Marine debris is a problem that affects everyone, says Gabrielle Renchen, a scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission speaking at the Eco Discover Center in Key West this week.. In the summer, Renchen can be found most often on the water, surveying lost lobster traps and other marine debris, but in the winter, she’s often on the road up and down the Florida Keys, reaching out to raise public awareness on marine debris.
Her goal is not to just raise awareness, but to get citizens involved in helping to clean up marine litter.
Marine debris ranges from tiny particles of plastic to abandoned vessels that can be a hazard to navigation, but whatever the size, it is a scourge on the environment.
In a 2014 global coastal clean up sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts comprised the largest group of litter collected, but as the graphic below shows that most of what ends up in the sea is plastic.
Plastic may have made our lives easier, Renchen says, but it’s forever. It never bio-degrades completely, but breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, and these smaller plastic pieces are being eaten by birds and other marine animals. Even smaller plastic pieces are eaten by fish and may end up in the human food chain. But the birds and marine life who ingest indigestible plastic often end up starving to death, because their stomachs tell them they are not hungry. Turtles often eat plastic bags because they resemble jellyfish, an important source of food for turtles. Turtles have even been known to swallow fish hooks.
Animals often get entangled in mono-filament and rope, another way that our marine life is endangered by marine debris.
Renchen’s primary focus at work is lobster trap debris. A recent survey of commercial lobster fishermen found that as many as 18% of their traps are lost on an annual basis – not only does that represent a financial loss for the industry, but those ‘ghost traps’ continue to fish, and nearly ¾ or a million lobster die in those traps every year.
Removing ghost traps is a tricky business, as it is a felony to touch a trap that is not your own. The law is in place to protect the lobstering industry, as trap molestation is a large problem, but removing the abandoned traps is also a priority. Permits can be obtained to help remove derelict traps, but it requires an application process that is a bit cumbersome. Plans are underway to make the process a little easier. In the meantime, it is possible to volunteer to help in the process: see: http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/trap-debris/volunteer-program/ for more information.
In Key Colony Beach, the local dive shop, a Deep Bleu dive hosts a couple of clean ups every year – one in September on the Thunderbolt (a popular wreck dive) which is part of the Ocean Conservancy’s Global Coastal Clean Up, and on Earth Day every April. Email email@example.com or call 305-743-2421 or email to get involved in this year’s clean up efforts.
Other things we can all do to clean up? Take care to dispose of litter properly to begiun with, of course. A lot of marine debris starts out on land and is blown into the water when not thrown away properly. We can also stop using plastic bags – carrying our own canvas bags to the store, refusing to buy bottled water, refuse to buy goods wrapped in plastic; be sure to recycle, and support legislation to address marine debris issues.
If you have a group that would like to learn more about marine debris, contact Gabrielle Renchen to arrange a presentation at 305-289-2330.
Images courtesy of Ocean Conservancy.