Taking on the Threat of Ocean Garbage

Walking the sandy beaches of the Cape and Islands, kayaking the marshes and salt ponds, or scrambling around the rocky shores of Maine will almost always provide three things: a great outdoor experience, a chance to explore and learn about nature and the amazing diversity of life, and a full review of the waste, refuse, garbage, and pollutants that we cast onto our rivers, shores, and oceans.

While being blessed with the chance to take a recent early morning hike around my favorite little Massachusetts island, I calculated an assortment of the following: the smashed remnants of dozens of lobster traps, several plastic and metal buckets, beer cans, more beer cans, an unopened plastic bottle of cranberry juice (I didn’t try to drink it), a refrigerator door which was probably 30 years old, plastic food wrappers, auto oil filters, boat oil filters, one pretty large piece of fiberglass part from someone’s unfortunately lost vessel, dozens of miles of discarded fishing line, nets and other assorted fishing gear, flip-flops, sandals and shoes, 50 gallon drums, an unused emergency smoke bomb, about two dozen assorted rubber gloves (mostly lefts), about one dozen assorted rubber boots (mostly rights), a vast amount of the highly predictable but still depressing plastic bottles, a few glass bottles, an oddly-placed large chunk of asphalt, a metal chair, some random pieces of wood pallets and tree stumps, two umbrellas, pesticide spray bottles, one display of typical latex birthday party balloons, and two separate displays of very fancy Mylar celebratory balloons.

While shocking in its abundance, it was still a fairly standard composition of junk. Policy makers refer to this aspect of ocean management as “marine debris.” Honestly, I think we can just call it “ocean garbage.” Ocean garbage is a longtime and ever increasing problem. The type of materials we put into waterways and on our beaches in the modern era tend to be more toxic and long-lived than the flotsam and jetsam of past centuries. The debris floating across the Pacific from the terrible tsunami that devastated the coast of Japan last year has brought some attention to the problem, as has the media report so the massive garbage patches. Believe it or not, even the thousands of tons of stuff from a single event such as the tsunami is dwarfed by the annual build-up of daily deposits.

A challenge this broad really does require broad coordination and collaboration. The National Ocean Policy provides the forum for state officials, federal agencies, municipalities and other ocean user groups to help tackle the threat of marine debris. Regional ocean planning is certainly a great tool for coordination in New England.

Condensed from the original post on CLF.org. on 9/13/2012. Photograph by Mixy Lorenzo. 

Diving with Sharks – an Interview with Brian Skerry

Brian and his crew dove off the coast of Rhode Island in July. The pictures here were taken during that dive. Brian gave us some of his impressions from that dive, and from diving with sharks in general.


Robin: How common is it for you to come across sharks when you’re diving in New England?

Brian: I would say it’s extremely rare to find them on a regular dive. When we are looking for sharks, we go to the places where we’ve looked at ocean currents, water temperature, topography, and it’s our best hypothesis as to where they might be.

Robin: Have you ever had any shark encounters in New England that gave you pause?

Brian: Not as a rule, no. I’ve been diving with sharks in New England for over 25 years. I have to say that, for the most part, they’ve always been very polite. I’ve not had many dicey encounters. Certain species give you more pause than others. For example, I love diving with makos, but they have a very different behavior than other sharks. They come in appearing to be more agitated. They’re much more hyper and jacked up. They test things with their mouths. So it’s not uncommon to have one come over and bite your camera or something else you’re holding. Makos are a serious predator in the ocean – they can get very large. I’ve really only been in the water with small to mid-size ones, if a big one came along I would get out.

Robin: Do you find makos often?

Brian: Historically, no, but in recent years I’ve been working with a friend of mine, Joe Romeiro, who is very good at finding them – so the success rate has increased. We’re going to different places and putting in the effort.

Probably 80% of the times we look for them we find them. But sometimes they don’t stick around.



A curious blue shark eyes Brian's camera.


Robin: The blue sharks in your pictures seem interested in you.

Brian: Blue sharks are very curious. Like any other animal or people, they have personalities. Some are shy and timid. Others start off that way but build up some curiosity. Blue sharks are, of course, apex predators. They can get pretty large – up to 12 feet and pretty beefy – but my experiences with them have been just wonderful. Blue sharks are probably my favorite in many respects. They are pelagic animals, and they cover great distances each year, but they are very elegant. They look like an aircraft. Long slender fuselage-like body, long wing-like pectoral fins, deep blue beautiful color.



The elegant form and rich color of this blue shark are on display.



Robin: Is it common for the blue sharks to be hanging out at the surface like they are in these pictures?

Brian: The water below us was a couple hundred feet deep, and they were on the surface when we were there, but they feed in the entire range of depth. They can be down deep feeding on squid but also come up to the surface. I have been out at sea and seen them up on the surface, and have seen them when I was decompressing after dives on the Andrea Doria.

They’re a very elegant, usually relaxed kind of shark. I’ve had nothing but great encounters with them.



A blue shark with lines and plastic strap wrapped around its body swims below the surface of the sea.



This blue shark shows signs of fishing activity.


Robin: Let’s talk about the shark with the hook and the one with the plastic. Is this a common sight when you dive?

Brian: It’s very common to see this. More common than not these days. At least 90% of the blue sharks we see these days have some kind of evidence of fishing activities. It’s very difficult to find a clean animal. The day I made those pictures there were five sharks and only one was clean.

The plastic hoop on this blue shark is from a bait box. Fishermen have cardboard boxes of bait with these plastic hoop straps on them on their boats. As the bait thaws the box gets mushy and the strap falls off. Then it gets thrown overboard and can get wrapped around an animal.

We want to try to help them but it’s hard to catch them. Sometimes it’s possible to physically catch the shark with a big net when the shark comes close to the boat, and bring it on deck and hold it down to snip off a hook or leader.

Robin: Have your feelings about sharks changed over your diving career?

Brian: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think when I first started 35 years ago I was always very interested in sharks, but it was more of a fascination. I just wanted to see one and get close to it. In subsequent years my admiration for them has only grown, simply because I realize just how perfect they are. They have remained unchanged for 300-400 million years, because they haven’t needed to change. I’ve grown a lot more aware of shark conservation issues because100 million sharks are being killed every year and the health of ocean is tied to having healthy populations of these apex predators. Now I try to make pictures that celebrate these magnificent creatures and shine a new light on them. But I also make pictures that show the animal that is being killed at alarming rates.

I continue to respect and admire them, but also want to show people the problems.

Robin: Have you noticed a change in the attitudes of other people?

Brian: I have noticed people’s attitudes changing over time. When I first started diving in the 70s, among scuba divers, sharks were demonized. Nobody wanted to see a shark – it was the worst thing you could imagine. Today divers go on dive trips to see sharks. They pay lots of money to travel places in the world where they can see sharks.

I still think there’s a big part of the population that has a lot of misinformation about sharks – monsters to be afraid of. But I think it’s beginning to change a little bit. As good information about sharks permeates popular culture things may start to change.