Fighting back against beach pollution. Adopt-a-beach volunteers collect debris

Lucky, an Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin, is living proof that the tons of garbage humans dump into the oceans are deadly to marine wildlife. The spunky mammal, rescued over a decade ago on the Texas coast from the death grip of a tangled shrimper's net, is also a splashing, diving testimony to the growing efforts being made to clean up not just the Gulf of Mexico, but all the nation's beaches and coastal waters.

Lucky - so named because one of his rescuers said the badly injured dolphin would be ``lucky'' if he lived - is now a star at Sea-Arama, an entertainment park in Galveston, and the mascot of a Texas beach-cleanup campaign that already involves thousands of Texans annually.

The cleanup is not being done just for the countless sea animals less fortunate than Lucky, including other dolphins, sea turtles, coastal birds, and even fish, that become mired in plastic and other human debris each year. Medical waste washing ashore on a number of beaches in recent months, plus the closing of beaches at the height of summer due to pollution's threat, also has commanded national attention.

This year the Texas beach cleanup expanded to include other Gulf states, and now Costa Rica has joined in. In Texas, more than 170 miles of beach have been ``adopted'' by organizations, ranging from major oil companies to public service groups, through the Texas General Land Office's Adopt-a-Beach program.

Environmentalists and state officials say education programs on the effects of marine garbage - whether from huge cargo ships, little fishing boats, or careless beachgoers - are galvanizing the public and leading to stronger marine dumping regulations.

``For a long time there was a frustration about marine debris, but there wasn't a grass-roots way for people to come together and do something about it,'' says Linda Maraniss, director of the Center for Environmental Education's regional office in Austin. That changed in September 1986, when the CEE held Texas's first volunteer beach cleanup. More than 2,500 people took part.

``Since then concern about the beaches and awareness of plastics especially and how they can kill wildlife has really increased,'' Ms. Maraniss adds.

This past weekend thousands of volunteers from Texas to Florida picked up tons of garbage - much of it plastic - on Gulf coast beaches. Organizers say spot checks in Texas indicated that more people picked up more trash than a year ago, when 7,000 volunteers filled 17,000 donated trash bags with 300 tons of refuse.

This year, with beach cleanups continuing into October in California, New York, Massachusetts, and other states, the CEE is planning a national summary of the marine debris picked up. Using the data, the marine conservation organization will work with public officials and industry representatives to push for both voluntary pollution curbs and stricter dumping regulations.

Among the ideas advocated is more recycling of ``throwaway'' items, including plastic. Recycling stations were incorporated into the Texas and Florida cleanups this year, with instructions given on which plastic items - milk jugs and bleach bottles, for example - are recyclable.

Coding plastic to make its composition easier to identify and thus more attractive to recycling companies is another step environmentalists urge. Already a dozen states require plastics coding.

But perhaps most important, many environmental officials say, are tighter restrictions on sea dumping.

``Marine dumping is a 4,000-year-old tradition, but until plastics came along that wasn't much of a problem,'' says Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, whose office has moved to the forefront of the Texas beach cleanup. ``But when most of what's dumped now doesn't degrade for 400 years or more, it's a big problem.''

Mr. Mauro became a principal lobbyist with Congress for an international prohibition of plastics dumping at sea. The prohibition becomes part of MARPOL, the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships, at the end of this year.

Mauro is also urging that the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea be designated a ``special area'' under the international convention. That would ban the dumping of virtually all waste in those areas.

``The Gulf is a closed basin,'' Mauro says, ``and with the currents the way they are, just about anything dumped there is going to end up on our beaches.''

The ravages of marine dumping were evident enough during the weekend beach cleanup. Here in Port Aransas, just east of Corpus Christi, hundreds of volunteers filled white trash bags with plastic sheeting and bags, fishing line, bottles, cans, and rope.

Each volunteer was given two plastic bags - one for trash, one for recyclable items - and one of the CEE's data cards, for listing every item picked up. After three hours, mile after mile of the beach was clean. Some volunteers wondered, however, how long it would be before the tides again dressed the sand with their refuse.

``You can pick up the trash today, but it'll be back tomorrow,'' said Sally Lewis, a plant nursery employee who drove four hours with friends to take part in the cleanup. ``That's why I think these data cards are really more important,'' she added. ``Maybe enough solid information over a period of time will make the legislatures and the general public aware that we have this horrible problem.''

A simpler point of view was expressed by Stephanie McMullen, a junior-high student who came to the beach from San Antonio with her school science club.

``In class we're reading about all the garbage in the world's oceans and what it does to animals and stuff like that,'' said the 14-year-old, a gaggle of friends giggling behind her. ``But really, nobody likes being on the beach when there's a lot of trash.''

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