Volunteers sought for new COASST marine debris program

Volunteers from the North Beach are being sought for training in what could be the first long-term effort to document and quantify how much debris is washing up along the Washington coast.

Beginning on Saturday, Aug. 23, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) will deliver a training session at the Coastal Interpretive Center in Ocean Shores for citizens interested in becoming pilot testers for the new Marine Debris Program.

“We are trying to get as much variety of beaches as we can, so we are starting in Ocean Shores because it has a really great representation of what comes in on the outer coast, and it’s a great community that is really involved,” said Hillary Burgess, COASST marine data coordinator in Seattle.

COASST is a citizen science project of the University of Washington in partnership with state, tribal and federal agencies, environmental organizations and community groups. COASST believes citizens of coastal communities are “essential scientific partners in monitoring marine ecosystem health. By collaborating with citizens, natural resource management agencies and environmental organizations, COASST works to translate long-term monitoring into effective marine conservation solutions.”

Currently, more than 800 volunteers survey beaches in Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska, and the new COASST Marine Debris Program attempts to build on that network.

“Instead of identifying debris, the program characterizes it and measures its abundance in particular zones of the beach. In doing so, the data speaks directly to the source and transport pathways of debris, as well as to the potential harm to people, wildlife and local coastal ecosystems,” according to a news release.

In a phone interview, Burgess said the intent is to collect information that can be used to form a baseline of just how much and what kind of debris is being washed ashore.

“There’s not a lot of information that’s known about how much debris there is and where it shows up,” she said.

The tsunami in Japan in 2011, which sent a large amount of debris across the Pacific, highlighted the problem and the scarcity of previous information on marine debris.

“It’s an ongoing problem that was happening before the tsunami and will continue afterward with a lot of different sources and impacts to the environment,” she said.

While the tsunami’s aftermath drew a lot of attention to the issue of marine debris, Burgess added: “By collecting information about how much there is and where it is, and when it comes in, we can get a sense of the scale of the issue.

“Once we have that and collect the information about the different characteristics of the debris, that tells us about the impact to the environment and we can start to set up priorities for both prevention and management for what is already out there.”

Because the program is still in its developmental stages, the goal is to begin with dedicated volunteers to test how it works. The beaches to be surveyed will be some of the main North Beach locations, and Burgess emphasized that it is intended not to be too burdensome.

“People can choose a beach that is convenient to them,” Burgess said. “We have a standard length to the beach that people are surveying.”

Some of the logged information will help researchers learn not only about the origin of debris, but also how long its been in the water.

“The other thing we are interested in is the size, because that can be used by oceanographers to model where it came from, even if we have no other information other than when it arrived and how big it is and what it is made of,” Burgess said.

The surveys will be done two times a month, between the training date and March 2015.

Picking up the debris, Burgess added, is “optional.”

“We definitely think that would be great, but we don’t want it to preclude people’s involvement,” she said. “Collecting data is really valuable, too, and we think in the long term that may be more valuable because we can use it to prevent hopefully some of the debris that’s getting out there.”


The Aug. 23 session will be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Coastal Interpretive Center (1033 Catala Ave. SE) in the Education Room and the session is free. Bring a sack lunch for a short break. Reserve a training spot by calling COASST at (206) 221-6893 or by emailing coasst@uw.edu


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