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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Washington Sea Grant Launches New Program to Prevent Small Oil Spills that Add Up

This is a guest post by Lauren Drakopulos of Washington Sea Grant.

Marina in Seattle with small boats.

Small recreational and commercial vessels account for 75 percent of the oil spilled in waters around Washington’s Puget Sound over the last 10 years. (NOAA)

To paraphrase an old saying, “There’s no use crying over spilled oil.” But many people in Washington worry a lot about oil pollution in Puget Sound and other coastal waters around the state.

What many don’t realize is that the biggest source of oil spills to date in Puget Sound isn’t tankers and freighters but small recreational and commercial vessels. Small oil spills from these types of vessels account for 75 percent of the oil spilled in local waters over the last 10 years.

How do these small oil spills happen? A common cause is when oil, along with water, builds up in the bottommost compartment of a boat, known as the bilge, which has a pump to keep rain and seawater from building up. Oil from broken oil lines in the engine area or spilled fuel on deck can get washed down into the bilge and then pumped into surrounding waters.

Taking Charge of Discharges

Aaron Barnett holds a bilge sock next to stacks of them.

Washington Sea Grant’s Aaron Barnett preparing to distribute small oil spill kits in 2015. (MaryAnn Wagner/Washington Sea Grant)

In the future, however, Washington boaters increasingly will have access to a simple remedy known as the Small Oil Spills Prevention Kit, which consists of a small absorbent pillow, or “bilge sock,” that is placed alongside bilge pumps to prevent oily discharges from entering the water. Washington boaters will be seeing and using a lot more of the kits.

The Clean Marina Program, a partnership of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, the Northwest Marine Trade Association, and Washington Sea Grant, has worked for 20 years to minimize small vessel spills. But the summer of 2016 marks a change: for the first time the campaigners are targeting private boaters rather than marina managers.

Washington Sea Grant, the Washington Department of Ecology, and Washington’s District 13 Coast Guard Auxiliary have launched the Small Spills Prevention Program to provide boaters with the knowledge and tools they need to stop oil pollution at the source. Last year, in a trial run, Washington Sea Grant Boating Program Specialist Aaron Barnett succeeded in distributing 1,000 oil spill prevention kits.

This year that labor is bearing fruit: according to Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor Mike Brough, more and more boaters are requesting kits after seeing their friends and other boaters use them. As Barnett explains, the success of the program depends on first, getting the kits out to boaters, and second, word of mouth—with boaters educating each other about oil spills.

Pollution Prevention, Pollution Management

Boaters understand the importance of keeping their waterways clean. As frequent users, they serve as the first line of defense against pollution. “Boaters want to do the right thing,” says Brough, “and these [kits] make it easier.” He recently handed out spill prevention kits at a local marina on National Marina Day. “It’s like handing out candy on Halloween. Anyone with a bilge and inboard engine will take one.”

Brough also got a chance to see the kits in action. “At the marina office, one boater was getting a bilge sock to replace his old one from some extras I had given the yacht club a few months earlier,” he recounts. “The guy had gotten a crack in the lubrication oil line during a trip on the Sound. The broken line dumped a significant amount of oil into the bilge. The bilge sock he was using caught all of the oil, and none went overboard.”

Small spills can be expensive for boaters to clean up, and often cost is the first question boaters ask. In Washington the kits are funded through state oil taxes and made available to boaters at no cost, as part of the Small Spills Prevention Program. This summer, Washington Sea Grant hopes to hand out another 1,000 kits to boaters.

Lauren Drakopulos.Lauren Drakopulos is a Science Communications Fellow with Washington Sea Grant and is pursuing her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Washington. Lauren has worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and her current research looks at community engagement in fisheries science. Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, provides statewide marine research, outreach, and education services. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) U.S. Department of Commerce. Visit www.wsg.washington.edu for more information or join the conversation with @WASeaGrant on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of NOAA or the U.S. federal government.


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In Florida, Rallying Citizen Scientists to Place an Ocean-Sized Problem Under the Microscope

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Young woman filling a one liter bottle with water along a marshy beach.

Florida Sea Grant has been teaching volunteers how to sample and examine Florida’s coastal waters for microplastics and educating the public on reducing their contribution to microplastic pollution. (Credit: Tyler Jones, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

Have you ever looked under a microscope at what’s in a sample of ocean water? What do you think you would find?

These days, chances are you would spot tiny bits of plastic known as microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters long (about the size of a sesame seed).

The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project is giving people the opportunity to glimpse into Florida’s waters and see a microscopic world of plastic pollution up close. This project integrates citizen science—when volunteers contribute to scientific research—with education about microplastics.

I recently spoke with Dr. Maia McGuire of Florida Sea Grant. She’s leading the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, which is funded by a grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, of which the Marine Debris Program is a part, has a long history of collaborating with Sea Grant programs across the nation on a range of issues, including marine debris.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has funded more than a dozen marine debris removal and prevention projects involving Sea Grant, and has participated in other collaborations with regional Sea Grant offices on planning, outreach, education, and training efforts. Many of these efforts, including the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, center on preventing marine debris by increasing people’s awareness of what contributes to this problem.

Combining Science with Action

Blue and white plastic fibers viewed under a microscope.

Volunteers record an average of eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, with seven of those eight identified as plastic fibers (viewed here under a microscope). (Credit: Maia McGuire, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

This latest effort, the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, involves building a network of volunteers and training them to collect one liter water samples from around coastal Florida, to examine those samples under the microscope, and then to assess and record how many and what kinds of microplastics they find.

“Everything is microscopic-sized,” explains McGuire. “We’re educating people about sources of these plastics. A lot of it is single-use plastic items, like bags, coffee cups, and drinking straws. But we’re finding a large number are fibers, which come from laundering synthetic clothes or from ropes and tarps.”

Volunteers (and everyone else McGuire’s team talks to) also choose from a list of eight actions to reduce their contribution to plastic pollution and make pledges that range from saying no to plastic drinking straws to bringing washable to-go containers to restaurants for leftovers. For those who opt-in, the project coordinators follow up every three months to find out which actions the pledgers have actually taken.

“It’s been encouraging,” McGuire says, “because with the pledge and follow up, what we’ve found is that they pledge to take 3.5 actions on average and actually take 3.5 actions when you follow up.”

She adds a caveat, “It’s all self-reported, so take that for what it’s worth. But people are coming up to me and saying, ‘I checked my face scrub and it had those microbeads.’ It’s definitely resonating with people.”

Microplastics Under the Microscope

The project has trained 16 regional coordinators, who are based all around coastal Florida. They in turn train the volunteer citizen scientists, who, as of June 1, 2016, have collected 459 water samples from 185 different locations, such as boat ramps, private docks, and county parks along the coast.

“Some folks are going out monthly to the same spot to sample,” McGuire says, “some are going out to one place once, and others are going out occasionally.”

After volunteers collect their one liter sample of water, they bring it into the nearest partner facility with filtration equipment, which are often offices or university laboratories close to the beach. In each lab, volunteers then filter the water sample, using a vacuum filter pump, through a funnel lined with filter paper. “The filter paper has grid lines printed on it so you’re not double counting or missing any pieces,” McGuire adds.

Once the entire sample has been filtered, volunteers place the filter paper with the sample’s contents into a petri dish under a microscope at 40 times magnification. “Because we’re collecting one liter water samples, everything we’re getting is teeny-tiny,” McGuire says. “Nothing really is visible with the naked eye.”

Letting the filter paper dry often makes identifying microplastics easier because microscopic plastic fibers spring up when dry. And they are finding a lot of plastic fibers. On average, volunteers record eight pieces of microplastic per liter of water, and of those, seven are fibers. They are discovering at least one piece of plastic in nearly all of the water samples.

“If they have questions about if something is plastic, we have a sewing needle they heat in a flame,” McGuire says, “and put it under the microscope next to the fiber, and if it’s plastic, it changes shape in response to the heat.”

Next, volunteers record their data, categorizing everything into four different types of plastic: plastic wrap and bags, fibers, beads, or fragments. They use online forms to send in their data and log their volunteer information. McGuire is the recipient of all that data, which she sorts and then uploads to an online map, where anyone can view the project’s progress.

A Learning Process

Tiny white and purple beads piled next to a dime.

These purple and white microbeads are what microplastics extracted from facial scrub looks like next to a dime. Microbeads are being phased out of personal care products thanks to federal law. (Credit: Dave Graff)

“When I first wrote the grant proposal—a year and a half ago or more—I was expecting to find a lot more of the microbeads, because we were starting to hear more in the news about toothpaste and facial scrubs and the quantity of microbeads,” McGuire relates. “It was a little surprising at first to find so many [plastic] fibers. We have some sites near effluent outfalls from water treatment plants.”

However, McGuire points out that what they’re finding is comparable to what other researchers are turning up in the ocean and Great Lakes, except for one important point. Many of those researchers take water samples using nets with a 0.3 millimeter mesh size. By filtering through paper rather than a net, McGuire’s volunteers are able to detect much smaller microplastics, like the fibers, which otherwise would pass through a net.

“I think one big take-home message is there’s still so much we don’t know,” McGuire says. “We don’t have a lot of knowledge or research about what the impacts [of microplastics] actually are. We need a lot more research on this topic.”

Learn more about what you can do to reduce your contribution to plastic pollution, take the pledge with the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project, and dive into the research projects supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, which are exploring: