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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Balloon Dress Highlights Marine Debris Damage

By Susan Morse, USFWS

There’s no missing Jessica Flory.

This sixteen-year-old gets it.

The volunteer at Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge tells people how balloons and other plastic discards end up on beaches where they choke turtles and seabirds. Then she asks listeners to pledge not to release balloons outdoors; hundreds have signed.

She’s decked out in a dress she made from 87 balloons that refuge staff collected from a coastal island before animals could swallow them. “Hey mom, look,” she hears a kid say. “She’s wearing that because she wants to save the turtles.”

balloon_dressJessica Flory in balloon dress and sister Hailey on Cape Charles Beach (Photo: Becky Flory)

We’ve all seen the images: Broken boats, trees, docks, what-have-you, swept away by Hurricane Sandy or the 2011 tsunami in Japan and washed ashore miles – sometimes thousands of miles − away.

When storm rubble lands in sensitive wildlife habitats, blocking waterways and changing landscapes as it did in New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia this fall, we can grasp the harm that tons of floating trash can do.

But many people don’t understand that marine debris is more than a storm phenomenon. They don’t know that trash litters even the world’s remotest beaches. They don’t know that we can do something about it.

Other wildlife refuges are also calling attention to marine debris. Here are some things they’re doing:

  • Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey is updating its Facebook followers on efforts to remove tons of hurricane debris;
  • J.N. “Ding Darling” National Wildlife Refuge in Florida has ended the sale of single-use plastic bottles at its Nature Store;
  • Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska detailed a youth crew to clean 15,000 pounds of beach debris this past summer and post a film of their effort on YouTube;
  • Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific allowed the filming of a documentary about albatrosses whose stomachs are filled with plastics. Four plastic-laden albatross carcasses were recently shipped from the refuge to the Smithsonian Institution for research and display;
  • Chincoteague Refuge in Virginia displays a life-size sea turtle replica, filled with sea debris, to show the harm done by ocean trash. The “trashtalkingturtle” was donated by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team, which collects beached marine mammals and sea turtles, often full of balloons and plastic bags.  

Refuges’ help is welcome, say experts. “There have just got to be more people to get the word out,” says Pamela Denmon, wildlife biologist at Eastern Shore of Virginia Refuge.

Read more about refuge efforts to reduce marine debris here.

See photos of marine debris on refuges: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwshq/sets/72157631753678584/

Learn how you can reduce marine debris.

Susan Morse is a writer/editor for the National Wildlife Refuge System

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