Long Islanders Reduce Plastic Debris to Save Seabirds

While collecting trash, a volunteer, who specializes in marine life, observes a Seagull for any signs of harm or injury.

By Elsie Boskamp and Denise De Sousa 

Hampton Bays residents and visitors collected 350 pounds of beach litter at Ponquogue Beach, this week during International Beach Cleanup Day, in an effort to help save the world’s seabird population.

“Beach cleanups provide people with a way to minimize the problem we have created by removing these threats before they have the opportunity to negatively impact marine life,” Samantha Rosen, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation’s education coordinator, who helped organized the beach cleanup, said.  “Plastics bags and balloons are just two of the most commonly collected items during a beach cleanup, and if left on the beach, they could become entangled around an animal or ingested.”

An estimated 90 percent of living seabirds have consumed plastic from the more than 4.8 million metric tons deposited in the oceans each year, a study conducted in August 2015 by the University of California, in Santa Barbara, concluded.

Researchers have also found that the consumption of plastic by seabirds has risen 75 percent since1960.

“Much of our waste and litter that ends up in the ocean can cause harm to wildlife in our waters,” Dr. Denise Hardesty, who co-authored the study, said. Hardesty explained the dangers of plastic consumption to marine life: “Eating plastic can result in starvation, gut perforation or impaction [digestion problems]. [Animals] also get tangled in fishing gear, lines, balloon strings, all sorts of other items, like packing bands. We call lost nets ‘ghost net’s as they keep fishing and killing wildlife indiscriminately.”

A recent study concluded that 90 percent of living seabirds have, at some point, consumed plastic.

Birds, notorious for their quickness, mistakenly identify plastics on the water’s surface for fish or animals as they swoop in for the grab, Dr. R. Lawrence Swanson, the associate dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, explained.

“Most organisms can’t just distinguish, the way you can distinguish, what they’re eating,” Swanson said. “Plastic grocery bags to a sea turtle looks like a jelly fish.”

Long Island’s population of 7.568 million people adds to the region’s pollution problem in land and marine ecosystems.

Polluted water and waste management also impact outside waters and marine life, Chris Clapp, a marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy, said.

“Our problem is so dispersed, it’s going to take a long time to have meaningful impact,” Clapp said. “But when you remove the source of the problem, the systems are pretty resilient and will come back.”

Although water pollution has reached detrimental levels, with researchers predicting that 99 percent of seabirds will have consumed plastic by 2050, reversing the damages is not impossible.

“Reuse, reconsider, repackage,” Dr. Hardesty said. “Get outside and pick up three pieces of litter wherever you go – not just on the beach, but in the parking lot before that litter makes it to the beach.”

At the Ponquogue Beach cleanup, residents and visitors picked up more than 90 pieces of plastic, which had made its way onto one of Long Island’s sandy shores.

“The city people go home after Labor Day and we come down and pick up all their garbage,” a volunteer at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, said.  “One bird down here even has a piece of plastic twine wrapped around its leg, but we haven’t been able to catch it.”