Friday, May 28, 2010

A tale of loss, litter, and gridlock

3189 A1 0319 ME 05 EEZ Z:F
8743 A1 0037 ME 07 EEZ Z:G
??13 A1 0645 ME 08 Z:F
0003369 ME 03 NC
???? A1 0189 ME 09 Z:G EEZ
846 ME 00 EEZ
3754 0445 ME 02 EEZ
???? 0344 ME ?? ????
72595 0754 ME 03 EEZ

No, your Web browser isn't freaking out. The codes above come from plastic tags attached to derelict lobster traps, washed up along the shores of Ocean Park.
These hulks litter the beach. As well as hundreds of pounds of rope and shredded bits of metal caging hopelessly tangled amid the carcasses.
So far I've found more than a dozen relatively intact ones, and dozens more scraps and shreds (which admittedly required walking some 7 to 8 blocks instead of 2). The true scale is probably much greater, as the sands are expert at hiding the sharp, rusted, twisted remains.
Each one of these crumpled, crushed, and torn boxes tells a story. As do the codes on the tags. After some digging, I've learned how to decipher them, largely. Let's take a complete one:

8743 A1 0037 ME 07 EEZ Z:G

8743 is the owner's license #.
A1 is the American Lobster Management area for MA/ME.
0037 is (I believe) the trap #.
ME 07 says the tag was registered for the year 2007.
EEZ = "Exclusive Economic Zone" - a zone 12-200 mi. from shore.
Z:G is Maine's zone G -- from NH border to roughly Portland.

What's striking is how many of these traps come from EEZ -- that is, at least 12 miles off the coast. One can imagine the tortured tale. Each of these traps at some point tore free from its buoy, then scraped and rolled along the seabed until eventually washing up on shore -- in at least one case (ME 00) seemingly a decade-long trip! It's sobering to consider how many more are in the deeps, waiting their turn.

What else struck me was -- why are they still here? These rotting, dangerous, disintegrating hulks are still there at the beach, visit after visit. Why doesn't anyone take them away?

It turns out, it's illegal. According to Title 12, Part 9, Subpart 2, Chapter 619, Subchapter 2 of Maine's Statutes, it is an offense to remove a trap from the beach without getting written permission from the Commissioner of Marine Resources first. A law originally meant to keep lobstermen from hassling each others' traps could now result in up to $6000 in fines for removing a dozen derelict and broken traps currently fouling a beautiful beach.

How safe do you feel, knowing that this might be under your daughter's feet?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Experimental archaeology

Instead of just thinking about how people used to make tools, build walls, create things, archaeologists are now actually doing it themselves. By experimenting, hands-on, they've overturned many venerated theories, and opened up new ones. It's an exciting field that has cast new light on everything from how Bronze Age Britons built Stonehenge to why Civil War weaponry & tactics were so deadly.

It's also useful for understanding how & why artefacts decay -- how they meet their end. I'm excited now to be tossing my hat in the ring.

I had asked a question about aluminum cans rotting at the beach.

I wanted to learn just what makes a soda can break down like the ones I had collected, and how long it really takes. It turns out, there are actually some really interesting experiments with how to corrode aluminum cans. But nothing that I found showed the natural effects of beach and ocean and salt.

So I decided to do an experiment of my own. From what I had learned, it seemed a can doesn't rot just because of seawater -- it also needs iron nearby to help it corrode. This seemed a good place to start my test. I would run a controlled experiment -- I'd put two cans in two buckets of seawater. One bucket would have iron nails in it, the other wouldn't.

This morning I grabbed an empty 5-gallon bucket from our condo's basement, went to Ocean Park, and filled it up in the ocean. I stopped at Hannaford's and picked up a 12-pack of ginger ale, then headed home. Cut the tops off of two milk jugs, emptied two of the cans (but left them unwashed to better simulate a can tossed out at the beach), and grabbed a handful of nails from the toolbox.

At 9:15AM, 5/25/2010, I filled each milk jug up with 2 1/2 quarts of the seawater, dumped the nails into one of the jugs, and put one can in each jug.

Lastly, I put a little clingwrap lightly over each jug to slow evaporation but still allow oxygen from the air to get in, and set the jugs off in a corner.

The next step is simple -- just wait and see what happens. Maybe nothing, maybe an answer. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The tie that binds?

Commercial fishing is the lifeblood for much of Maine. In 2000, the state granted some 18,000 harvesting licenses. About $336 million in seafood was landed in that year alone.

So it's little surprise that the detritus of commercial fishing washes up on local shores. But I was surprised by the amount. By any measure -- number of items, volume, weight -- the refuse of commercial fishing outstripped any other material I was collecting.

March 8:

March 19:

Trawler rope, line, netting, shellfish baskets -- if claw bands were a big business, fishing rope is a juggernaut. Google "fishing rope" and you get 10,000 hits. Almost all of it is now made of nylon, polypropylene, and other plastics that don't biodegrade. It all lives a hard -- and short -- life. And obviously much simply ends up shredded underwater or tossed overboard, then rides the currents wherever they lead. (It's a phenomenon documented on beaches around the world.)

Plus, it easily tangles with marine plants. Almost every clump of kelp that I picked through had rope, or thin, nearly invisible fishing line, hopelessly knotted up within it.

And of course this raises a slew of new questions -- does the rope/line actually help bind the kelp and clump it together? If so, is that a bad thing? Are there organisms who eat kelp and ingest rope fragments too? If so, is it harmful? And the organisms that bind to the ropes -- are they helpful or harmful when they hitch a ride? Does the rope sink and roll along the ocean floor til hitting shore -- or does it float and swirl near the surface?

Then there's the elephant in the room -- was all this fishing flotsam a one-off, or is it pervasive up and down the coast? Is it the unavoidable price of maintaining an industry that drives so much of my state's economy, and very way of life?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Details, details - Part 2

Appearances deceive.

That's the lesson that I keep relearning the deeper I dig. If something seems obvious, question it. Look at it from a different angle. Don't get lazy. You don't get to the truth of the matter -- or at least the whole truth -- by accepting a whole list of things as "given."

Cases in point from the March 19 haul.

Case #1. Shredded toddler waistband

Should be a no-brainer. Instant image of a family at the beach, a ripped piece of clothing from a store at the Maine Mall, maybe a scolding or two. Same event can be played out every summer day at Ocean Park.

But take a second look. The kelp and seaweed aren't just lying on top of the fabric. They're interspersed, weaved inside. How could that happen? Kelp and seaweed don't grow on beach sand. And the Children's Place? They're everywhere. Check their Web site -- there are 16 retail stores within 100 miles of Ocean Park. Could this piece of flotsam have bobbed around the ocean for months, or years even? Whatever the final truth, there's probably something far more interesting going on than a shredded pair of shorts left at the beach by a local family last summer.

Which sucks. It would be nice to have a simple answer for everything. But now, there are just questions. Did the kelp truly grow within the fabric? If so, where in the ocean did this waistband probably live while the kelp was growing in it? Does the waistband sink or float in ocean water? And how long did it have to be out there for life to grow in it?

Case #2: Gatorade bottle

Again, first glance, easy story comes to mind. Just some litterer leaving behind a drink bottle instead of tossing it out, right? Well, maybe. Look at the thing. The orange cap band is badly faded. The bottle itself is abraded -- parts are even worn through. This didn't just happen last week.

Alright then. What does it take for a bottle to look like this? Would a bottle left buried in the sand end up looking this way -- and if so, how long would it take? Or would it have to be rolled around and sandblasted, churned around the ocean and shorelines for years? I don't know. But if I'm serious about wanting to learn where the debris is coming from, it's something I'm going to have to find out.

Last but not least.

Case #3: Aluminum

Yum. Sharp, jagged bits of metal. Just what you want at the beach, right?

But, this also suggests that aluminum cans don't last forever. They do disintegrate. Interesting. Time to learn the facts. Go to Google, type in "how long does it take a can to decompose". 6 million hits. But the first one looks promising! Click. Oh. 200-500 years? I'm thinking no. Serves me right for clicking the first thing I saw.

Dig deeper. Ah-hah. Finding many reports of aluminum rotting away quickly at the beach. Folks saying aluminum is corroded by salt water. Case closed?

Nope, afraid not. We all know there's a lot of bad information on the Web. But I'm finding some of the worst right now -- at this very moment, as I'm trying to research this simple question. ("Keyboard flotsam," that's my new term for it.)

OK. Facts gathered. Salt water didn't cause the corrosion above. But the salt water -does- act as an electrolyte in galvanic corrosion. Simply put, this means there had to be other metals nearby (steel, iron). And both metals had to be close enough to each other, and both immersed in salty seawater, to react and break down the aluminum cans and food tins.

So, you throw an aluminum can overboard in the ocean, it can last for decades, or centuries. That turns out to be true. But at the beach, in just the right circumstances, and with other metal flotsam nearby, you might get that beer can to recycle itself.

Comforting. And just more proof that oftentimes the obvious... isn't so obvious.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Details, details - Part 1

I'm an archaeologist at heart -- if not by profession. I love the forensics of it -- taking the tiniest shreds of physical evidence and trying to tease the truth from them. There's an irony that if this bag of trash were from 2,000 years ago, I'd be thrilled to pieces. But it's not ancient. And seeing it isn't a thrill.

Still, just as with pottery shards, coins, nails, and other "small finds" at an archaeological dig, this modern trash is evidence. And it has a story to tell; it's just a question of learning how to read it.

So a little more detail about the bag collected on March 19.

Some things don't take much detective work -- such as the remnants of somebody's trip to Dairy Queen.

But some things do.

132 of these rubber-bandy things in my first bag. 31 here in this bag. What on earth? Well, there was a big clue in the huge amount of trawler rope and broken traps from commercial fishing fleets. Plus, I remembered many trips to Hannaford's, with my daughter waving hi to all the lobsters scrunched in their tank. Their claws were tightly banded so they wouldn't snap and maul or murder each other.

And if there were any doubt left, a clean-up of my finds revealed:

It's not hard to picture the scene. Lobster boat crew racing to get the bands on their newly-hauled catch. It's a dangerous job. A lobster pinch can tear the flesh off of a finger, and even badly bruise a gloved hand. Not to mention lobsters wounding each other and rendering the catch worthless.

It's also not hard to picture hundreds -- thousands -- of these little bands going overboard. Who would give a second thought to a little rubber band? Just grab another one. They're sold in bulk, all over the world. (How many bands -do- you get for a 25 lb. carton?) If you Google "lobster bands" you get some 2,840 hits. It's a big business.

Sadly, as I was learning with my beach-combing, these lost bands don't sink to the bottom of the ocean, to be covered by sediment and become future fossils. They don't melt into nothing, disappearing back from where they came. They simply don't go away.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ground Rules

OK. It's one thing -- a big thing -- to have the energy to do something about a problem.

It's another to know what you want to do, and how to measure your progress. It's not enough to say "The beach is trashed!" Or to pick up a random bagfull here and there and hope to learn anything useful about it. I had to set some guidelines.

What was I trying to do? Well, my first goal was (and is) to learn. Of all the questions swirling around in me, two were key: where was the trash coming from, and how fast was it coming? Wandering aimlessly, picking up bits here and there, wouldn't help answer. I thought about my first two trips. Both were pretty much the same: a stroll up and down the same stretch of beach, walking the apparent high-tide line, looking for generally easy-to-spot garbage. No heavy digging, no "cheating" by padding the trash count from an untouched section of beach.

It turned out, these seemed like pretty good controls. I could do this repeatedly, and start keeping track of what I found this way, week to week. With luck, I might be able to learn something. Score.

For those who don't know, Ocean Park is a community in York County, southern Maine (less than an hr from the NH border). It's 15 minutes from my front door, but a world apart. It's officially part of Old Orchard Beach, Maine's raucous tourist beach town. But it's a much quieter throwback to the lazy seaside villages of my parents' youth, with a small town square, old-time ice cream parlor, weathered clapboarded houses, dunegrass, and no neon or vulgar T-shirt shops. It's a good place.

This map (from shows about where I decided to do my sweeps.

So I resolved to keep returning to the same spot, keep finding what was there to find, and keep recording it. On my second trip, March 19, I collected the following:

A half-hour walking, only picking the obvious stuff, only along the high-water line. Details to follow in the next post. As mentioned, the length that I walked was some 2 city blocks, maybe 400 feet, not a tenth of a mile. There are 3500 miles of coastline in Maine alone.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Return trip

You know what it's like. You get an idea, it seems great. You noodle it in the evenings while some lousy TV show is on in the background. You make plans, you set goals, you feel energized. Then a day goes by, and another. And the passion fades, and for a while you feel guilty. "I really should stick with that, tonight I'm going to sit down and make more plans." A few more days of intra-cranial negotiations go by. Eventually it's just some silly random idea you had once, and you've moved on to the next shiny thing.

This has been my world. I was going to learn Latin. I started in 1997. To date I still can't effectively read a sentence in high Latin. I was going to get a Master's in history or archaeology. I've been "seriously checking out" graduate programs since about 1995.

That's why it struck me so oddly that, a week or so after my first roundup of debris, I felt the urge growing to go back and collect more. Then I did something completely out of character. I got up and did it.

It had only been days. But the beach had changed. Dramatically.

Mid-March had brought more brutal storms. The raging ocean had hurled a foot of sand 100 feet up the shore, burying the benches by the edge of the dunes. Hundreds of live clams had also been dislodged and were cast upon the beach, to rot or become gull food. Amongst them and the kelp row, more debris of the human variety.

My daughter didn't mind. She thoroughly enjoyed her piece of picket fencing.

For me, it was another heavy garbage bag after another all-too-brief amble. A hat. A glove. A sock. Dozens more of those bright rubber bands. Trawler rope. Everywhere, trawler rope. A broken water gun. Another shotgun shell. A filter (oil or air, not sure). Bottles, aluminum cans, coffee lids, a tattered Halls mint pack.

Same two block area, same drop in the bucket. So many questions. How did they get here? Was it the storms and the wind - or was this happening all the time? What washed up from the ocean? What blew in from a neighbor's trash can? What had been lost on the beach one warm day last summer? And the biggie: is it just getting worse & worse, or can a guy and a trash bag do something about it?

If I'd had doubts before, I didn't now. Tolkien, in his backstory to The Lord of the Rings -- the mythology behind the tale -- spoke of "the flame imperishable." Well, "imperishable" is a strong term, but that day on the beach helped me understand the imagery of the kindled flame.

I was in for the long haul. And I had a lot of learning to do.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


In April 2007, my wife gave birth to a beautiful, perfect baby girl.

We were in our mid-30s. Happy, unattached, travelers. We enjoyed life, we looked forward to our future. Down inside, I think we had come to expect that when we ended, the future ended. For all we cared or knew.

Then our daughter arrived, and I knew what fathers have known for ... ever. The future would go on. Our girl would inherit it. Her eyes would see things that mine never would; yet her heirs, and theirs, would be part of a story that I had read, and shaped, and written. It was the dawning of a father's knowledge, that he has to change the world for his little girl.

Fast-forward to March 2010. The first warm day at the tail end of a Maine winter, and a quick family trip to the beach. Ocean Park, one of the most lovely sandy shores in Maine. Yet the end of February had seen violent storms, and they had left their mark. Clam shells and great heaps of kelp lined the highwater mark.

And with it, the detritus of mankind -- rope, a glove, a broken plastic spoon, fishing line, a torn beer can, its sharp edges poking up through the soft sand. And lobster traps, ripped from the deeps and dragged for miles, to be half-buried on the beach.


I'd seen the news about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The plastics that don't break down, that swirl in giant eddys & gyres in distant waters. The litter and debris that travels for thousands of miles, fouling pristine waters, washing up on pristine beaches. But this wasn't the Pacific. This was my beach, ten minutes from home. The more I looked, the more I saw. Part of a red plastic cup, more nylon rope, bright rubber bands. It was everywhere.

The next day, I came back to the beach, trash bag in hand. And I picked. Two blocks, a leisurely half-hour stroll, and the bag was full.

March 8, 2010 finds

I had barely scratched the surface. Yet I was carrying several pounds of rope, dozens of jagged pieces of aluminum can, shotgun shells, shreds of lobster traps, most of a pair of sunglasses, several plastic forks, a dozen beach umbrella bottoms, rubber tubing, architectural fragments, and 132 brightly colored rubber bands.

I didn't know what I wanted to do with it. I didn't know if there was anything I could do with it. But I knew I was at the beginning of something, and that this wasn't a bag just to be thrown in the dumpster and forgotten. Because this wasn't just my beach. This was my daughter's. And so I resolved to change the world. Somehow.