Conserve Wildlife Blog

Marine debris: Post-Sandy

August 26th, 2013

Is there more debris on coastal saltmarshes?

by Ben Wurst, Habitat Program Manager

Use the tennis ball as a reference point...

Use the tennis ball as a reference point…

Last year I started collecting trash and marine debris that I found at osprey nests along the Atlantic Coast. I’ve always removed trash from nests, especially trash that can harm an osprey through entanglement. Now it’s collected to use as an educational tool to make people more aware of the amount of trash that winds up in our waterways.

After seeing the devastation that Superstorm Sandy caused to our coast I immediately thought there would be an onslaught of debris found in osprey nests this year. While there was debris everywhere on coastal marshes immediately after the storm, only a little more was found in and around osprey nests (this year I surveyed 130 nests vs. 112 in 2012). There was not a significant difference (that I saw from 2012 to 2013, which is really good news). We have to give credit to all the volunteers and FEMA workers who helped to cleanup our coastal marshes after the storm hit.

Ospreys are known to collect and use trash as nesting material throughout their range. Here in New Jersey, we’ve seen the impacts of trash and marine debris, specifically plastic, on ospreys and their young from the many live streaming cameras at nests. It’s a silent killer that is becoming more and more of a problem in our coastal waterways.

In late June and early July, volunteer “Osprey Banders” and state biologists set out to survey most of the known osprey nests along our coast. I cover areas from as far north as Oceanport and Monmouth Beach south to Absecon and Atlantic City. At 130 nests I collected trash that I found in and around active nests. By “around” I mean directly under the nest or in the area we had to walk to get to the nest from a boat. As you can see almost all of the trash is plastic. The pile pictured above is around 72-80″‘ in diameter and 12″ high in the center. Plastic sheeting/bags are the most commonly found item along with rope, ribbon, monofilament, twine, balloons, clam bags, plastic mesh, single use plastic water bottles, rigid foam,  a small shovel, flag, and the infamous net from a nest at Forsythe NWR. What else do you see?


We’re not really sure why ospreys choose to use trash as nesting material but our best guess it that it is plentiful in the environment. One fact is that most ospreys collect nesting material from within view of their nest. Since debris and the natural nesting material (sticks, eelgrass, and grasses) tend to end up in the same high marsh areas, then they take and use it all. Another thing that might make some of the shiny plastics are more desirable to them is that some birds can see further into the UV spectrum of light so theses types of items might appear differently and be more attractive to them. We don’t yet know if trash plays any sort of role in their reproductive cycle but it is unlikely.

We do know that plastic and marine debris is a big problem and it can kill or harm many different forms of life. It is a global problem affecting everything from the environment to the economy; from fishing and navigation to human health and safety; from the tiniest coral polyps to albatross and giant blue whales. Marine debris also comes in many forms, from a cigarette butt to a 4,000-pound derelict fishing net.


Although marine debris is found worldwide, we can all help with the smallest actions to reduce the amount of debris found along our coastline. Reduce the amount of trash you produce, reuse what you can’t recycle, recycle things that can be repurposed into new goods, and participate in local beach or stream cleanups. If we each do a little, together we can make a big difference.




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