By Katherine Wright
The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research & Preservation and the National Park Service held litter-picking events along a mile stretch of Fire Island National Seashore Wilderness in tandem with International Coastal Cleanup Day on September 16th.
Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide participated in this international effort organized by the Ocean Conservancy to rid the ocean of trash, according to a press release from the Ocean Conservancy.
“There’s a lot of garbage on the beach,” Pat Whitlock-Ryley, a National Park Ranger, said.
The trash washes in with the ocean waves, but beach goers also leave it behind.
“I’ve experienced where guys fishing or people hanging out just bury garbage in the sand,” Tom Casey, who regularly comes to Fire Island to catch striped bass or blue fish, said. But Casey has no complaints about the current state of Long Island’s shoreline. “[The volunteers] do a pretty good job of cleaning it up,” he said.
Cigarette butts are the most frequently found trash item on the world’s beaches according to data from the Ocean Conservancy. Nearly two million butts were collected worldwide during the 2016 International Coastal Cleanup day—lined up end-to-end that’s enough butts to reach from Montauk to Manhattan.
“People don’t think they are trash,” Whitlock-Ryley said. Instead of taking the butts home, they just flick them into the sand and leave them there, she said.
A trash item that regularly washes up on Suffolk’s beaches from the ocean is helium balloons, Sonia Taiani, a National Park Ranger, said.
Taiani said that she often sees people walking with helium balloons down to the beach. The balloons are released up into the sky to commemorate the loss of a loved one, for example. But people forget these balloons don’t stay up in the sky forever, she said. “What goes up must come down, and it usually goes into the ocean.” Taiani suggests that people throw rose flower petals into the sea—these are biodegradable and won’t harm marine life.
Protecting marine life is the main goal of the monthly “Pick It Up!” events held by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research & Preservation, Nicole Valenti, who coordinates the Pick It Up! program, said in an email.
“Over the years we have seen an increasing number of animals coming into our hospital facility that have been affected by marine debris, whether it be from being entangled or having ingested something they shouldn’t have,” Valenti said. “Due to the increase in these cases we decided to start the Pick It Up! beach cleanup initiative to help protect and preserve the marine environment and the wildlife in it.”
Wildlife eats trash that finds its way into the world’s seas and oceans. For example, today, plastic is found in the stomachs of 90% of all sea birds, according to a study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Riverhead Foundation’s Pick It Up! program aims to combat this problem locally and raise awareness of the impact that trash has on wildlife, said Valenti.
On the first Saturday of every month, a handful of volunteers head out to each of five of Suffolk County’s beaches to collect any trash that has washed up. “On average between the 5 locations we collect about 12 bags of garbage in a two hour span of time,” Valenti said. (The next pick it up event takes place on October 7th.)
In 2016, they collected over 5,030 pounds of garbage, the weight of two Nissan Versas. “Sometimes they collect just a few bags of trash, other times they collect hundreds of pounds,” Sonia Taiani said.
While this might sound a lot, there is a lot less rubbish on Fire Island beach than there was five years ago local resident Frank Lincoln said. Lincoln regularly goes for a stroll along the beach and picks up any trash he spots along the way. “Five years ago I’d fill a couple of garbage bags,” he said. Today he just carries his backpack.