Monday, December 31, 2012


Two pieces of environmental news moved me the most this past year. Serendipitously, one occurred as the year began, the other as it ended.

In January, I came across an astonishing photo in a travelogue blog of Kuta Beach, Bali:
Bali, paradise on Earth, has no infrastructure for dealing with its resorts' tonnage of plastic waste. That waste just gets pitched into the sea, as has been traditional on Bali for centuries. Unfortunately, now it comes back. Worse, it's accepted. The sunbather in this picture -- for her, the fight already seems lost. Her world is one of waste & filth, and she nestles down amid it, to enjoy what she can of her surroundings.

The second "bookend" to my year came just a few days ago. A story I stumbled upon about an extremely rare gingko-toothed beaked whale that washed up in the Philippines.
This whale is so rare that in the past 55 years precisely two have been spotted in the Philippines. Including this one. It died from a ~6-foot piece of plastic fishing rope lodged in its digestive tract. (Series of photos here; some of the necropsy. Fascinating but graphic, use discretion.) Basically, it starved.

It's all the same problem: connecting our actions on one day & place with outcomes that may be far away & a long time coming. Deluging developing nations with plastic products... A global fishing industry that loses countless tons of plastic gear daily... These actions have consequences, costs. And we're not paying them.

We're still just running up the environmental credit card. It will come due.

The Flotsam Diaries is often a study in manmade ugliness. And it's true, humans, alone in the world, have the capacity to utterly wreck our planet.

But, as far as we know, we are also the only ones who can appreciate that planet. No other creature sits on a lawn and admires the pinks and violets of an incredible sunset, for its own sake. No other species will visit a vacant seashore, sands sun-sparkled and smooth -- freshly washed by an outgoing tide -- and see it not in terms of threats or opportunities of the moment, but in awe. Only we can ponder footsteps of the past, and of the future, and truly know something of our place in this tiny moment of time & space that we each call ours.
So in spite of the ugliness, the Flotsam Diaries continues joyfully into 2013. Because the world is still a beautiful place, worth fighting for. And folks the world over know it.

Peace, and humble appreciation for all of your support and passion and kind words over the years.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Wishes

This will mark my third Christmas as a Flotsam Diarist.

My third Christmas seeing the world through a different set of eyes. Eyes that seek out -- and thrill to find -- the unexpected connections in our world. Between nature's beauty & bounty and the threads we weave as we build our lives. Eyes that spy a glimmering grain of sand in my daughter's shovel on the beach and imagine it once high and proud on a now-lost mountainside. Eyes that see springtime rivers running strong with snowmelt, emptying into churning seas, nutrients mixing and spawning incredible plankton blooms. Blooms that feed an ocean and give us every second breath of life we take.

Eyes that grimace & wince at needless waste, thoughtless pollution, the harm we sow which our children and grandchildren will reap. Eyes that study the staggering costs of things we've been taught to call "cheap." That see, week after week, a gorgeous deserted cove ruined with newly-laid cast-offs of modern life.

I think of the incredible gift of being aware of the beauty around us, of a past that stretches back impossibly far, or a distant future that we are building today -- this very minute -- at the same time that it's molding and building us. The gift of knowing that there are forces far beyond us, and also that the smallest person can be the snowflake that starts the avalanche.

We may be the only species on Earth with the ability to ruin Earth. But we're also the only species that can appreciate it. To well up with emotion at a pink & golden sunrise; or feel the pull of the sea as we walk an undiscovered and unmarred stretch of shore; or smell the salt air and think on our distant ancestors and our distant descendants doing the same. To burst with the need to create art & song & beauty that had never before existed, in much the same way as we had never before existed.

To become bigger than the moment, bigger than we are.

To me, Christmas is a message of hope. A message that love and light are true things; that ugliness and shadow are mockeries that can't touch or harm those eternal truths. It's a message that the holiest and the highest could rest within a human heart. And that if we look inside, and then look outside again with new eyes, we might see glimpses of what we're all searching for. Guideposts.

The Flotsam Diaries isn't what I do; it's who I am. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
To you and yours, a very Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays!


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Curtis Cove Report - Dec 11, 2012

Tuesday, December 11. 1:35PM, half-hour before low-tide. Bright sun, mid-40s.
Actually a beautiful December day with a mild land breeze, and excellent lines of wrack banding. I also had some company this day - a lot of company:
With berries & worms in short supply, the birds were now flocking to the relative warmth of the coast. They rooted through the rotting wrack, feasting on the bugs among it. (And whatever else was in with it.)

Down lower on the foreshore, the fine, saturated sand was eroding in incredible works of art:
Ephemeral beauty, gone in hours
And by the water's edge, a Curtis Cove first:
First mostly dead, then fully dead
When I tapped at this red sculpin (sea raven), presuming it dead, it wriggled! It had been speared or clawed in the side and was in a bad way. I moved it back into the water in case it still had any fight in it. But it finished its life just a couple minutes later. When I left I saw the seagulls diving on it. Reminded me of words I'd learned some time back: "The sea isn't cruel, it just doesn't tolerate any mistakes."

Also down at the water's edge was another amazing sight:
High Occupancy Zone
Thousands of tubeworm "condos" poked up out of the sand. These sand tubes are cemented together by the burrowing worms that thrive in gentle muddy coves like Curtis Cove. All the fresh and decaying seaweed mixing with the tide waters is a smorgasborg.

You can look at a beach, see nothing moving, and think there's no life there. But you'd be wrong.

Surprisingly, in the end I found very little of this:
This knife at first looked like a new, local drop. But a closer look showed chipped teeth on the serrated edge and a frosted/etched look to the plastic. It's another wash-in from afar.

Given all the beautiful banding of gently-laid wrack I was sure this would be a heavy-plastic day. But in my zone, it wasn't. (The banding was its strongest just south of my zone, so maybe plastics etc. were pushed that way this week?)
62 pcs of rope, about 70 ft total
61 pcs of nonrope debris
123 finds:
  • Bldg material/furniture: 0
  • Foam/styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing rope/net: 62 
  • Fishing misc.: 17 (10 vinyl trap coating scraps, 2 trap parts, trap tag, metal ring part, bumper, 2 claw bands)
  • Food-related plastics: 12 (bottle - old w/ top cut off, 5 cup scraps, CapriSun, OLD ketchup pack, 2 wrapper scraps, frosted/old knife, straw)
  • Food-related glass/metal: 3 (fresh beer can, 2 old can bottoms)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 12 (10 bag scraps, 2 mylar balloons - one very old)
  • Scrap plastics: 14 ( 9 > 1" , 5 < 1" )
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Non-plastic misc./unique: 3 (2 fabric scraps, 1 worn/eaten fabric glove)
A curious day. The conditions seemed ripe for heavy debris. And much of what washed in was the old, degraded, broken bits of modern society that are all too common now in the Gulf of Maine. Yet by Curtis Cove standards there wasn't that much to find. At least on the surface. As so often, it's not always about what you see. It's about what lies beneath.
Not collected - how many more are there?
Running YTD counts:
  • Total pcs of litter -- 11360
  • Pcs fishing rope -- 2810
  • Vinyl lobster-trap scraps -- 4688

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Curtis Cove Report - Dec 4, 2012

Tuesday, December 4. 7:45AM, ~45 minutes before low tide. Another gorgeous sunrise.
It's always a privilege to see this
A weak energy week. The low foreshore pebbles & cobbles were re-exposed, suggesting that all of Sandy's cast-up sand & mud had filtered back down to the sea. Higher up, Sandy's wrack was high and dry, rotting away nicely.
This does not smell good
Lower down the foreshore, especially in the central part of the cove (the southern end of my 150-ft "zone"), lay well-defined bands of wrack laid parallel to the shoreface. These are usually a tell-tale sign of a busy day. They signify just the right kind of energy for lots of small bits of debris to wash in and stay in. Too little energy, they don't form at all; too much and they get pulled back into the ocean with the receding tide.

So, what was it this week? Was the signature accurate?
97 pcs of rope, about 130 ft total
121 pcs of nonrope debris
218 finds:
  • Bldg material/furniture: 0
  • Foam/styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing rope/net: 97 (130 ft)
  • Fishing misc.: 90 (8 claw bands, 70 trap vinyl scraps, 7 trap parts, 2 bait bags, trap netting, owner tag, bumper)
  • Food-related plastics: 10 (2 bottle scraps, 7 cup scraps, fork handle)
  • Food-related glass/metal: 1 (can)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 8 (4 bag scraps, toy shovel handle, silicone caulk, crate seal, twist tie)
  • Scrap plastics: 12 ( 5 > 1" , 7 < 1" )
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Non-plastic misc./unique: 0
70 bits of vinyl lobster trap scraps! The most I had collected since mid-October. It seems the wrack-bands are indeed a good tip of a busy day to come.

There were many disturbing "gems" amid the mess this week.
Mangled & eaten garbage bag lip
Another crate seal - have many so far
Long-traveling/suffering shovel handle
This is our world.

Friday's tragedy broke my heart. I have a 5-year-old daughter who came home on the bus Friday, with a gingerbread house in her hands and a smile & light in her eyes. I write this post today not because I think the world is still normal and plastic on a deserted shore is major news. But because this is what I do. Ours is a beautiful world. That beauty, and the love spawned by it, are eternal. They come from the first spark that permeates all life. Hate & pain & violence & ugliness -- they can't sustain themselves; they can't last.

My heart goes out to all those grieving today.

Running YTD counts:
  • Total pcs of litter -- 11237
  • Pcs fishing rope -- 2758
  • Vinyl lobster-trap scraps -- 4678

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Living Shore

Today at Curtis Cove, I saw a rare treat:
Air volcanoes! (Or more prosaically, "blisters.)

The sand piled up on any given beach isn't a static, solid block. It's utterly filled with spaces and gaps. When the tide goes out, the water that had been in those gaps is replaced by air from the atmosphere. When the tide comes back in, that air has to go somewhere. As the tide rises and the water table at the beach rises, the air gets compressed and forced upward. Usually it escapes easily, leaving thousands of tell-tale "nail holes" dotting the sand just behind the high-tide line:
But in some conditions, the air can't escape so easily. If the surface of the sand is very fine, smooth, undisturbed, it can become "cemented" by salt crystals (or kissed by frost) -- making a (largely) impermeable sheet. The air becomes compressed, and actually forces & bulges its way upward as each wave slams against the shore. Eventually it bursts through in more pronounced nail holes, and leaves the blistered landscape behind.

Beaches -- and the science of beaches -- are amazing things.

For a great read on things you can look for at your beach, check out "Exploring the Sand" from and Dr. Orrin Pilkey.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Curtis Cove Report - Nov 25, 2012

After a byweek and a big Thanksgiving feast, it was time to return to Curtis Cove....Sunday, 1:15PM. An hr before low-tide. 37 degrees, mostly cloudy & blustery. A cold day!
The beachface was returning to its "usual" shape after Sandy. Sand up high, exposed cobbles down at the low foreshore. And sheets of Sandy-dumped wrack. With its usual cargo.
Rope playing hide-and-seek
"Let's... Tie It!" And release it :(
Curtis Cove Protection Battalion
c.1975 Schlitz beer can top
It was an interesting week for washout patterns. Sand rivulets ran from NW to SE in bands down to the water's edge. My foot often went through what looked like solid sand, which was actually just resting on top of loose wrack. Also, with Sandy gone, the normally gentle sea returned. And gentle seas drop out smaller, finer plastics. Here's what I found:
174 pcs of rope, about 150 ft total
178 pcs of nonrope debris
352 finds:
  • Bldg material/furniture: 0
  • Foam/styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing rope/net: 174 (150 ft)
  • Fishing misc.: 74 (3 trap vents, 44 vinyl coating scraps, 4 bumpers, 3 trap nettings, trap tag, 3 bait bags, ring scrap, top of hard plastic buoy, 14 claw bands)
  • Food-related plastics: 30 (3 old bottles, 1 bottlecap o-ring, 18 cup scraps, 3 food wrappers, old fork scrap, 2 straws, 2 bread tags)
  • Food-related glass/metal: 6 (5 can scraps, bottle cap)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 24 (10 bag scraps, 2 balloons, eaten glove, jug top/cap, old truck scrap, soldier, shovel scoop, 3 cable ties, plant pot tag, long handle, POLICE tape, caulk scrap)
  • Scrap plastics: 36 ( 16 > 1" , 20 < 1" )
  • Paper/wood: 1 (air filter scrap)
  • Non-plastic misc./unique: 7 (fabric scraps)
A varied mess this was! Much of the big debris & rope was clearly Sandy-related, and had been buried in the wrack back on November 10. But as predicted, the calmer seas brought back much of the more typical small debris to go along with it. All in all, some very interesting -- and sobering -- finds.
Bitten/mauled plastic glove
Lobster trap tag from 1996
Heavily encrusted trap vent
Sea-bottom-dragged Gatorade bottle
When this year started, there was a big question: All the trash that I first found at the beach, was it still coming in from week to week? Or had it built up over long years and was not actually a big issue?

Which does it seem?

Running YTD counts:
  • Total pcs of litter -- 11019
  • Pcs fishing rope -- 2661
  • Vinyl lobster-trap scraps -- 4608

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fishing Industry Debris Clogs Gulf of Maine

A warm "thank-you" to the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram for running the op-ed I wrote about the debris I'm finding at Curtis Cove yesterday in the Sunday newspaper. This cove, a "protected" wildlife habitat, is an incredible open-air laboratory of so much of what's currently going wrong in the Gulf of Maine. And in a sense, the wider world.
76.1% of the plastic I pull from the beach there is directly related to lobstering. There have to be other ways to do this work. If there aren't, we'll just continue to finish off the complex web of life in the sea that sustains us.
Below is the original text of the op-ed that I wrote. 99% of it made it into the Press Herald, but I wanted it documented as originally written. As hopefully a pathway into a conversation that we in the state need to have, and that will in the end hopefully benefit all.

Curtis Cove, a deep, horseshoe-shaped nook, lies at the southern tip of Biddeford’s coastline. There, gentle waters lap against pebbles and fine gray sand. Rocky tide pools teem with life. Beach roses bloom among the rip-rap. It’s protected space, set aside as vital habitat for great annual seabird migrations.

Unmolested, untouristed. Supposedly free from the modern world.

Yet the modern world swirls in on every tide.

Along the wrack line, the eye catches them. Little flecks of unnatural green, bright yellow. See one, and you can’t help but see more. A few blue, a white fleck, a red one.

They’re the colors of lobster traps, like those seen stacked in front yards and docks and postcards. Except these aren’t lobster traps anymore. They’re part of what happens when a lobster trap dies.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is old news. The Gulf of Maine is its own plastic garbage patch. Much of our marine litter rolls and bounces along the sea floor, washing up at places like Curtis Cove. That litter includes countless scraps of nondegradable vinyl coating, burst from countless derelict lobster traps rotting on the Gulf of Maine seabed.

I visit the cove weekly, collecting and cataloging what washes in. Along just 150 feet of it I have collected 10,617 pieces of man-made garbage since late winter.

Of course it isn’t all lobster-trap bits. I have found plant pots, fiberglass siding, a car arm rest, carpet scraps, a saw handle, a crate lid, half of a coathook, part of an outdoor thermometer, even an antique clay pipe.

But sadly, most of what washes up here is directly related to lobstering. 8,076 pieces, 76.1% of everything I’ve found. 477 lobster claw bands; 144 trap bumpers; 119 bait bags; 2487 fishing rope scraps -- some 4/5 mile total length. Various other scraps of traps, buoys, etc.

And 4563 flecks of lobster trap vinyl coating.

All from 150 feet of protected cove, in a state with over 3,000 miles of coastline.

It’s ugly, of course. It’s litter. It shouldn’t be there. But beyond that, plastics in the ocean adsorb terrible toxins. They kill sealife and shore dwellers. Many of the claw bands (lost overboard as lobsters are being banded) have fish bite marks all over them -- possibly from young cunner. The harder vinyl trap coatings could be swallowed whole, tear an animal up, and survive intact to kill again.

Maine’s Department of Marine Resources licenses 3 million lobster traps each year. How many have been lost? Nobody knows. From the time that the first trap was put into Maine waters all the way up to 2009, DMR kept no record.

Now they require lobstermen to submit a request in order to get replacement tags. From 2009-2011, they received about 38,000 requests per year -- which of course doesn’t account for undeclared losses.

Fishing with rope & traps means losing gear. That’s reality. When it was biodegradable, it mattered less. But around 1980 vinyl-coated steel traps and plastic bait bags/rope became the gear of choice. Because it seemed cheaper, both in cost and effort.

30+ years at 38,000+ lost traps a year means, conservatively, one million derelict plastic-coated lobster traps on the seafloor by now.

Of course a few wash up. Every beach and island has its wrecked traps. Others are grappled and removed by nonprofits, fishermen, & volunteers. But most sit hidden in the deep, rot, and shed their plastic bits over decades.

Fact: One of the state’s largest industries uses a business model that plans for losing hundreds of tons of nondegradable plastic into the Gulf annually -- and offers no mitigation! Industry’s debris, our great-grandchildren’s problem.

It’s well past time to drop the myth of “cheap” plastic. Plastic gear’s costs are very insidious and very real. Besides, the frenzied rush of “more, cheaper, more” has proven to benefit very few. And it leaves a growing legacy of dangerous, persistent pollution that washes up all around us.

It’s time to stop, look at the sand at our feet, and really see what’s there. We must treat our resources with respect. Return to degradable gear, demand a fair price for fishing responsibly, and promote the industry internationally as a model of a conscientious and sustainable fishery.

Whatever we do today, our descendants will still find scraps of yesterday’s “cheap” fishing gear on their shores and inside their sealife for decades. But if we change the game now, maybe at least they’ll look back on us and not shake their heads.