As the eighth annual North Carolina Marine Debris Symposium was taking place online last month, work was about to begin on removing an abandoned and derelict vessel from Onslow County waters near Swansboro.
Ben Solomon, environmental specialist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, shared the news about the removal of the 50-foot shrimp trawler during the symposium Feb. 10-12. He, along with other stakeholders of the North Carolina Marine Debris Action Plan gave short presentations on projects taking place since the plan’s introduction at the 2020 Marine Debris Symposium in Beaufort.
The commercial shrimp trawler in Queens Creek, near Hammocks Beach State Park, has been removed and the contractor has completed a bottom scan to ensure that all debris related to this vessel was removed, Solomon told Coastal Review Online Monday.
The salvage contractor arrived on site on Feb. 15, but there were project delays due to the deteriorated vessel structure and poor weather conditions.
“First one down, quite a few to go,” he said, mentioning that the Wildlife Commission is in the process of beginning a few other removal projects in Carteret County. The North Carolina Coastal Federation also is gearing up to remove vessels on the coast in the next couple of weeks, as well.The federation announced Monday that more than 80 vessels will be removed starting this month in partnership with the commission and the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Coastal Management.
An initiative of the federation, the Marine Debris Action Plan leadership team spent years collaborating before the final plan was unveiled last year.
Sara Hallas, education coordinator for the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s Wanchese office, explained to the couple dozen attendees of the symposium in February that the federation works to protect water quality and found that marine debris is playing a critical role in effecting water quality and habitats.
The federation has made ridding the coast of marine debris one of its five major goals as an organization, Hallas said. “We realized that this was an important factor to others as well,” inspiring the federation to recruit a leadership team to compile the North Carolina Marine Debris Action Plan.
The team includes along with Hallas, Rachel Bisesi, Sarah Bodin, Bonnie Mitchell and Leslie Vegas, all with the federation; Paula Gillikin, central sites manager for the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve; Gloria Putnam, coastal resources and communities specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant; and Lisa Rider, North Carolina Marine Debris Symposium organizer and Coastal Carolina Riverwatch executive director.
Hallas said during the symposium that the purpose of the plan is to have a strategic approach to collaborate efforts over the next five years to reduce marine debris and its impacts.
The plan has five goals: lead and coordinate, prevent, remove, prevent and remove abandoned and derelict vessels, and research and assessment.
“The Advisory and Implementation Committee met recently, and it was apparent that the collaboration that the action plan has inspired has been one of the major keys to success. I’m excited to see this positive energy continue building, as we keep making forward progress on implementing the action plan,” Hallas told Coastal Review in a follow-up interview.
This committee has representatives from the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper, Coast Guard, American Chemistry Council, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, North Carolina Aquarium at Jennette’s Pier, Carolina Recycling Association, Plastic Ocean Project, Albemarle Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, town of Beaufort, Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Management, Coastal Carolina Riverwatch, Carteret Big Sweep and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Each goal has subcommittees to give the work momentum and keep moving forward, Hallas said during the symposium.
Jan Farmer is the Topsail Area coordinator for Ocean Friendly Establishments, which coordinates with businesses to make environmentally friendly decisions such as reducing the use of single-use plastics.
Farmer said to symposium attendees that the business education subcommittee, under the goal to prevent, has designed a survey to gain baseline knowledge on how businesses feel about single-use items. Late last year, the subcommittee added COVID-19-related questions because some changes in priorities were expected.
The survey is available online now and currently being distributed to a wide variety of businesses.
The state-implemented North Carolina Green Travel Initiative members already provided survey responses, which Farmer said is about a quarter of the anticipated volume of replies.
“While these preliminary results indicate that many respondents feel reducing or eliminating single-use products is a priority, COVID has caused 25% of these businesses to shift their priorities surrounding single-use items,” she said. “At the same time, more than half of the respondents have indicated that their volume of waste generated has increased due to COVID.”
Farmer added that the initial survey results show that Styrofoam appears to be the least preferred to-go packaging, with most businesses looking to invest in biodegradable or compostable products.
The results of the survey will be used to tailor business education programs.
Paula Farnell, director of development and operations for Jacksonville’s Sturgeon City, an environmental education center, said that the K-12 education subcommittee under the prevention goal has been working on a Marine Debris Education Resource Guide.
“The idea here is a full list of the available resources already out there for folks to help get educated about or educate others about marine debris,” she said. There will be a link to the activity, recommended grade levels, a brief summary, necessary materials and any associated links.
Details are being finalized and the guide should be ready in the next few months.
Farnell added that in 2020 they were able to reach more than 8,000 students and 1,355 educators and professionals that took part in 214 different educational programs. She said that the Turtle Trash Collectors Program funded by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program reached the majority of the students. The hope is that the resource guide will increase that reach even more.
Carteret County towns are also making a dent in the marine debris problem said Dee Smith, coordinator for Carteret Big Sweep, a year-round collaborative program between North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Extension and the Carteret County government.
Smith explained that a lot of work has been accomplished to prevent marine debris in county.
“We want to thank municipalities like the town of Beaufort and the town of Atlantic Beach for setting such great examples,” she said.
Beaufort, through multiple partnerships, has removed tons of large-scale marine debris, conducted a cleanup of abandoned and derelict vessels and officially endorsed the North Carolina Marine Debris Action Plan, she said.
Atlantic Beach partnered with the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper to install signs and beach cleanup baskets at each of the town’s 22 beach accesses. The signs encourage promotion through social media and features a QR code that allows visitors to directly download the NOAA marine debris tracker.
Smith also recognized this year’s Big Sweep volunteers, especially the students who committed 25 hours of their time to cleanup seven beach accesses throughout peak season. A total of 193 cleanups were recorded from July 4 through Sept. 7, 2020, with 327 volunteers working 465 hours. The work resulted in 2,129 pounds of debris removed from those beaches.
“We will continue this summer beginning Memorial Day weekend and run through Labor Day weekend, and expand our efforts to 10 beach locations,” she said.
Two working subcommittees have been tackling large-scale marine debris removal as part of the action plan.
“One of those committees focuses on addressing and implementing marine debris removals, and the other committee focuses their efforts on storm response and recovery,” Bodin, of the federation, said during the symposium.
“In 2020, a large-scale marine debris removal effort took place, and it is still continuing into this new year,” she said. The Division of Coastal Management, which received funding through Natural Resources Conservation Service to remove abandoned and derelict vessels and marine debris from Hurricane Florence, partnered with the federation on implementing these cleanups.
The federation hired five crews of made up of 26 area fishers, who worked from Carteret county to Brunswick County.
“Crews have removed over 690,000 pounds of storm debris from these areas last year and that has equaled out to over 2,100 average sized bathtubs, which is absolutely incredible,” she said.
The crews were trained to follow NOAA’s best management practices for debris removal in sensitive habitats. They remove debris by hand and used their personal vessels to transport the debris to nearby dumpsters that are then brought to an area landfill.
A large portion of the debris removed consisted of materials from damaged docks destroyed during the storm, such as pressure-treated wood, decking boards and large pilings. Consumer debris and construction material were also removed.
Bodin noted that there are multiple partners focusing on various actions and projects under the removal goal and the effort she highlighted is a small piece of the work being accomplished.
Solomon during the symposium told attendees that one objective under the goal to prevent and remove abandoned and derelict vessels is to work with partner organizations to create and populate a database of these vessels, which he said was accomplished in 2020.
The database was created for all abandoned vessels in the state in partnership with the federation, Division of Coastal Management, Wildlife Resources Commission and the Coast Guard Emergency Support Function, ESF 10, pollution assessment team, while the ESF 10 crew made Florence reassessments in the summer and fall of last year.
Currently, about 156 vessels are accounted for – and there’s probably more out there — most from hurricanes Florence and Dorian, a few from Hurricane Matthew and a few vessels have been there for the past 10 years or so, he said.
The commission also worked to develop a searchable geographic information system map of abandoned and derelict vessels. The interactive, online map will allow for post-storm field data collection, which is when a lot of data is collected on these vessels, Solomon said. The data will then auto-populate the public view map. The app, which should be ready by the next storm, will make collecting data much more efficient.
Another objective was to get authority from the North Carolina General Assembly to remove vessels, Solomon said. A 2019 law gave the Wildlife Resources Commission $1 million to inspect and remove abandoned and derelict vessels from Florence and other past storms. In 2020, another law was passed defining abandoned and derelict vessels and outlining a process for notifying the public and taking ownership of the vessel for removal.
The Division of Coastal Management, Wildlife Resources Commission and the federation hosted two workshops in 2020 to increase awareness of state funding for removal and start discussions with Coastal Area Management Act, or CAMA, counties to develop related rules.
Solomon said that another objective was to coordinate vessel removal with other organizations to increase efficient use of funding.
Gillikin, with the reserve, who was moderating the discussion during the symposium, said that the effort is unprecedented in North Carolina.
Putnam, with North Carolina Sea Grant, explained that for the research and assessment goal, a project is underway with a North Carolina State University team and partners to better understand how much and what kind of plastics are being carried by the Neuse River to the Pamlico Sound.
The two-year project is being funded by NOAA National Sea Grant and NOAA marine debris program. The project involves sampling for plastic pollution using different methods at 15 locations in rural and urban areas from the top of the basin near Raleigh to New Bern in the Neuse River Basin.
Sampling began the summer of 2020 and continues every other month. The samples are being analyzed at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Data will be collected and analyzed through June, she said.
“We want to better understand the relationships between microplastics and macroplastics, as well as understand what’s coming from urban versus rural areas,” she said. The plan is to refine sampling protocols and share which methods work best at certain types of locations with others with similar work.
“Finally, we’ll have some tangible data that we can use to support education and outreach targeted plastics pollution reduction,” she said.
Also over the past year, the research and assessment team made a list of current or recent marine debris research in the state accessible at the Marine Debris Symposiums’ webpage, under the research tab.
The document includes potential project funding sources and a list of research priorities.
This resource will give people a guide to what is going on in the state, and help make connections with and between researchers, she said.