Recent sea trash storm on Sanibel shores highlights impact of plastics
Instead of being greeted by seashells and turtle tracks along the shores, early morning beach walkers were recently struck by the sight of plastic bottles and styrofoam chucks littering the high tide line.
It was an all-hands-on-deck incident as the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation sea turtle and shorebird volunteers, staff, Adopt-A-Beach participants, residents and tourists launched an impromptu cleanup effort on June 6. In eight miles of shoreline from Tarpon Bay Road to Blind Pass, Sea Turtle and Shorebird Program coordinators Kelly Sloan and Audrey Albrecht, sea turtle technician Jack Brzoza and intern Ana Defilipo had the bed of the beach patrol vehicle completely filled with trash that was largely composed of plastics.
In addition to spending their time measuring and monitoring nesting activity, they spent additional manpower doing what amounted to a sea trash shuttle run: jumping off the vehicle to the beach, grabbing trash, tossing it into the back of the vehicle and repeating it. Other groups of turtle patrol volunteers mirrored the messy clean up exercise along the entire coastline of Sanibel and Captiva.
Alexis Horn, with SCCF, reported that the trash finds have been ongoing for the past few weeks.
At one point on June 6, the SCCF vehicle was so full of plastics that the group was concerned some might be blown back out before they reached Bowman’s Beach, where they photo documented their haul before dumping it into recycling bins.
“This is so sad to see but picking up plastic and sea trash is all part of what we do,” Sloan said.
Still stunned by the usual onslaught of trash, she and the other researchers wondered about the point source of the notable pollution event.
“A number of the bottles labels were written in foreign languages, showing just how far our trash can travel on ocean currents,” Albrecht said.
The plastics varied in age and original use. Some were coated in thick amounts of algae, some blackened with an oily diesel fuel-like slim, yet most were single-use water bottles.
As the group continued their patrol they came upon a Chateaux Sur Mer resident and Adopt-A-Beach participant who estimated picking up 50 plastic bottles and a dozen styrofoam chunks in a one mile stretch – the most she had ever seen in 15 years. Along Gulf Pines and Gulf Shores, other Adopt-A-Beach participants lived their pledge to be ambassadors to the shore by picking up plastics there.
The unusual amount of debris in a single day served to highlight the impact and importance of asking everyone who enjoys the beaches and environment to help protect it. As Ted Sieger, a world renowned resource economist stated, “This isn’t a problem where we don’t know the solution. We know how to pick up garbage. Anyone can do it.”
National Geographic’s current cover story highlighted some compelling facts about plastic. While a plastic bag or bottle may have a work life of or utility for 15 minutes, scientific estimates for plastic decomposing range from an incredible 450 years to never. In addition, Science Daily recently reported, “Researchers found a wide array of microplastics in fish stomachs – with a whopping 73 percent of the fish having ingested the pollutants.”
Being a barrier island with critical nesting habits makes Sanibel even more vulnerable to experiencing the detrimental environmental impact of plastics with even greater force.
Research conducted by Florida Atlantic University has already documented that microplastics are found in the sand of Gulf Coast beaches, with the concentration higher in dunes where turtles nest. The plastics have the potential to change the nest incubation temperature, which determines the sex of the hatchlings. Research indicates that rising temperatures are already starting to create a worldwide female-biased sex ratio that appears to be growing.
For example, a study in Australia’s Northern Great Barrier Reef revealed that 99 percent of young green turtles are female and that male sea turtles at the location are disappearing. Closer to home, researchers from Florida Atlantic University have documented that 97 percent to 100 percent of the hatchlings sampled since 2002 have been female. With drastic environmental changes predicted to occur within the century, sea turtles are at risk of unsustainable sex ratios that could have a negative impact on their populations. Microplastics that absorb and retain heat in the sand could exacerbate the issue.
While the small microplastic pieces may not be as visually disturbing as larger pieces of trash, the tiny bits of plastic pose an immediate threat to the sea turtle population. In addition to possibly altering sand temperatures, microplastics are ingested by sea turtles of all life stages, causing them starve because they feel full or creating impaction issues.
This highlights the importance of asking everyone who enjoys our beaches to play a vital role in picking up plastic. Regardless of how small the pieces may seem, they have a very real and lasting detrimental impact on the environment and food chain.
“We’re trying to get the word out that picking up all plastic makes a truly meaningful difference.” Sloan said. “So we want to thank our Adopt-A-Beach ambassadors and who are committed to being engaged with nature and who are keepers of our shoreline.”