Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Floatable Trash

April 1, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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While working my way through obtaining a marine science degree, I was lucky enough to be taken on as a vet tech at an animal hospital. It was in Mamaroneck, a lovely town in Westchester with a pretty little harbor on the Long Island Sound. I was struck at the time by how often we needed to operate on cats and dogs to remove everyday items that were blocking their stomachs and/or intestines. These items included plastic toys, string, yarn, Christmas tinsel, plastic Easter grass, and the ribbons attached to helium balloons. Like playful, curious children, companion animals put anything in their mouths that was colorful and tasted interesting.

One day a kind-hearted fisherman came into the practice with a seagull wrapped in his own tee shirt. A line of string was dangling behind the bird — it was entangled in the same type of trash you and I might create on any given day. We were thankfully able to untangle and treat the poor bird and release it back to its beachfront home, but ever since that day, I haven’t looked at trash on the beach and in the water the same way.

Floatable Trash balloons by Kimberly Williams aWhether helium balloons festooned with curly ribbon, drinking straws, food wrappers, or plastic bags packed with pretzels for a nice snack on the boat, once they hit the water or the beach they become hazardous to creatures. And most marine life will not be as lucky as that seagull was to have a kindly fisherman or a veterinary practice nearby to help in time.

We’ve all heard stories and seen horrific photos showing tragic results when six-pack can rings make their way onto or into the bodies of curious seals, turtles ingest jellyfish-mimicking plastic bags and balloons, and marine birds, whales, and fish swallow bits of plastic. In response, perhaps you have already made some changes, such as switching to reusable bags, water bottles, and snack containers, choosing items with less packaging, and offering bubbles at kids’ parties instead of balloons.  Maybe you remember to say, “I don’t need a straw, thanks” to waitstaff at restaurants, especially when you dine near the water. These are really important steps in the right direction, but as a boater, you can make an even bigger difference to wildlife when it comes to floatable trash!

Instead of the usual sigh of relief when floatable trash drifts by without snaring your propellers, remember that these same items will likely entangle some living creature whether or not you and your family are there to witness it. (If you are boating with your family, what a horrible thing for your children or grandchildren to see!) So enlist the help of passengers and crew to become net-wielding water-guardians, capturing the trash and helping wildlife avoid disaster.

While most of us would never go boating with a bundle of Mylar balloons, we can be extra thoughtful and avoid bringing unnecessary plastics and packaging with us on the boat where they can blow away and add to the problem. But if something does blow off the boat, having your net handy and your eyes open will keep you one wave in front of an entanglement accident waiting to happen. Who knows, you might even scoop up a new treasure, like a lost boat bumper (who couldn’t use a spare!) or an awesome new hat.

Floatable Trash balloons by Kimberly WilliamsBoating with children? Even better! You already know how fantastic a day on the water is for them — everything is a game. So appoint kids to serve as the trash spotters in a competition to point out and/or snare (depending on their ages and the size of the boat, among other factors) the most floatable trash. What a fun way to practice boating maneuvers, instill life lessons, and help our beloved aquatic companions all at the same time!

Get teenagers involved in some citizen science for the day! By downloading the free Litterati app and photographing the trash your family has scooped out of the water, it becomes part of an international database used to help scientists determine the extent of the marine debris problem. http://litterati.org/cause.php

As boaters, we love nothing more than that feeling of gazing out over a seemingly endless sea of blue, searching for kindred spirits sharing our waters on a beautiful sunny day. If you have been lucky enough to be part of that rare encounter with a sea turtle or a pod of dolphins you already know that feeling of pure joy and shared love for the water. The volunteer crews that rescue entangled marine life and the vets who volunteer to save wild animals that have ingested plastic are heroes. But we can all be heroes by preventing these things from happening in the first place. If you and your crew are already keeping an eye out for wildlife, you’ll be an unofficial part of a wildlife rescue team every time you hit the water just by scooping up all the trash you spy.

By Kimberly Williams

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