Shore litter ugly, dangerous

Cheryl May is a warrior. Her mission is to keep Island County’s beaches litter-free and to educate the public about the dangers of litter, especially plastics, to fish and wildlife.

Rain or shine, winter or summer, May and a team of volunteers can be seen walking along Island County’s public beaches removing litter that washes in from the sea and picking up trash left behind by careless beachcombers.

“Our purpose is to pick up anything that doesn’t belong naturally on the beach,” said May, who is the volunteer coordinator for Island Beach Cleanup for Lighthouse Environmental Programs at Fort Casey.

The litter patrol, armed with sharp sticks and garbage bags paid for by a two-year grant from the state Department of Ecology, spends two hours on Saturdays at the various public beaches on Whidbey and Camano islands. May and her volunteers search between huge driftwood logs and comb miles of sand for litter— things such as boat rope, pieces of foam, aluminum cans and tires.

On Double Bluff Beach last Saturday, May said plastics are the curse of county’s shoreline.

“Vegetable bags become mini gill nets, catching fish and entangling them,” she said. “Ordinary plastic boat rope when it frays looks like nesting material to birds. When it’s added to a nest, baby birds can become entangled so they can’t fly out. They eventually starve to death.”

Plastic foam blocks used beneath docks frequently break off and float away, and are another hazard to fish and birds. Birds often eat the material, thinking it’s fish eggs, and starve after filling up on it. May said that when fish eat foam their buoyancy changes, making them unable to dive and thus more vulnerable to predators.

In all, May and her crews pick up about a ton of plastic foam each month from all the beaches they clean.

Fishing line is another common waste material found on the beaches. During fishing season, May visits fishermen on the beaches to educate them about the danger of leaving their line behind.

“We pick up gobs and gobs of fishing line. It is a hazard both in the water and out, tangling fish and trapping birds,” May said.

The type of litter May sees changes with the season. During winter and early spring, she finds primarily debris that washes in during storms. Summer brings trash left behind after picnics and barbecues.

The most unusual garbage May has found on the beach is the top half of an outhouse.

“It looked just like the floating outhouse in the Tom Hanks movie, “The Castaway,” she said. “Another time we found a person’s entire life dumped in the water at Fort Casey spit. It was everything from photos, official documents, appliances and clothing. My guess is it was probably a divorce situation.”

Overall, May said, county beaches are cleaner since she and her volunteers started their program. The group sends information on the amount of plastic and other man-made materials it retrieves to a company that maintains a worldwide database on litter found in the oceans and along the shorelines.

“No ocean on the planet is free of litter, even the Arctic,” May said.

There are success stories. Because of the information kept in the database, Morton Salt changed the way it packaged its product.

“Morton was shipping salt in huge plastic bags that were turning up in the ocean when containers were lost overboard,” May said. “As a result, they changed their bulk packaging to paper.”

May said education is the key to reducing the amount of litter. She has designed a teaching program for primary age school children. Typically May has a group come to the beach where she can demonstrate exactly what she is talking about.

“I teach them about plastic — where it comes from, how it is used, and the damage it can do when it washes ashore. Then we do a little beach cleanup,” she said.

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