Friday, September 30, 2011

Litter in our rivers, on our coasts, and in the oceans

Last Saturday I was very busy.    I spent all of the morning and part of the afternoon participating beach cleanup event at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.   Organized as part of both National Public Lands Day and the Ocean Conservancy's 2011 International Coastal Cleanup, I went out with a group of volunteers - including families from the company Booz Allen Hamilton, some scouts, regular volunteers and staff from Back Bay - to pick up trash along the beach.   We covered one mile of beach and collected a pickup truck full of trash.   The greatest quantity of items were plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic bags, food wrappers, and unidentifiable pieces of plastic and styrofoam.

One of the kids asked why folks would throw all this garbage on beach.   I explained that most of this garbage was not discarded on the beach but was washed onto the shore from the ocean.   Most of it started as litter in city and suburban streets, malls, and shopping centers.  Tossed by careless people, falling out of overfilled trash cans, flying out of the back of trucks, being blown out of landfills, the trash get washed into the storm sewers by the rain and flows right into our rivers.   First this trash clogs the river shorelines but slowly much of its is washed downstream into the Bay and then into the Atlantic Ocean.    Some of the garbage gets washed back on our beaches, but much more gets pulled by wind and currents out to sea.

Out in the middle of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, there are great oceanic garbage patches littered with floating plastic debris from our modern world.    Caught in the center of the great ocean gyres - the centers of rotation of the major ocean currents - the trash floats endlessly because these plastics don't degrade for thousands of years.   If anything, the plastic just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic.   This debris ranges from recognizable items like bags, bottles and caps down to microscopic bits.  The plastic is too often mistaken by sea life for food.    Sea birds eat bottle caps and old lighters.   Turtle think plastic bags and balloons are jellyfish.    Plankton eating fish sweep up the microscopic bits of plastic.   Of course none of this plastic is edible and much of it gets stuck in the animals digestive track.    Dead sea creatures - turtles, sea birds, even whales - have been found with their stomachs filled with plastic trash, likely contributing to their deaths through starvation.   One well documented example of plastic impact on sea life looks at the albatross colony on Midway Island in the middle of the Pacific, which is about as far way from civilization as you can get -   The plastic may even be working its way into the human food chain as smaller fish eat the microscopic plastic bits, the bigger fish eat the smaller fish, and we catch and eat the bigger fish.

What can we do about all this?   Well, first of all make sure you don't litter and that all your trash is securely disposed of in trash containers so it doesn't escape.   If you do see litter, help to pick it up.   Of course, recycle the plastics when you can - although this is not as simple as it sounds since most plastic is not easily recyclable and most recyclers only take plastics labeled Type 1 and Type 2.   Ultimately, the best solution is to reduce the amount of plastics used for packaging.   Because they are versatile, light weight, and relatively cheap, plastic packaging has become pervasive in our society and reversing this trend will require that we make some serious choices.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Happy National Estuaries Day

What is an estuary and why would someone declare a national day for them?     And how do you remember to spell estuary?     Well, an estuary is the extremely important ecosystem where fresh water from rivers meets the salty water of the sea.   The Chesapeake Bay in its entirety is one of the largest estuaries in the world.   Our little Indian River is an estuary in its own right.    Fresh water from rivers, like the little - and today rain swollen - creek in our Indian River Park, flows into the vast tidal expanses of the bay.   The mixed water is brackish - slight salty - supporting a unique mix of animals and vegetation.

These shallow tidal waters can support lush marshes, which in turn provide nurseries for a wide variety of fish and shellfish.   While some shellfish, like oysters and clams, stay put, the fish and certain shellfish like blue crabs migrate into deeper water as they grow.   The plants of the marsh also provide critical food for migrating birds including ducks, geese, redwing blackbirds, and rails.   The estuarine marshes also act as important sponges, slowing down flood waters - both those coming downstream from heavy rains and those being pushed upland from high winds.    The marshes filter out sediment and absorb excess nutrients.

Our little Indian River estuary lies amid a long established suburb.    The waters are laden with too many fertilizers and too much bacteria, due to rain runoff from our streets and yards.   Too often we've built rigid bulkheads obstructing the marshes.   Yet, even in the Indian River acres of marshland still strive to provide their ecosystem services.   Ducks and redwings stopover on migration.   There are fish to be caught by patrolling osprey, egrets, eagles, and the intrepid fisherman.  You can even find the occasional oysters, although not anywhere in their historical numbers back when Indian River Road was called the Princess Anne Shell Road.   The waterside provides scenic beauty and enhances property values.

So, we celebrate National Estuaries Day to give thanks for the bounty provided by these precious waters and to remind us to take care of them so that will get better and be there for us tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Airborne Mosquito Spraying

Was your house buzzed by a low flying aircraft last night?    That was most likely part of the City of Chesapeake's emergency mosquito spraying program.   Weather permitting, the entire city is being sprayed Monday and Tuesday nights to combat the increase in mosquitoes following Hurricane Irene.
The airborne spraying is conducted at night between 8 pm and 2 am and covers almost the entire city.    According to the city website, the insecticide ' not pose a risk to humans or pets, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control. However, people who suffer from chemical sensitivities or feel spraying may aggravate preexisting health conditions should remain indoors during application to avoid exposure.'

This emergency spraying is not without controversy.   While the insecticide in the concentrations used is not likely to be directly harmful to humans, mammals, or birds, it does kill other insects beyond just mosquitos.    Other beneficial insects such as dragonflies, butterflies, and bees can all be killed by the misting.
The spraying is done at night to try to minimize the impact to these other insects but even the city website warns that beekeepers may 'wish to take the extra precaution of covering their hives for protection'.    Ultimately, the aerial spraying has limited effectiveness.   While mosquitos that come in contact with the insecticide will die quickly, the aerial spraying does little to control the next generation of larvae waiting to grow into adults and the mosquito population rebounds fairly quickly.   Residents can help control mosquito population by eliminating standing pools of water where mosquitoes breed.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Native Plant Resources

Someone asked me about a good reference source for native plants recently.  Here are a few links that we've gathered over time:

The most comprehensive site we found is from the US Fish and Wildlife Service: Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping Chesapeake Bay Watershed.    It has both a web based version and a good pdf version

Another resource is the Virginia Native Plant Society

Of course, I need to give a  plug for the Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Chesapeake Master Gardeners, which is your local resource for all things about plants: