Thanks to a recent award from the National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL), COASST is expanding to monitor marine debris. Since December, we’ve assembled a team of student interns and staff dedicated to developing this new program lead by Marine Debris Program Coordinator Hillary Burgess. What have they been up to? Creating a scientific protocol for monitoring debris that collects information useful to the resource management community AND is do-able by COASSTers.
Like the beached bird program, marine debris COASSTers will document basic beach and human use data (wood, wrack, humans, dogs and vehicles) and for this program, the quantity and characteristics of debris objects. These data link to how harmful debris are to wildlife and wildlife habitat, where debris comes from (some obvious, some we haven’t thought much about), and the path debris take to get to the beach.
Thanks to the dedicated effort of hundreds COASSTers, the marine debris team hit the ground running and began analyzing a database of over 6,000 marine debris photos from about 200 beach sites in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Photo team interns Jessica and Abby are independently assigning characteristics to debris objects – so far, they’ve reviewed nearly 900 photos! Pausing along the way to compare results, analyze sources of disagreement, and make adjustments accordingly, these photos have been extremely valuable in the creation of the new survey.
Beyond photos, we’ve also launched an expert panel to help determine which types of characteristics should be included: bite marks? color? weathered? Although it may sound fairly straightforward, marine debris comes in a seemingly infinite array of shapes, hues, materials, and sizes – dealing with the challenging variability has led to many hours of debate and discussion.
And lengthy discussion does sometimes lead to more lighthearted moments and philosophical consideration of debris. For instance, is the object a loop? Some objects have very small holes; other objects are rope/line tangled into a massive ball of loops. And why do we care? Loops can be super dangerous to marine organisms, causing entanglement and strangling, a threat especially well documented in Northern Fur Seal pups. All this talk prompted Hillary to look up the actual definition of a loop online. We pondered: if the end is connected to the beginning, what is the beginning or the end?
Stay tuned for more updates from Hillary and marine debris program students – we’re rapidly making progress toward the 2015 launch of marine debris surveys!