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Shore towns ban plastic bags, say they dirty beaches, hurt wildlife

The Jersey Shore is literally the end of the road for thousands of plastic items. Westerly winds carry balloons and bags from inland and they snag on native pine trees like rogue Christmas ornaments. They land on docks and light poles - the last impediments before the open ocean. Major waterways flow into the ocean, pulling plastic debris from storm drains along the way. Nets and fishing lines get left behind. Water bottles and other plastic debris end up in waterways, beaches, dunes and ocean. And, of course, hundreds of thousands of people stream to the beaches each year, leaving behind broken boogie boards, straws and hundreds of other items.

Jay Pagel, a senior field technician at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, shown here picking up plastic on the beach, in Brigantine, New Jersey, Wednesday, May 23, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Jay Pagel, a senior field technician at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, shown here picking up plastic on the beach, in Brigantine, New Jersey, Wednesday, May 23, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff PhotographerRead moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Bob Schoelkopf took a hose and sprayed down a gray seal pup that remained quiet as two other seals bellowed in their own nearby cubicles.

"This little gray seal pup, a little male, was lucky because he crawled out onto the beach here at Brigantine while we were releasing another seal back into the wild," said Schoelkopf, founder of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. "It came in with a fishing net wrapped totally around its neck."

The material acted like a "saw" around the animal's neck, and had cut through both skin and blubber by the time he was rescued.

The Jersey Shore is literally the end of the road for fishing nets and thousands of other plastic items.  Westerly winds carry balloons and shopping bags from inland and they snag on trees like rogue Christmas ornaments.  They land on docks and light poles, the last impediments before the open ocean.

Rivers flow into the ocean, pulling plastic debris from storm drains.  Nets and fishing lines get left behind. Water bottles end up in waterways, beaches, dunes, and the ocean.

Add to all that the broken boogie boards, food containers, beverage straws, and an uncountable number of other items left behind by the annual influx of Shore-goers.

One organization last year swept 70 locations on the shore and netted 373,686 pieces of litter, mostly plastic, including single-use water bottles by the tens of thousands.

At best, the plastic is ugly. At worst, it's deadly to wildlife.

Some Shore towns have had enough. They are banning plastic shopping bags or requiring merchants to impose a fee to discourage their use, and are even regulating the release of balloons.

Blocked whale esophagus

Schoelkopf recalls finding a plastic balloon that drifted onto the island and was inscribed with the name and phone number of a bar — in Indiana. So Schoelkopf called.

"The owner said he had released balloons for the grand opening of the bar," Schoelkopf recalls. "He was embarrassed.  Turns out, he was the chairman of the environmental committee in his town."

His center has performed 5,000 necropsies on wildlife over 40 years. Plastic debris is nothing new, he said.  But it has been accumulating for decades and keeps piling up because it takes so long to decompose. When it does break down, marine life and waterfowl often mistake it for food or nesting material.

He remembers getting called about a stranded melon-headed whale that eventually died.

"During the necropsy, we found a spray paint can cap blocking its esophagus," Shoelkopf said.  "The animal essentially starved to death. It couldn't ingest food."

He added: "One turtle swallowed a whole sheet of plastic — the kind you might put down on the floor when you're painting. It was in its mouth and came out its anus. The entire intestinal tract was filled with plastic."

On the state-protected north end of Brigantine a few days ago, the center's senior field technician, Jay Pagel, was on patrol for reports of a whale being attacked by sharks.  As he drove along the beach, he stopped frequently to collect plastic debris.

"I enjoy this job," Pagel said of rescuing wildlife, "But this is the worst part of it — seeing all this trash."

He expected it to only worsen after Memorial Day.

Farther south in Avalon, a  Northern Gannet was found on the beach two weeks ago with plastic wrapped around its bill, according to Lenore Tedesco, executive director of the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor.  It took hours for someone to be able to get to the seabird and free it from the plastic, fearing all the while it might die.

"There are two things about plastics," Tedesco said. "They persist forever and they break down into smaller plastic, microplastics that are being ingested a lot by other animals."

Stone Harbor is also considering action on plastic bags.

‘It’s just getting worse and worse’

In 2015, tiny Longport on Absecon Island became the first New Jersey municipality to impose a fee on single-use plastic bags provided by stores.  This year, both Long Beach Township and Ventnor have enacted similar ordinances.  Several communities, such as Stone Harbor, have discussed bans or introduced similar ordinances. On Tuesday, Monmouth Beach officials voted to ban single-use plastic bags, straws, and food containers, as well as takeout Styrofoam boxes.

Since its ban, Longport has also put in a hydration station at the municipal building so beachgoers can refill their water bottles.

"Our whole idea is to get people to use reusable bags and bottles," said Longport Mayor Nicholas Russo.

Russo said the 10-cent fee imposed on customers wanting plastic bags is not a tax, because the stores keep the money.

"Our goal is awareness. The most overwhelming support I have gotten from this personally is from young people," Russo said. "College students, high schools students are very attuned to the environment."

Farther north, Long Beach Island can swell to 130,000 people on a summer weekend. Joseph Mancini, mayor of Long Beach Township, said he's seen plastic bags blow all over town.

"They're in the water, they're in the trees, they're in people's backyards," Mancini said.  "I've spoken to scallop fishermen who pull up plastic bags in scallop dredges. This stuff is not going away. It's just getting worse and worse.  So we decided to put in a ban."

Mancini said some stores didn't like the change but didn't really push back. Longport also banned balloon releases, a Shore fixture especially around graduation season.

"Everybody realizes we have a problem," Mancini said.

Where does it all come from?

Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, said the U.S. is "finally catching up with Europe and Africa," where laws regulating single-use plastics are commonplace. About 150 states, municipalities, or counties in the U.S. either ban or require fees on single-use plastic bags.

But that doesn't affect all the other stuff — like straws, cigarette filter tips, diapers, tampon applicators, syringes, appliances, and blood vials.  Clean Ocean Action's coordinated cleanups of  Shore communities in 2017 collected hundreds of thousands of trash items, two-thirds of which were single-use plastic.

It isn't just beachgoers providing all this trash.

"Every time it rains in Philadelphia, for example, all the garbage that gets washed into storm drains and then into waterways," Zipf said. "That's the storm-drain effect."

"You can almost tell if we've had a very rainy winter and a lot of snow. A lot of times, the garbage that was in snow picked up from the street gets into the water."

Whether the source is a winter snowstorm or a summer day at the beach, she said, there's one constant: "What's striking about this plastic situation is that there is no one else to blame but human beings."