World Ocean Day was celebrated this week and people across the planet talked about how to keep water bottles, micro-trash and other plastics out of our oceans.
Here in Texas, we can do our part by working toward a future where Texas beaches move beyond their reputation for pollution.
Texas beaches along the Gulf of Mexico are some of the trashiest in the nation. I saw that when I first walked the Mustang Island Gulf beach in the 1970s, and I see that now, nearly 40 years later. To quote a long-ago comic strip panel, “There Oughta be a Law!”
There ought to be and there is, but it’s not often obeyed. So what are our options?
The two main sources of human-made debris found on Texas beaches are stuff transported to the beaches by waves, tides and winds, which is called marine debris, and plain old litter and garbage left by beachgoers.
It’s easy to distinguish between the two. There are long stretches of remote Gulf beachfront blighted by marine debris and popular spots littered with garbage from shoreline to dune. Everything from literally thousands of plastic water bottles to hard hats to netting to cans to deflating Mylar balloons can found in the surf. There are red balloons after Valentine’s Day and purple and black after milestone birthdays, and of course, cartooned ones for the kids, which look like turtles’ favorite food — jellyfish.
The debris and litter obviously mar the unique beauty of the long stretches of sandy beaches Texas is blessed to have. The problem is that it has become the status quo, and it diminishes our role as protectors of this bounty. It must stop.
The debris negatively affects coastal wildlife as anyone who takes the time to look will see. You will find turtle bites in bottles and salt sacks. Birds get entangled in fishing tackle. Sea turtles often ingest balloons or become entangled by the strings, which can cause injury or even death.
The insidious increase in micro-trash, ever smaller multicolored pieces of plastic, also leads to problems because micro-trash can be mistaken for food to all sorts of wildlife.
Aside from the harm it causes wildlife, communities are starting to understand the damage marine debris can cause. It costs businesses and whole economies in tax dollars, tourism revenues and environmental impacts. Many towns are putting money into anti-litter campaigns and are providing more trash and recycling bins for the growing crowds. This is a good first step but more is needed.
We should increase the number of citations for littering on a consistent basis. Word spreads when tickets are being handed out, and people will respond. We should modify our existing laws to enable more enforcement, such as making it the beach-goers responsibility to dispose of trash within a predetermined radius. If you make it illegal to even pile the trash on the beach, it’s easier for authorities to enforce than waiting until the litterer leaves.
Coastal cities should also use new technologies that help cleanup efforts. Increasing the number and size of trash cans combined with vehicles equipped for automated pickup can make a huge difference and decrease the costs of removal.
If that doesn’t work, let’s at the very least enforce our existing laws by meting out fines and modifying the laws where necessary to make it easier to catch culprits in the act for the sake of our environment and our economies.
It’s easy to explain to folks that marine debris originates with humans. Since there is no controversy on this point, we should be able to agree that humans need to take more responsibility. We can’t argue that marine debris is part of a natural cycle or that it existed millions of years ago. It started with us and it must end with us.
Tony Amos is a research fellow and director of the Animal Rehabilitation Keep at The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute. Katie Swanson is the stewardship coordinator at the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve with The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute.
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