’t release balloons into the atmosphere.
  • Use re-usable cloth shopping bags instead of plastic bags to carry groceries and other purchases.
  • Volunteer to help clean debris from a refuge beach or shoreline. To find a refuge near you, use the “find your refuge” feature on the Refuge System homepage at http://www.fws.gov/refuges/.
  • Use the marine debris tracker app to alert others to trash you find on coasts and waterways.  The mobile app is a joint project of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Marine Debris Division and the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative. EDITORS:

Refuges working to alert the public to the marine debris problem include the following:

Chincoteague Refuge, VA
Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge
Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, NJ
J.N. “Ding Darling” National Wildlife Refuge, FL
Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, AK
Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge

Last updated: January 11, 2013
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