You’ve Heard of House Cleaning. What about Coast Cleaning?

Commercial fishermen collected more than 200 tons of marine debris

October 31, 2019 

Clean up crew rakes in marine debris

Commercial fishing crews have been busy collecting more than fish this year. They are on hurricane cleanup duty. In its report to the Coastal Resources Commission, the North Carolina Coastal Federation reports fishing crews collected more than 200 tons of marine debris from along 42 miles of central and southeastern North Carolina coastline. That’s the weight of about 80 mid-sized cars.

The cleanup ranged from the Lower New River to Surf City and then into the Swansboro area. The Federation coordinated the February through August 2019 cleanup with the NC Division of Marine Fisheries. The cleanup was funded with $400,000 appropriated by the General Assembly as part of its post-Florence disaster bill.

“The marine debris that we pulled out of the marsh area included household trash, plastics, bottles, cans, fishing gear, tires, building supplies and large pieces of pressure treated wood from buildings, docks and pilings,” said Sarah Bodin, Coastal Restoration Specialist with the federation who helped manage the cleanup.

“There was extensive damage along the coast and all of that debris floated into the estuary and needed to be found and removed.” The project hired local fishermen and women who knew the coastal waters and had commercial fishing licenses. A local contractor was hired to remove the heavy wooden debris.

Still more debris, but drones could help

However even with the cleanup effort, federation officials warn there is still a tremendous amount of debris along the coast. And that’s where a pilot project using drones to locate marine debris could make a difference. The Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab flew drones over the five islands in the Rachel Carson Reserve to map debris fields in remote areas. The reserve is located two miles from Beaufort Inlet and is especially prone to accumulating marine debris, even without hurricanes.

“Small, consumer-generated debris are manageable for volunteers to gather and take away, but larger items are difficult and expensive to remove,” Paula Gillikin, the Reserve Site Manager, told North Carolina Sea Grant’s Coastwatch. “We needed an efficient way to assess debris and decide how best to remove it.

"We found that aerial drones can be a cost-effective way of scanning broad areas of coastal ecosystems for medium-to-large-scale debris,” explains Everette Newton, the Duke lab program manager. “That’s especially important in areas that may be difficult for people to access.”

Once the debris is identified, the next step is prioritizing which debris to remove based on cost and the potential habitat benefit.

“The housekeeping we are doing for the coast is beyond volunteers,” said Todd Miller, director of the Federation. “The amount of material found in the marsh was astounding and shows the need to do a better job of designing and building coastal docks and facilities as well as educating people to take care of their property.” The Federation is going to begin working on a proposal for a permanent state coastal cleanup program.

—Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.