Fewer Footprints

When we were out on the Pacific Coast in California a couple of weeks ago, two things in particular caught my attention:

One was the lack of shorebirds, the skittering types that chase waves and scurry in tight huddles. Maybe it was just the wrong season. There were signs posted indicating that snowy plovers were nesting in the dunes, although we didn’t see any from the waterline where we walked. The estuary between Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach holds a diverse population of wild birds, so maybe we were just unlucky or unobservant.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

While there were seagulls, great egrets and turkey vultures–we even saw a red-tailed hawk diving for fish and carrying off a squirming catch–we saw a sum total of five sandpipers.

Researchers only really started noticing a general decline in shorebirds around twenty years ago, when counting got underway in earnest. It’s hard to know just how much the populations have declined – but I can say that compared to when I visited my favorite beaches thirty years ago, the number of birds has dropped dramatically. There were far fewer footprints in the sand from birds than I remember from my youth.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

There are a number of reasons for the decline in shorebird and migratory bird populations. Loss of migratory habitat has to be the most relevant. There’s just so much more land development and reclamation along coastlines and wetland areas, the very places the great internationalist shorebirds stop to rest, to eat, to breed.

Another aspect, though, is the amount of plastic in our seas.

Birds eat plastic, presumably because it looks like food, and can end up starving to death with a belly full of plastic. Between 60-90% of birds in shoreline regions have been found to have plastic in their bellies. At this point, it’s probably more surprising to find a bird without plastic in its stomach.

Which brings me to the other thing that caught our attention on our numerous beach walks:

An estuary tree blooms with great herons. Photo: PKR

An estuary tree blooms with great herons.
Photo: PKR

Back in the 1980s, when there were more birds, I also used to notice large pieces of junk on the beach. Wrecked picnic coolers, plastic containers, styrofoam appliance packing, plastic bottles galore. This time, there were very few pieces of large plastic. This might be a positive side of the recycling movement.

Microplastics. Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

What I did notice, however, were countless pieces of plastic flakes that looked almost like shell flotsam, the kind that’s always there in a receding tide. Except the flakes were all the wrong colors. Blue, bright green, pink. And such an edible size for smaller animals.

Today is World Oceans Day. The focus of this year’s awareness is plastic in oceans.

The next time you take another plastic bag for produce, or buy a plastic box of cut vegetables instead of cutting them yourself, or throw away plastic in general, think of where it might end up. Even if you live far from the sea, chances are, at least some of that plastic will end up in a waterway, and at some point, in an ocean.



Glass Fragile

Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California Source: CoastalCare.org

Sea glass, broken bits of all the glass that’s been lost at sea, is worn by waves and tossed up on shore. It seems to accumulate more at some than at others. This California beach protected in its current, colorful state, even if – technically – it could be considered a by-product of all the glass humans have discarded into the ocean over decades. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not really the worst we’ve ever done to the oceans.

Stating the importance of the oceans is like making a comment on how breathing is an integral part of life.

In honor of World Oceans Day, which is June 8, I’d like to contrast a couple of illustrations.

Decline in biomass of popular fish 1900-2000 Source: Information is Beautiful/The Guardian

Decline in biomass of popular fish 1900-2000
Source: Information is Beautiful/The Guardian

The one above is an illustration of the effects of overfishing over the course of a hundred years.

From The Guardian article: “(E)arly accounts and data on the past abundance of fish help reveal the magnitude of today’s fish stock declines which are otherwise abstract or invisible…Our fishing policies and environmental activism is geared to restoring the oceans to the state we remember they were. That’s considered the environmental baseline.

The problem is, the sea was already heavily exploited when we were young.

So this is a kind of collective social amnesia that allows over-exploitation to creep up and increase decade-by-decade without anyone truly questioning it.”

The good news is, if we can stop overfishing as an activity, managed fishing seems to lead to a rebound of fish stocks.

Against the rapidly depleting fish stocks and life in the oceans, I’d like to place this study in longevity:

Source: NOAA

The good news is, recycling is becoming habitual in many places, as are biodegradable packaging alternatives. Now we just need some great business and technological solutions to cleaning up what’s already there.

World Oceans Day was officially recognized by the United Nations in 2008, but has been organized for years by the World Oceans Network. I posted this a day early so you can see if there are any events in your area to attend.

The theme this year for World Oceans Day is Oceans & People: Together we have the power to protect the ocean.

I would go one step further and say: It is only by working together that we have the power to protect the oceans.

One of my favorite ocean songs:


The Guardian article – Interactive illustration of fish stocks

World Oceans Day United Nations web site

Ocean Project / World Oceans Day organization web site