On a warm and breezy afternoon earlier this summer, I arrived at the offices of the American Littoral Society and Clean Ocean Action.
These organizations share a building at Fort Hancock, near the end of Sandy Hook Gateway Recreational Area, that offers a breathtaking view of the shoreline. In other words, I was on a site visit at the beach!
While the setting was beautiful and relaxing, I was there to learn about the Littoral Society and Clean Ocean Action’s efforts to protect and improve New Jersey’s inland and coastal waterways.
American Littoral Society advocates for a healthy ocean and reminds us that we need sustainable fishing communities, healthy bays, estuaries and resilient coastlines. The Atlantic Ocean holds tremendous value to us in New Jersey. In 2012, the Mid-Atlantic ocean economy alone contributed $47 billion to the national GDP and generated 700,000 full and part-time jobs.
But without a long-term, comprehensive national ocean policy, the ocean’s value could quickly deteriorate. In response to this, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body was formed in 2013 to coordinate and implement ocean planning with state, Federal, tribal and Fishery Management Council representatives. Within in New Jersey, the Littoral Society is working alongside this group to track their progress and advocate that the plan focus on sustainable uses of the ocean and include conservation measures to identify and protect ecologically special places.
One part of the plan that I found relevant is the focus on “developing and implementing a regionally appropriate plan for marine debris reduction.”
Growing up in Northern New Jersey, I looked forward to weekend trips to various beaches along the Jersey Shore with my family. Spending the weekend down by the shore made each summer special. During those trips I’m sure I noticed a cigarette filter and empty plastic bottle along the shore, but I never considered that the plastic would remain in the ocean long after I left. The most I worried about was getting caught in a rip tide or a sea gull stealing my potato chips.
Unfortunately, the trash left behind or washed out to sea from other bodies of water are posing a major threat to the health of the ocean — it’s all still there. Those pieces of plastic are breaking down into even tinier, microscopic pieces called microplastics that stay suspended in the water.
On my visit, Catie Tobin, Clean Ocean Action’s marine science program manager, showed me water sample slides containing different kinds of microplastics. It was astonishing to see how different they looked in her hand versus under a microscope.
To the naked eye, the slide appeared to have only a drop of water on it, but the microscope revealed plastic fibers and other fragments.
Through their annual Beach Sweep programs, Clean Ocean Action has proven that the No. 1 type of debris found on the beaches in New Jersey are plastics, which make up over 70 percent of the total debris collected on our shores by their citizen volunteers. Of that, nearly 70 percent of the plastics were single-use plastics such as plastic water bottles, plastic cutlery, and straws. Plastic pieces less than 5 mm in size are increasingly more common in the marine environment and cause for serious concern for quality and health of our coastal ecosystems and wildlife.
Microplastics are both manufactured and created from the breakdown of larger plastic pieces. The breakdown of plastic releases toxic chemicals, such as bisphenol A — commonly referred to as BPA (the stuff you don’t want in your baby bottle) — and styrene trimer, both linked to endocrine disruptions.
Plastics in the ocean are a threat to marine life (think of fish getting tangled and eating it), tourism (nobody likes getting to the beach only to find it’s been closed due to litter) , and navigation hazards (think boats with snared propellers, clogged intakes).
In addition to researching this problem, Clean Ocean Action designed tip cards to educate distinct groups of people about minimizing their contribution to the problem of nonpoint source pollution or “pointless pollution.”
Both American Littoral Society and Clean Water Action advance the Dodge Foundation’s environmental program goal to safeguard New Jersey’s watersheds and precious marine and freshwater ecosystems.
Whether that happens by advancing a regional ocean plan or organizing a beach litter sweep with high school students, these organizations remind me that being a steward of the ocean requires individual and collective actions focused on both the big picture, and the short term.
Naeema Campbell is the Environment and Informed Communities program associate. This blog is part of the new Dodge Road Trip series, designed to highlight the stories behind some of New Jersey’s greatest places.