Thursday, September 17, 2015

Marine Science Center Finds 5.8 Tons of Plastic on Salish Sea Beaches

The following is a guest post by former Port Townsend Marine Science Center Executive Director, Anne Murphy. She tells the story of the Plastics Project from its earliest days and emphasizes that without dedication and hard work of our volunteers, this timely study of plastics pollution in the Salish Sea would not have been possible:

It was around 2006 when I first I heard about the “garbage patch” in the eastern Pacific Ocean. It brought up the question that would fuel our research:

If that much plastic is floating out in the Pacific Ocean, how much is here in our local marine waters and on our beaches? 

With the help of Marcus Eriksen* of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, PTMSC conducted some exploratory beach sampling trials at home in rural Jefferson County and in urbanized King County. Our trials focused on sampling sandy beaches for small bits of plastic called microplastic, a size that beach clean up efforts generally miss and a size that commonly enters the food web through ingestion by birds and fish. (*Marcus Eriksen is now with 5 Gyres Institute.)


We found microplastic in our trials. We conducted more trials on new beaches, this time looking for a pattern in microplastic distribution along the length of drift cells. Again we found microplastics, but no pattern emerged within drift cells. Sampling by drift cell proved to be more complicated than our original approach. By this time, I was convinced that we wanted to develop a sampling plan that could be easily learned and replicated by volunteers throughout the region.


We secured funding to conduct a three-year study that we hoped would provide a baseline estimate of how much microplastic was on WA Salish Sea beaches. (Thanks to our major funders: WA DOE’s PPG Program and Foss Maritime.) In Year 1 we recruited and trained volunteer groups in 7 counties. In Year 2 we expanded to include volunteer groups and partnering institutions in all 12 Washington Salish Sea counties.


Enthusiasm, support, and interest remained high throughout the three-year project duration. When the project ended, many volunteers were motivated to share what they’d learned about plastic debris accumulating on their beaches and the associated impacts to marine ecosystem health. In many cases, volunteers chose to engage at a deeper level as partners in conservation. Examples of their actions included creating a plastic bottle reduction campaign, working with local municipalities to ban the distribution of plastic bags, offering awareness-building programs in schools to help youth think about their choices and alternatives to single-use plastics, leading beach clean-ups, and more.

After the project ended, PTMSC received repeated queries about starting up again. It was a very popular citizen science project. Public awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean had grown so much by 2011 that people wanted to be part of a solution.


After three years of sampling, PTMSC’s next hurdle was to find a statistician to analyze and interpret the data so that we could share our findings. We dreamed of writing an article for submission to Marine Pollution Bulletin about this research, but who had the time while working full time? It was after I retired from my position as executive director that a window of opportunity opened.

I met Wally Davis, a retired biologist/statistician from Snohomish County who was conducting his own research on plastics in surface water. We conversed about our research and stayed in touch. It was Davis’s idea to jointly write an article on the two studies. He pointed out that they overlapped in time and space and provided complimentary views of plastics in the environment. And, Davis loved crunching data. Murphy readily agreed. The PTMSC is eternally grateful to Davis for stepping in and running with this joint project.

It is important to note that a project of this regional scale could not have happened without partners in the 12 counties where sampling occurred. Each partner group helped PTMSC recruit and train volunteer citizen scientists. Many volunteers stuck with the project from start to finish while others joined or left at various points in the project. We conservatively estimate that over 600 citizen scientists contributed over 4313 hours to acquire our data. PTMSC again thanks our partners in this project and is pleased to share our article with them. We simply could not have done this work without their assistance.



ANNE MURPHY is the retired executive director of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center and co-author of the article, “Plastic in surface waters of the Inside Passage and beaches of the Salish Sea in Washington State.”  The article, as published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, is accessible for free until September 30, 2015. After that time, you may contact the Port Townsend Marine Science Center for access to the paper.

Live link until September 30, 2015: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X15003860

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