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Sizing up Marine Debris

In 2013, COASST got its first grant to expand to a whole new data collection protocol – marine debris.  Following the tsunami of 2011 that resulted from the Tōhoku earthquake, this was a no brainer.  But debris had been on the minds of many COASSTers well before the flotsam from Japan hit our coastlines. In fact, many COASSTers have always gone to the beach armed with a trash bag.

It’s definitely a nuisance, and can also be a health hazard for humans and wildlife alike, but could it also be science?

Could regular monitoring uncover patterns of trash on our beaches?

That’s what Hillary Burgess, the COASST Science Coordinator was brought on to figure out.  And after years of development, input from more than 75 pilot testers, 30 interns, marine debris experts and the COASST staff and Advisory Board, we’ve not only got a viable program, we’re starting to “see” the patterns.

Hillary leading a marine debris training in Port Townsend, WA

This is the first blog in a series revealing what Marine Debris COASSTers are finding.  Not quite (!) as numerous as COASST Beached Birds, and certainly not as long in the tooth…, our marine debris program is off to a fantastic start.  As of mid-November here are the numbers:

  • 110 unique beaches surveyed
  • 341 small debris surveys
  • 432 medium debris surveys
  • 403 large debris surveys
  • 185 participants
  • 13,396 items characterized

COASST marine debris survey sites have been monitored most consistently for the longest time in North Puget Sound and Central Oregon.

Although COASST marine debris data comes from throughout Washington and Oregon, and even a few test sites in Alaska, we’re confining our analysis for the moment to two regions with a multi-year, multi-beach sample size, and some pretty interesting differences: the outer coast beaches of Central Oregon, and the protected waters of North Puget Sound.

First, let’s step back to some basics.  When considering how many beached birds COASSTers find, we use a measure we call “encounter rate” or the number of carcasses a COASSTer might find per kilometer of beach surveyed.  Encounter rate treats all beaches – wide ones and narrow ones – the same.  And when COASSTers search for carcasses, they comb the entire beach – from the waterline to the vegetation.

Debris is different.

First, we separate debris into size classes:

  • Small Debris (<2.5 cm; think cigarette butt, bottle cap and smaller)
  • Large Debris (>50 cm; think lumber, large pieces of Styrofoam, tires, fishery gear)
  • Medium Debris (all the stuff in-between, or 2.5 cm to 50 cm; think cans, bottles, rope pieces and bags)

Second, we report the amount of debris as a function of the area searched.  So, not per kilometer, but per 10,000 meters squared (10,000m2), or 100m2 to ensure that the values we present are meaningful. To put these areas into perspective, 10,000m2 is approximately the area of two football fields and 100m2 is one quarter the size of a basketball court.

Third, we take account of the differences in the amount of debris in five (5) different beach zones:

  • Surf – waterline to the lowest, freshest line of wrack
  • Wrack – lowest, freshest line up to the oldest line laid down by the monthly tidal cycle
  • Bare – any bare substrate (sand, cobble, whatever) above the wrack zone
  • Wood – the backbeach where driftwood accumulates
  • Vegetation – where the live vegetation takes over

Not surprisingly, small debris  – the count of small debris (per 10,000m2) is much higher than that of medium debris, which is more numerous than large debris.  And this pattern holds for the outer coast, and for Puget Sound.  However, there is a lot more small debris on the outer coast!

The bubbles on the left illustrate debris density, or the estimated count of pieces – by size – you might find on average – from the waterline to the vegetation, scaled to 10,000m2. Small debris (darkest purple) is very abundant, and especially in Central Oregon, where you could find upwards of 10,000 pieces in a 100 meter by 100 meter area of beach! In the middle is a blow-up of the medium and large debris pattern (because those numbers are dwarfed by small debris we had to separate them out and blow them up). To the right is the color code, and a schematic of the relative sizes and types.

And the reverse is true of medium debris – inside waters have a higher density than beaches along the outer coast.  The pattern is similar, albeit less pronounced, for large debris.

Where is all of that small debris?  Mostly in the wrack, at least in Central Oregon.  Conversely, along these outside waters beaches, medium and large debris are primarily found in the vegetation, and secondarily in the wood zone. (Note that small debris are only sampled in the wrack, bare and wood zones).

North Puget Sound COASSTers find similarities, and differences.  Small debris is also most numerous in the wrack zone, but the wood zone has just under 90% of that peak density, and the bare zone sports just under half of peak density.  Medium and large debris are primarily found in the wood zone, but density in the vegetation falls off quickly, in contrast to the vegetation zone on outer coast beaches.

We’ll compare a kilometer long “typical” beach in North Puget Sound to one along the coast of Central Oregon averaged over the year.  You would be lucky to find a single bird in your North Puget Sound beach survey, but you’d likely find 5-10 large pieces of debris, 1,000 medium pieces, and a whopping 2,500 small pieces.

Seems like a lot, until you travel to the coast of Oregon.  Here you would find on 3-5 birds averaged over the year, 3-4 large pieces of debris, 2,500 medium pieces, and a stupendous 100,000 pieces of small debris.

The humongous medium and especially small debris numbers are why COASST subsamples the beach.  Otherwise, Sisyphus would long since have been successful in rolling his rock up the hill before any outercoast COASSTer finished picking up all of the small debris!  A somber note, of course, is that this is what we face along our beaches and in our ocean, and – you guessed it – it’s almost all plastic, with 70% of medium debris and 87% of small debris items being plastic.

Participant Profile: Mark Miranda

When a person spends a lot of time searching for things that have washed in with the tide, and those things are often dead, certain metaphors tend to offer themselves up. One that has become semi-regularly associated with COASST is CSI. (That’s Crime Scene Investigative unit, for those of you who, like me, do not regularly watch the show.) COASST has been variously described, often by COASSTers themselves, as “CSI for dead birds,” or “CSI for garbage.”

For Mark Miranda, the metaphor hits a little closer to home than it might for most COASST volunteers. Where many of them have a background in biology and have to learn the finer points of ecological forensics, Miranda’s expertise comes from the other direction. “In junior high school I dissected a frog, and that’s about it as far as biology training goes,” he says. “But crime scene training, I’ve had a lot of that over the years, just doing search warrants and things like that.”

Miranda recently retired as the Chief of Police for the Newport Police Department, after a career in law enforcement that spanned forty-six years. He was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, in California, and first joined the police department in Tucson, Arizona. Then, in 1981, he and his wife moved to Newport, Oregon, and there they stayed. He had heard about COASST several years before he became a volunteer, and while he was intrigued by it, he just didn’t have the time at first. But once he retired, he was looking for things to do, and he saw a flier for a training session at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. He went and signed up to search for marine debris. He now surveys Seal Rock beach, a few miles north of Newport. The beach is quiet and secluded, and on a typical Oregon summer day, surveys are quite pleasant. “I pick up after people, and I pick up after the ocean,” Miranda says.

So is surveying for marine debris really the same as working a crime scene? “The techniques are basically the same,” Miranda allows. “You see something, you photograph it, you measure it, you collect it, try to identify what the object it is. So it is kind of what I would do in my job.” As for whether he has ever thought of adding beached birds to his surveys, which would seem a natural extension from his old line of work, here Miranda demurs. “I’ve been dealing with dead things all my life, so it’s nice not to need to anymore,” he says.

The debris can more than stand up in its own right ecologically. Miranda likes that he is adding a small piece to a potentially enormous puzzle, and he knows from experience how small puzzle pieces can be the key to the whole thing. Also, scrutinizing debris that may have been drifting for months or even years presents its own special challenges, its own mysteries. “Most of what I find is pretty weather-beaten, just broken bits or plastic, things like that,” Miranda says. “So I’m never too sure what it was.”

Participant Profile: Charlene McAllister

In 2014, Julia Parrish, COASST’s executive director, was looking to expand the program farther down into northern California, in the Mendocino area. An Audubon chapter there was discussing the possibility—they liked it very much—and so one of their more involved volunteers was asked to meet with Julia when she came to visit.

“That was how I met her,” says Charlene McAllister, now a COASST volunteer, “and then it just kind of took off.”

A nurse by profession, Charlene had been involved with birds in a variety of ways for years. There were the weekly shorebird surveys (“I’ve been doing those for about seven years”), the black oystercatcher breeding surveys, the Christmas bird counts. So, really, what was one more bird-centered pursuit? Granted, it was walking the beach and looking for dead birds, but that was hardly dissuasive.

“Being a nurse, I’ve been around death before,” Charlene says. “I know that death is a part of life.” The question for her hinged on knowing to the greatest extent possible whether the dead birds were normal, or indicators that something big and abnormal was afoot. “That’s what makes finding out how the birds died so important,” she says.

Indeed, Charlene has lived on the Pacific coast long enough to know it is in the midst of some big changes. She grew up in Humboldt County, and went to high school in Crescent City, about an hour north of where she surveys now. Then as now, she spent a lot of time on the ocean, and could often be found at the beach at least three days a week. “I was a real tidepooler,” she says.

Charlene has surveyed a few beaches in her four years with COASST, but the one she has done most consistently is, as she says, a “very, very popular beach” called Virgin Creek. The section is named for the creek that emerges from the woods and sometimes flows all the way to the ocean, or sometimes does not, depending on the season. A typical survey has her meeting up with her partner, and then they gossip all the way down to the water. They mark off their zones, and then start walking. As a pair they sometimes dawdle a bit, take in the living birds, enjoy the sand. “You’re on the beach, after all,” she says.

But that does not distract her from her larger purpose. “I think citizen science is really important,” Charlene says. Given the size of the world, the challenges facing it, there is simply no way for scientists themselves to collect everything in this day and age. (“Even with interns,” Charlene adds.) But what is really important is that COASST is opening the eyes of people who might not have thought that going out to the beach and handling dead birds was something they might want to do. Around Mendocino, there is a volunteer who is a first grade teacher, and she is so excited she can share the things she learns on the beach with her students. And there are all the people who stop to see what she is doing, and when she tells them, ask her why.

“It’s critical,” Charlene says, “to use citizen science not just to gather data, but also to reach a larger audience.”

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Come late fall into early winter, Northern Fulmars start to appear on Pacific Northwest outer coast beaches. The #2 species in COASST, this denizen of Alaska is virtually absent from the Lower 48 during the spring-summer breeding season. And that’s because they are busy on colonies from Gareloi Island in the Western Aleutian Islands to St. Matthew Island in the northern Bering Sea.

Fully ~1,250,000 are thought to breed in Alaska, mostly on offshore islands with steep cliffs where they scrape out a shallow depression to lay their eggs. The pulse of fulmar on Alaska beaches is actually during the breeding season! But once that season has ended, adults and young-of-the year alike take off for points south.

Well, at least that’s the usual pattern.

In the 2017-18 winter, fulmars were notably absent from Lower 48 beaches. What’s weirder, they suddenly appeared in late winter-spring. In late April, usually the quietest time of year for COASSTers, Jane and Makenzie found 14 Northern Fulmars on their survey of Nye South near Newport in Oregon. Charlie, COASST’s stalwart verifier, noted that across Oregon beaches, not only were there more fulmars than usual, but many of them were light morph birds.

Morph? What’s a morph?

At first glance, fulmars are boring-looking birds. No difference in plumage between adults and immatures, breeders and nonbreeders, or males and females. But the traditional plumage differences in birds just doesn’t tell the story of fulmars. 

These birds have two different plumage patterns, which appear to map onto where they breed. So called “dark morph” birds, resembling their Tubenose relatives the shearwaters (but note the stocky, pale bill of the fulmars!), principally breed in southern Alaska. Light morph birds, resembling gulls (but note the telltale plates on their Tubenose bill versus the smooth, featureless bill of the gulls), breed farther north, in the Bering, Chukchi and Arctic. What’s cool about this difference is that COASST can get a sense of where fulmars are coming from based on their plumage.

Most Lower 48 COASSTers find the dark morph. Light morph birds do wash up where they breed during the breeding season, and then migrate down the “other side” of the ocean towards Japan, Taiwan and Korea. But not in 2017-18.

In fact, turns out light morphs have graced Lower 48 beaches in previous years, most notably in 2008 and 2009. Some years – like 2009 and 2018 – have no fulmars during the usual peak, but display a peak in the following spring, whereas other years – like 2006 and 2008 – have a double pulse: once when they’re supposed to arrive, and a second spring peak. Guess which morph arrives in the spring … in both 2008 and 2018, the ratio of light morph fulmars was much higher than usual. Of course the vast majority of fulmars found on Lower 48 beaches are dark morphs, occasionally loads of them, as was the case in 2003/2004.

Since COASST discovered this “light-spring” pattern, we’ve been wondering about it. Who are these guys? And where are they coming from? Given the spring migration timing, it would seem that these birds are actually on the way back north to begin the breeding cycle. So, do light morphs occasionally migrate up the eastern side of the ocean? Or do they always do that, and only sometimes wash ashore? And would that be a weather signal? An ocean circulation signal? A climate signal? Or… We remain mystified!

What’s your prediction as we head into the 2019 fulmar season: dark morphs in winter, or light morphs in spring?

Oil and Seabirds Don’t Mix

Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon – these oil spill disasters have been devastating for marine wildlife, especially seabirds and marine waterfowl.  Once oiled, the body feathers of a seabird lay slick against the skin, losing the insulating properties that keep birds warm and dry.  At the same time, the added weight of the oil often prevents the bird from taking off.  And the toxins birds ingest while attempting to preen?  Well, suffice to say that oil and seabirds don’t mix.

Oiled secondary feathers of a Black-legged Kittiwake found on Griffiths Priday State Park (WA) in early 2018

And even a little bit of floating oil can be deadly.  One gallon of oil can contaminate hundreds of gallons of water.  Floating oil can be carried hundreds of miles from the spill site. Oil leaking from the Exxon Valdez tanker in Prince William Sound was swept by currents southwest out of the Sound along the Kenai Peninsula past the entrance of Cook Inlet to the Alaska Peninsula, almost 500 miles away from the spill site.

On Tuesday (14 August), a 700 gallon spill of diesel fuel was reported in Yaquina Bay, in the marina housing the fishing fleet.  Stories in the Oregon news show aerial shots of the sheen from the spill, complete with a flock of gulls.  While the oil seems to have been largely contained, will there be oiled birds?  COASSTers from Newport and environs got out on their beaches immediately to record a baseline survey.  At this time of year, murres, cormorants and gulls nesting at nearby Yaquina Head are ready to fledge their chicks.  The Coast Guard – acting quickly  – helped boom the area, preventing the oil from spreading in the Bay and getting out into the ocean.  But that doesn’t prevent birds from flying into the Bay.

The vast majority of COASST surveys are oil-free, no oil on the birds or on the beach.  In fact, COASSTers find most evidence of oil impacts from chronic sources – small bits of oil on birds unconnected to a reported oil spill.  Extremely rarely, COASSTers come upon an oil spill.  Quick reporting to the local authorities can save the day.  In the case of the Yaquina spill, we’re standing by waiting to hear from local COASSTers whether anything untoward washes in to nearby ocean beaches.

As of this posting, no oil or oiled birds have washed up on beaches near Yaquina Bay.

Unsolved Mystery – August 2018

This float congregation was recently discovered on Washaway Beach (WA).
Does anyone recognize this assemblage of uniquely-shaped floats? We would like to use the information in an effort to identify the encrusting organism!

You can see two boots in the next photo for scale:
Reply below or email coasst@uw.edu with your guesses and suspicions. Thank you as always for sharing your expertise!

Mummy Mysteries

A dried squid arm? A plastic who-knows-what? A monster?COASSTer Maddie Rose sent in this intriguing photo from Rialto Beach, WA with a “got a clue?” question.

We were on it! University of Washington Fish Curator Luke Tornabene took only a minute or two before returning this intriguing answer:

“Based on spines and dorsal fins towards the end of the tail, it’s some sort of skate, probably genus Raja or Bathyraja. People used to make deranged looking dolls from dead, dried out skates like this, contorting them to look like alien-like demons. They called them Jenny Hanivers.”

The long, spiny appendage in this photo is actually the tail. What looks like a skull with an elongated beak is the body and shriveled nose, or more properly rostrum, of the skate; probably a long-nosed skate according to Fish Collections Manager Katherine Maslenikov. The wings of this fish are long gone.

Longnose skate (Raja rhina), photograph from Monterey Fish Market.

Skates are slow-growing, bottom-dwelling fish that make their living “flying” just above the sandy substrate, occasionally digging in to “pounce” on a buried shrimp, crab or small fish. In a twist of fate, the egg cases of these fish are known as a mermaids purse.

But,… what?!? Jenny Hanivers??

Photograph of a Jenny Haniver from Noelle Stevenson @Gingerhazing

Turns out one of the weirder ways skates and rays have been used by people is as curiosities. These cartilaginous fish, related to sharks, were flipped over and “shaped” into gruesome likenesses of imagined sea devils or maybe evil-looking mermaids. After being dried out and shellacked they were sold in port cities and seaside towns as far back as the 16th century. The origins of the name are obscure, but some articles reference jeune fille d’Anvers which translates as girl from Antwerp.

Intentionally fishing and drying out sea creatures as tourist trinkets, whether sea stars, sea horses or Jenny Hanivers, has fortunately fallen out of fashion. But beach combing is still a great way to come upon all sorts of interesting bits and pieces brought in on the tide and tossed ashore by a wave to dry in the sun.

Keep ’em coming!

COASST Interns Wanted!

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a citizen science program based at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, is recruiting undergraduate interns for the upcoming academic quarter.

COASST interns work as a team directly with staff and gain valuable, hands-on experience with citizen science programs and the complexities of volunteer-collected data.

Internship tasks may include:

  • Recruiting, tracking, and communicating with citizen science participants
  • Managing incoming data and photos from beach surveys
  • Entering beached bird, marine debris, and social science data
  • Preparing materials for beached bird and marine debris trainings
  • Representing COASST at outreach events

Interested students should send an email to:

Jackie Lindsey (Participant Coordinator) at coasst@uw.edu

Staff Profile: Charlie Wright

by Eric Wagner

Sakuma Point is an unprepossessing park along Boat Street, near the University of Washington. Not quite half an acre in size, the park is sandwiched by a popular restaurant and canoe rental shop on the left, and a storage warehouse on the right. Visitors can sit at a bench or table overlooking a small stretch of Portage Bay and relax or eat their lunch. Or, if you are Charlie Wright, you count birds for ten minutes.

“I try to make it out here every day,” Charlie says on a bright spring afternoon. He is standing at the water’s edge with a pair of binoculars, calling out species almost the instant he sees or hears them. “There’s a crow,” he says. “Another crow… six lesser scaup over there.” Something behind him chirps. “Song sparrow,” he says without looking back. Another chirp. “White-crowned sparrow.” A few gulls drift in the distance. “Glaucous-wing or hybrids,” he says. “They’re too far away for me to tell.” Ten minutes of this pass, and then he calls time. “Now I upload the list to eBird,” he says, “and that’s the survey.”

Yes, hard as it may be to believe, Charlie—COASST’s stalwart data verifier, he who scrutinizes almost every single photo volunteers send in—likes live birds too. A lot. “I’ve been watching birds in general pretty much since I started having memories,” he says. He was leading birding trips for the Rainier Audubon Society in southern King County by the age of eleven, and has done field work with birds all over the world, from Alaska to Peru. A few years ago, he was part of a team that drove all over Washington, ultimately breaking the state record for greatest number of species seen in a twenty-four-hour period. “Birds are kind of my muse,” he says.

Charlie started as the COASST data verifier in 2010. He performs the vital function of confirming the identity of every dead bird COASSTers find on their surveys. Each fall, he starts to work his way through the backlog of volunteer submissions from the previous year. Most of the time he has no reason to doubt what a volunteer sends in: he cross-references the datasheet with the photos and concurs with the ID. It takes him all of thirty seconds, tops. “It’s rare for me to spend more than five minutes on anything,” he says. “COASST volunteers are pretty amazing at IDs. They know their birds and how to use the COASST field guide.” In fact, COASSTers correctly identify beached birds to species 89% of the time.

But everyone gets stumped once in a while. Last December, a team of COASSTers surveying a beach up near Hobuck, Washington found a bright, iridescent wing. They puzzled over it. Was it a Steller’s jay? They did not think it was, so they sent it in as “unknown.” Charlie spent a few minutes with it before he made the ID. “It was a purple gallinule,” he says. “It was the first time the species was documented in Washington.”

Even with his lifelong interest in birds, IDing a dead bird still is not completely intuitive for Charlie. “With some of the tough ones, you have to take body parts and key them out,” he says. He might use the COASST database of photos—“the largest collection of dead bird photos in the world,” he says—or some of the more technical guides at his disposal. After all, even though COASSTers have found 181 species to date, five or six still show up each year that no one has ever found on a survey before. “Those rarities are always in the back of my mind,” Charlie says. “This body is probably a common murre, but it could be… something else.”

In May, once Charlie has brought the annual backlog of roughly ten thousand photos down to zero, he and his wife head off to Alaska to do field work for the summer, reveling in the realm of living birds, helping monitor their populations and whereabouts. As you read this, they might be in the midst of a point-count survey (a method similar to his hobby activity at Sakuma Point) in the Yukon-Kuskokwim National Wildlife Refuge, camping eighty miles from the nearest town. Or they might be sailing around the Aleutian Islands on a research vessel, helping on a seabird survey. Or they might be even farther north, in the Chukchi Sea. “My COASST work is really complimentary with the Alaska work,” he says. “There’s a seasonality to both of them, ID challenges. It’s just that one is with live birds and the others are dead.”

Participant Profile: Amanda and Mallory Millay

Participant Profile: Amanda and Mallory Millay

by Eric Wagner

In late 2015, thousands of common murres began to wash up along west coast of the U.S. and Canada. The highest concentrations were in southern Alaska, where the species breeds in abundance. Reports of sickened and dying birds came in from the Aleutians, from Juneau, from as far inland as Glennallen. In some places, dead murres lay in neat, unbroken lines among the wrack following a high tide, body after body after body. The wreck would continue into 2016. In the thick of it, the Fairbanks office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was taking up to seventy calls per day from concerned citizens. Alaska wildlife officials said the murre die-off was the largest in state history.

It was in the midst of the wreck, during January of 2016, that Amanda and Mallory Millay happened to be walking along a beach near Kenai, Alaska, where they live. The twin sisters saw their share of dead murres that day, and like everyone else they wondered how widespread the problem was. When they read news articles about the wreck, they often saw, in addition to the expected quotes from government scientists, accounts from people who were part of a volunteer group. This group sent people out to different beaches once a month to survey for dead birds, and the data these people collected were proving critical to understanding the scope of the die-off.

“That was what brought us to COASST,” Amanda says. “It seemed like a great program for extensive data gathering.”

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