Big lake – big trash problem

NOAA sets up first freshwater marine trash monitoring site along Casco Twp. beach

Photo: In this photo taken in 2016 on the beach at Casco Township Nature Preserve, Bob Bultema, a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer, measures the site where monitoring of shoreline debris will take place. As part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project, the Auxiliary surveys the beach at 28-day intervals throughout the year, collecting how much and what types of debris are being discarded into Lake Michigan and along its shoreline.

For the past two years, members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary have traveled to a beach just north of South Haven to quietly figure out how much trash is discarded in Lake Michigan and along its shoreline.

What they’ve found washed up on the beach may come as a surprise to some – lawn chairs, broken 50-gallon Rubbermaid trash containers, metal engine components, even a set of concrete porch steps.

But it isn’t the big items that cause the most concern for the marine debris monitors. It’s the little items – the plastic straws, bottle caps, Styrofoam, cigarette butts, food wrappers, plastic film and Mylar balloons.

U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary safety patrols in Lake Michigan frequently retrieve Mylar balloons and attached ribbons before they can become entangled in a boat propeller or wash ashore, according to Paul Pagano, marine safety staff officer for the Coast Guard’s St. Joseph Division and Kalamazoo Flotilla.

“Birds, turtles and other aquatic animals commonly mistake balloons for food, which can harm or even kill them,” he said.

Mylar balloons aren’t the only marine debris causing potential harm. Marine animals and fish also have been known to become trapped in discarded fishing line, netting, or even plastic beverage holders.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary’s Ninth Western District Division 33 – comprised of five flotillas in Southwest Michigan and Northern Indiana – decided to get involved with monitoring marine debris in Lake Michigan as part of a federal program, overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

According to information provided by NOAA, the project hopes to address the scope of the marine debris problem, how it is changing over time and which debris types are most common.

Through regular monitoring, the NOAA hopes to identify ways to reduce or eliminate types of marine debris in the future.

More than 250 shoreline marine debris monitoring sites exist throughout North America, Canada, Central America and American islands in the Pacific Ocean, but the monitoring site north of South Haven is unique in that it is NOAA’s first freshwater site.

The site is located at the Casco Township Nature Preserve on the west side of Blue Star Highway near 107th Avenue. The site consists of 20 acres of land and 700 feet of Lake Michigan frontage.

Township Supervisor Allan Overhiser said the township thinks the monitoring program fits in well with the township’s efforts a decade ago to establish a township-owned park overlooking Lake Michigan for local residents to enjoy.

“These types of education programs are good to have,” he said, referring to the monitoring program. “Our park is actually a preserve.”

The auxiliary conducted its first shoreline survey at the Casco Preserve in July 2016. Surveys have continued ever since at 28-day intervals, weather permitting. The debris that is documented is removed from the shoreline and disposed of. Survey results are then entered into the NOAA’s national database.

Hard plastics comprise the majority of debris found along the Casco beach, followed by Styrofoam, according to Pagano. Mylar balloons, bottle caps, cigarette filters, and drinking straws are also major contributors to freshwater marine pollution. Auxiliary members noted a significant increase in debris during summer surveys.

Pagano also reported that “shotgun wadding is consistently washing ashore.”

The most likely source of the plastic wadding is from waterfowl hunting along the Black River and its tributaries, he explained. The wadding is discharged from the firearm and makes its way through the Black River watershed into Lake Michigan. Other items found on the beach during the surveys included building materials, aluminum cans and beverage bottles.

The Auxiliary plans to continue its surveys and plans to add the Casco Township Nature Preserve shoreline to the St. Joseph Division’s “Adopt-a-Beach” initiative.

The marine debris monitoring program as well as the Adopt-a-Beach initiative, are designed to raise community awareness about protecting the Great Lakes, which Pagano said, “is a critical component to marine pollution prevention.”

To incorporate the goal of raising community awareness about marine pollution prevention, Pagano earlier this month explained the marine debris monitoring program to the Van Buren Voyagers 4-H Club.

“This was the first we have ever heard about the program,” said Denise Noble, secretary of the 4H troop. “We’re hoping to help them out with volunteers.”

Noble said the presentation fit in well with the Voyagers programs, which focus on outdoor activities and events that involve youth.

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