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The weekend of May 15-16, 89 volunteer citizen scientists from six counties, including eight from Kitsap County, converged on Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend to hear an update from scientists on the progress of the Salish Seas Plastics Pollution project. The volunteers had spent hundreds of hours sifting sand and collecting and sorting debris from the beaches of the inland Puget Sound. Researchers then analyzed it to determine what kind and how much plastic is in our beaches.
The Kitsap volunteers are members of the Beach Naturalists and the Beach Watchers, and they have received training — both in classrooms and during field trips — on how to identify different types of seaweed, clams, starfish, crabs, and native shoreline plants. They also learn about the important interlinked components of our shoreline ecosystem that sustains these creatures. The classes are hosted by the Washington State University Extension/Sea Grant program and are taught by expert marine biologists from Sea Grant, the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, the Suquamish Tribe, and others.
In exchange for education, for the fun of working on the beach, and for the good feelings that come from caring for the community, these local volunteers clean beaches, assist elementary school teachers with class learning excursions to the beach … and they sift sand.
They sieve the debris into two classes: those pieces 1-5 mm and those more than 5 mm. Using forceps and magnifying glasses, other volunteers sort the manmade debris into categories: hard plastic fragments, foams, pellets (pre-production plastics, also called nurdles), films (pieces of plastic bags or wrappers), filaments (fishing line, rope, or synthetic cloth), cigarette parts, glass, and others. They then ship these collections off to chemists and marine biologists for confirmation and analysis. After all the hours of work, this past weekend, the volunteers were treated to the preliminary results of the now 2-year study that is looking at plastics pollution in the Salish Seas.
Presenting at the conference were Dr. Joel Baker — Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science and Professor, University of Washington Tacoma Science Director, Center for Urban Waters; Kate Little — Citizen Science Specialist, Washington Sea Grant; Courtney Arthur — National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and Jen Kingfisher — Marine Program Educator for the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.
Some major principles that have emerged from global research: Plastic is forever; large pieces of plastic are broken down by wave and shore action into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic (microplastic); plastic in the ocean is now everywhere that you look for it; and more plastic is entering into the oceans each year. There is now a twice Texas-sized swirling soup of plastic in the Pacific — called the Great Pacific Garbage patch — to which specific patterns of ocean current send lots of the world’s plastic. Though strangulation of ocean birds and mammals by ingestion of plastic is easy to assess, what is not known yet, either globally or locally, is what are the biologic effects of increasing levels of very small bits of plastic, called microplastic, in our waters.
Very preliminary results from the Salish Seas study reveal that there is 0.12 gram of plastic per kilogram of sand on our beaches. This compares to the 0.5 gram of plastic per kilogram of sand on Hawaiian beaches. Prior research shows the amount of plastic in our beaches is increasing each year. Of the plastic that makes up our beaches, hard plastic fragments make up a large amount … and so does foam (such as in styrofoam floats, docks, cups, and plates). A revelation to many in the audience was that micoroplastic, which many knew came from large plastic broken into small plastic, also comes directly from many consumer products such as some toothpastes and facial cleansers. Previously, the “grit” in such products was from crushed nut shells, but some manufacturers now use tiny bits of plastic instead.
Besides looking at beaches, Salish Seas scientists are also looking at the waters and the wildlife. They skim surface water with fine-mesh nets to collect manmade debris and examine what plastic our wildlife ingests. For example, on Protection Island, seagulls normally vomit up boluses — lumps of undigested matter. Fourteen percent of the seagulls’ boluses contain plastic. Most of the plastic in the seagulls is the film-type, which comes from plastic bags.
The future focus of the Salish Seas Plastics Pollution Project will be to continue the data collection to better define what plastic is in our waters and on our beaches, to determine the trend over time of plastic accumulation; and to increase public awareness. The citizen scientist volunteers from the Kitsap Beach Naturalists and Beach Watchers, partnered with those from Clallam, Jefferson, Island, Snohomish, Skagit, and San Juan Counties, are providing the critical on-the-beach grunt labor for the Project.
Future classes will be held to train more Beach Naturalists and Beach Watchers and they will be posted in the Kitsap Sun community happenings or you can contact the Washington State University Extension directly at their office located in the Norm Dicks Government Center in Bremerton, phone (360) 337-7224.
Kitsap Beach Naturalist