Category Archives: Marine Debris

Unsolved Mysteries – September 2017

Gary encountered this metal buoy at Diamond Creek near Homer, Alaska during his first survey in August. We’re wondering where and how this kind of buoy would be used.

Steel buoy found on the Kenai Peninsula, August 2017.

Craig documented this crab trap float fragment in May. Noticing the abundance of variably colorful foam buoys encountered during marine debris surveys made us wonder—do the colors signify anything? Are they painted for easy recognition by the owners?

Colorful float fragment found May 2017, Half Moon Bay Beach, WA.

Ann and Michael encountered this large plastic drum during their August survey of Flat point on Lopez Island, WA. What would this drum have contained?

Plastic drum found August 2017 on Lopez Island, WA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please share your ideas in the comments!

Gooney Birds? Mollymawks? Albatross!

A recent spate of Black-footed Albatross finds along the north outer coast of Washington in May and June got us wondering about these majestic birds.

With a wingspan of two meters (!) or longer, albatross are the largest members of the Tubenose Foot-type Family (Procellariidae). In the North Pacific there are three species: the dark-bodied, dark-billed Black-footed Albatross; the light-bodied, Laysan Albatross with a “smokey eye”; and the larger, Short-tailed Albatross, distinguished from Laysan and Black-foots by an over-sized bubblegum pink bill (plumage of Short-tails varies with age).

What else might a COASSTer mistake an albatross for? Bald Eagles, Brown Pelicans, Great-blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes are all COASST finds with overlapping wingspans. But each of these birds can easily be distinguished by foot-type, and bill size and shape.

All of these large-bodied COASST finds have distinctively different feet.

A long-lived, monogamous bird, albatross begin breeding at age 5-10, and it takes two parents to raise a single chick. New pairs may require a few years of practice to “get it right.  After that, mates meet annually for a long breeding season: courtship and “re-acquaintance time” starts in November, eggs appear before the turn of the year, and chicks don’t fledge until mid-summer!

Like all members of the family, albatross have a keen sense of smell and can literally smell their prey from tens of kilometers away, a talent that suits these open ocean birds. Dinner for an albatross?  Neon flying squid, flying fish eggs (tobiko in sushi restaurants), and a range of small fish and shrimp-like organisms that come to the surface of the ocean at night.

Unfortunately, smelling their way to food puts albatross in harm’s way. Fishing vessels smell like floating restaurants, attracting albatross and their smaller relatives – shearwaters and Northern Fulmars – some of which become entangled or hooked in gear. Marine debris can also be deceptively appealing, as some plastics, after floating in the marine environment, adsorb and emit the same chemical (dimethyl sulfide) used by procellariiforms as a cue to identify prey. Not only that, floating debris can look like albatross prey (could you tell the difference between a squid mantle and a red lighter floating at the surface?). Young birds are especially susceptible. Dependent on their misled parents for food, chicks ingest plastics, filling their stomachs with indigestible objects they cannot regurgitate.

Photo: Claude Gascon. One theory to explain why albatross consume marine debris is prey mimicry. Oblong, ~5cm floating objects in the yellow to red color spectrum are squid mantle look-alikes.

Populations of Black-foots and Laysans number in the hundreds of thousands.  In contrast, Short-tails number less than ten thousand and are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

With a body that mimics a glider, albatross have the ability to soar tremendous distances.  Even while breeding on islands in the Hawaiian Island chain (Laysan and Black-foots) or southern Japan (Short-tails), breeding adults regularly visit North American waters.  Laysan’s appear to prefer coastal Alaska, whereas Black-foots fly due west to the Lower 48.

Breeding so far from our shores, and preferring the open ocean, you might think COASSTers would never find an albatross.  Not so!  In fact, Black-foots are among our top 30 species.  Peak Black-foot deposition is in the summer: May through August, just when adults are finishing breeding and chicks are coming off the colonies.  But the annual pattern is “irruptive.”  That is, in some years COASSTers are much more apt to find an albatross than in others.  In northern Washington, 2012 and 2017 were break-out years; in southern Washington, 2003, 2007 and 2012 were big.  The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be any trend towards higher numbers.

Although you’d have to walk pretty far, on average, to find an albatross on the beach, they do wash up regularly. Along the West Coast, Black-foots are about three times more prevalent on Washington outer coast beaches than along beaches to the south in Oregon and California. And Laysans are a truly rare find (photos are scaled to encounter rate). On the Aleutian Islands, the opposite is true.

Across the COASST dataset, albatross species wash up exactly where you would expect them to given at-sea sightings: Black-foots along the West Coast, and Laysan along the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Although the total body count favors the lower 48 (note only 3 Laysan have been found in Alaska), it’s actually the encounter rate (carcasses per kilometer) that is important.  Remember, there are many more COASSTers along the outer coast of Washington, Oregon and California than there are in the Aleutian Islands!  The photographs in the figure above are scaled to species-specific encounter rate the—the chance of finding an albatross in the Aleutians is about the same as along the outer coast of Washington.

A closer look at Black-foot deposition pattern on the West Coast reveals two distinct aggregations: one associated with the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca (we’re guessing these birds are associated with the Juan de Fuca eddy – an oceanographic feature south of the Strait), and a second larger aggregation surrounding the Columbia River.  Both the eddy and the “plume” of river water exiting the Columbia River into the Pacific Ocean are highly productive locations where a hungry chick or exhausted post-breeding adult can hunt pelagic prey.

When Black-foot encounter rates are broken down into smaller lengths of coastline (half a degree of latitude, or about 55 kilometers), it’s clear that some locations attract many more.

Moral of this story? If you hope to see an albatross on a COASST survey, head to the south outer coast of Washington during the summer and take a stroll along the sand.

Unsolved Mysteries – May 2017

This object was recorded as part of a COASST Marine Debris survey at Sunset Beach in Oregon. The text on the yellow label translates to “Warning! Sealed!” Do you know what it is? Perhaps the serial number is a clue.

If you have any ideas, please let us know your thoughts in the comments below, or send us an email at coasst@uw.edu.

 

Unsolved Mysteries – February 2017

These objects have washed in as part of COASST Marine Debris surveys.  Do you know what they are? If so, we’d love to have your help! Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below, or send us an email at coasst@uw.edu.

Michael and Laura found this red plastic part at Edmonds Marina in Washington.

This (part of the Millennium Falcon?) was found on a wilderness beach in Olympic National Park in Washington by Chiggers.

This large and heavily worn object was found by Sean and Becky at Beachside State Park in Oregon.

What’s Washed In – August 12, 2015

Hi COASSTers,

Summer signals COASST’s busy season, especially along the West Coast – exhausted breeders (and their chicks) arrive on COASST beaches beginning in July. Alan, who surveys Bob Creek and Stonefield Beach sounded the alarm about dozens of Common Murre chicks on Oregon South beaches. Staff at three partner organizations, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (Leslie Slater), the International Pacific Halibut Commission (Tracy Geerneart), and Washington Sea Grant (Ed Melvin) alerted COASST to two wrecks in Alaska – murres near Homer, shearwaters, fulmars, and murres near St. George Island.

With the wreck season upon us, here are some helpful tips to expedite processing lots of birds:

  • after the 10th bird, don’t measure – record, tag, and photograph only
  • process birds as a group – record, tag, and photograph together: we sometimes bring a 5-gallon bucket along to assist with this
  • bring extra helping hands and delegate people to specific tasks: one person tags and measures, one person takes notes, one person takes photos and writes on slate

Watch out for those Alcid chicks! Below, we’ve profiled two sets of four birds – in each of the sets, one species is not the same as the others!

Let’s take a look:

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Wing measurements (L to R): 13 cm, 20 cm, 12 cm, 11 cm

Credits (L to R): Grant and Kathy (Oregon Mile 102), Marc and Craig (Oregon Mile 313 S), Teresa and Danny (Pistol River, OR), Joann and Julie (Klipsan Beach, WA)

It’s photo THREE that’s different here (Ancient Murrelet). The rest are adult Common Murres. Here’s why:

Feet are pale, not dark, and the secondaries do not have white tips. In photos one and four, all murres are in molt. Wings look “stumpy” like those of a juvenile, except the face of all these birds is mostly dark. Check out the feather wear of the bird in photo one. Even though the chin is dark, we know this can’t be a juvenile – juveniles have fresh, dark plumage all over – this bird has worn plumage except for the head and new (growing) primaries.

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Wing measurements (L to R): 29 cm, 28 cm, 42 cm, N/A

Credits (L to R): Terry (Clam Beach South, CA), Steven and Nancy (Coronado Shores, OR) Ken (Sarichef East, AK), Deborah (Homer Spit Middle, AK).

It’s photo THREE that’s different. The rest are Northern Fulmars. Here’s why:
Although the plumage is similar, the wing measurement is WAY too big for a fulmar (28-33cm). Compare the heel (joint at base of toes) of the bird in photo two with photo three – that’s the swollen heel of a Larid, a Large Immature Gull.

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The mystery item from our last edition has been identified thanks to Ken and Art. As Art points out, “it is undoubtedly a butane powered micro brazing torch. Those things make great holiday gifts for the hard-to-buy-for crack or meth smoker, but they are also handy for electricians or mechanics with a need to heat something relatively small or delicate.”
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This week Ken from Shishmaref encountered a noteworthy concentration of objects with Russian and Korean writing. We are still in the process of translating the Korean, but in the meantime thought we’d share with you some of his finds.

Russian translation student Sarah identified that the jar is from brand Медведь любимый, translated as “favorite bear,” a company that cans fruits and vegetables.

The tube shown here contained hand lotion from brand Белоручка, which translates to “small white hands” or kid-glove.

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Check out the tubeworms that Keith found on his July survey in Ocean Shores (WA). Tubeworms anchor themselves to available substrates and secrete calcium carbonate, which forms the tubes that surround them. These tubes offer some protection from potential predators and other dangers. While there is still a lot to be researched about these unique animals, according to National Geographic, tubeworms have been around for at least 3 million years and can tell us a lot about the ocean’s history.

Seen something on the beach you’ve always wondered about? Send us a photo!

Cheers,
Erika, Julia, Jane, Hillary, Charlie, Heidi, Jenn, and the COASST Interns

What determines the path of marine debris through the ocean?

Physics! A combination of characteristics of the object, and the patterns of wind and ocean currents all play a role in where marine debris moves in the ocean. Why do we care? With two types of information–where debris winds up (on a COASSTER’s beach, for instance) and the influences of the movement of debris–we can determine where the object may have come from. This process can help to determine the sources of what’s washing in on our shores.

If we already know the source of marine debris and its beaching location, it can serve as a sort of “tracking device” or drifter. Following the devastating tsunami that struck Tohoku, Japan in 2011, models have been used to predict the path of the tons of debris that washed out to the ocean. The accuracy of these kinds of predictions depends on real, live information to verify and improve the methods.  COASST’s new marine debris program will collect this kind of data, taking into account the very characteristics of debris that play a part in how the object may move through the water.

Windage

Varying degrees of windage on example floats. Image originally appeared in NOAA Marine Debris documents about Tsunami Debris trajectories. http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/Japan_Tsunami_Marine_Debris_Report.pdf

So how does it work? Ocean currents are important no matter what, but the influence of wind depends on characteristics like size, hollowness, dimensionality (is it flat?), and material (tells us about density). Obviously, hollow and less dense (buoyant) objects are likely to rest higher in the water than solid or heavy objects. The shape and volume of any hollow cavity influence how a floating object is affected by wind. The area of the object that sticks above the water, or “sail area” determines the degree that wind impacts the object’s movement. This is known as “windage”. High windage– where the majority of the object is above the surface of the water–results in an increase of wind force on the sail area, where wind patterns in addition to ocean currents play a role in the path. Just as it sounds, the sail area acts as a sail and catches the air current. Oppositely, the “drag area” is the part of the object that lies below the surface. For objects that are flat or float just below the surface, windage will be very low.

One outcome of drifting debris

Gyre

North pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, courtesy of wikimedia commons

You may have heard of the North Pacific Gyre (NPG): a slow-moving spiral of converging ocean currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents. Within this convergence zone lies what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; millions of pounds of trash and plastic that extend for miles below and across the surface of the ocean. The massive accumulation of garbage comes from all over and is carried to the NPG by those very currents that converge there. Every piece of plastic that forms the “garbage island” got there by the forces of ocean and air currents. Objects with higher windage, tend not to accumulate in the Garbage Patch, as the wind sends them on their way.

 

Lucky Duck #245

Over spring break, marine debris student intern, Abby, spent the day hunting for petroglyphs and marine debris on the three-mile stretch of beach from Cape Alava to Sand Point.

By far the most interesting find was a weathered blue plastic duck, found among some seaweed in the wrack, with a large sharpie-marked “#245” on the bottom of it. Abby guessed it might have been a part of some project, so she brought it back to the COASST office to investigate. 

Blue Duck Profile

Maybe #245 is its race number and this little guy made it a lot farther than the finish line.

Was #245 its race number and this guy made it a lot farther than the finish line?

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a local oceanographer whose work revolves around modeling ocean currents, popularized the use of marine debris as a type of tracking movement of water on the ocean surface. He got his start after a large shipment of 29,000 plastic “Friendly Floatees” bath toys were dumped into the Pacific Ocean in 1992 and for the next 15 years or so people were finding toys from this specific spill washing up on beaches all over the world.

Photo credit A. Larson. Another example of a beached duck. You won't find this guy in the COASST field guide.

Photo credit A. Larson. Another example of a beached duck, but you won’t find this guy in the COASST field guide!

Picking up on this idea, schools, cities, and various non-profit organizations have taken to releasing batches of rubber ducks into streams and oceans, and relying on helpful beachcombers to report where and when they’re found. While COASST won’t be releasing any ducks or wood blocks (the slightly more eco-friendly version), future marine debris participants will collect information on where and when an object was found, material size, markings and identity to provide insight into source and movement patterns for all debris.

As to the little blue duck? After some CSI sleuthing on Google we found a “vintage” duck of the same style for sale on Etsy. Heidi did mention the Annual Great Olympic Peninsula Duck Derby, a good and local contender, but recent releases feature classic, yellow ducks. Finally, a potential match – could it be from the San Clemente (CA) Ocean Festival, about 1,740 kilometers south of the spot Abby found it on the North Coast of Washington?

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Adventures in Marine Debris

This winter, COASST marine debris student interns embarked on several field trips across Washington to develop and refine a preliminary protocol for the new marine debris program. Interns this quarter included a photo team, Abby and Jessica, and a field team, Angeline and Kaili.

Reports from the field:

A total of 14 beaches so far, from Deception Pass to Ocean Shores! Discovery Park was our first stop, to trial the small debris survey methods – lots of beach glass at both this site and Alki Beach.

 Interns Kaili and Abby survey for small marine debris at Discovery Park

Kaili (left) and Abby (right) use a 1 meter quadrat (i.e. square) to define the search area for small marine debris at Discovery Park (Seattle).

Together with service learning students Christie and Yi, we visited Whidbey Island beaches Ala spit, Penn Cove, Joseph Whidbey State Park, Fort Casey, and Useless Bay. The physical differences between these five sites was quite surprising (substrate, wood, wrack, bluff, dunes, exposure) given they’re all within a few kilometers of each other. Special thanks to COASSTers David and Candace, who oriented us to their beaches and shared some (much needed) chocolate!

Service learning student Christie paces the width of the beach.

Christie paces the width of the beach on a medium debris transect at Penn Cove (Whidey Island).

From the Puget Sound, we ventured to Ocean Shores to check out North Jetty and South Taurus beaches. Super wide, sandy beaches made the marine debris surveys much slower than those in Puget Sound.

The following week we returned to Ocean Shores to survey Damon Point and North Jetty to see if debris had shifted/accumulated/changed. We also visited the annual Beachcombers’ Fun Fair where we saw Heidi (COASST staff), and other marine debris enthusiasts, Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Alan Rammer. The collections and displays at the festival (that’s right, 44 exhibit categories, including “assembled unadorned pieces of driftwood”) helped us identify many objects we’ve been seeing in COASSTer photos and on our beach surveys!

Out at Damon Point, we almost lost our small debris surveyors (and equipment!) to a rogue wave. For the rest of the trip, we trekked all the way around the perimeter of Damon Point looking for particularly complex/interesting items to add to our marine debris teaching collection. Where did we find the most stuff? At the very tip! (fingers/points/spits tend to snag debris and birds – just ask the folks at Ediz Hook or Dungeness Spit).

During spring and summer quarters, we’ll continue to test and refine the marine debris monitoring protocol, getting it ready for Prime Time!

Angeline, Abby and Kaili enjoy the view at South Jetty after a long day of marine debris monitoring.

Angeline, Abby and Kaili (left to right) celebrate on the northern edge of Gray Harbor (Ocean Shores) after a long winter’s day of marine debris monitoring (shoes not required).