Ocean Cleanup Teaches Lessons

New England and Canada involve schoolchildren in a program to prevent polluted waters. ENVIRONMENT

THEO KELLER found part of an answering machine. Bill Kinnane, his eleven-year-old classmate, picked up milk cartons, napkins, ``and lots of beer cans.'' Celina Morgan-Standard found so many disposable diapers that she wants people to start using cloth ones again. Several years ago, when these students from the Riley School here joined hundreds of others around Maine for a coastal cleanup day, they had no trouble filling 20 bags with trash from a nearby beach. And they came away with some clear convictions about ocean dumping.

``I never really litter,'' says Amy Halvorson, ``but if I did I wouldn't do it any more.''

``I don't see how they can do that!'' says Bill, talking about garbage barges that routinely dump city waste in the ocean. ``They know what's going to happen to all the animals.''

This year, these students are gearing up for the next round: The annual Gulf of Maine Coastal Cleanup on September 23, which expects to turn out some 7,000 volunteers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts - and, for the first time, the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Here in Maine, the cleanup is part of Coastweek '89, a three-week celebration observed by more than 30 states that focuses on the value of the nation's coasts.

The cleanup has had ``great impact,'' says Kathryn Jennings, head teacher at the Riley School. Her students, she notes, are ``very much aware of what litter can do, and they're very aware of what they can do.''

And that, says Flis Schauffler, is exactly what the cleanup is intended to do. ``There are so many environmental issues today that are of a scale that people just can't get a grasp on, like tropical deforestation or global warming,'' says Ms. Schauffler, who is communications coordinator for the Maine Coastal Program in the State Planning Office in Augusta. ``There isn't that much that kids in a classroom can do. This offers them something where they can learn about the resource and really make a difference in terms of hands-on stewardship.''

Richard H. Silkman, director of the Planning Office, agrees. ``I don't think it's necessarily to clean up the shore,'' he says. ``I think it's to draw attention to the fact that ocean dumping - trash - ends up someplace and can cause substantial damage. It's really to focus people's attention on the fact that this is a major issue for us.''

For that reason, he says, the bags of litter aren't as important as the 8 1/2-by-14-inch cards labeled ``Items Collected'' that each beach-combing team tallies up. The cards list 65 different types of debris, from beverage bottles and egg cartons to 55-gallon drums and lobster traps. Volunteers record each item - and use slots labeled ``Other'' for the refrigerators, engine blocks, bedsprings, kitchen sinks, diamond necklaces, and $100 bills that have been found in past cleanups.

Starting with the 1988 cleanup, the information from the cards goes into the National Marine Debris Database, maintained by the Washington-based Center for Marine Conservation (CMC). The center's1988 report - based on cards submitted by more than 47,500 volunteers in 25 states and territories, who picked up nearly 2 million items on 3,500 miles of United States shoreline along the oceans and the Great Lakes - found that:

The Gulf of Mexico, heavily used for shipping and for offshore oil production, was the worst victim. Volunteers in Texas, for example, found 3,549 pounds of debris per mile.

By contrast, the Gulf of Maine remains one of the cleanest coastal regions. Massachusetts registered 333 pounds per mile, while Maine had only 133 pounds.

Nationally, the most prevalent type of debris was plastic - which is not surprising, since it often floats. Some 62 percent of the items found were plastic, followed by paper (11.8 percent), metal (11.4 percent), glass (9.5 percent), wood (2.3 percent), and cloth (1.3 percent).

Not all the trash is generated by Americans. More than 1,000 ``foreign label items'' from 46 countries were also counted. ``Much of the foreign debris found on US beaches can be attributed to dumping by the international fleet of commercial ships,'' says the CMC report, adding that some of it also comes from cruise liners.

Some of the most compelling reasons to stop ocean littering come from the animal kingdom, as volunteers reported evidence of birds and mammals caught in nets or in plastic six-pack yokes. According to National Wildlife Federation estimates, 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris.

This year's effort promises to produce even more information. In Maine alone, some 4,000 volunteers are expected to participate - including some 1,600 who have contacted Anne Sartwell of the Kennebec Girl Scout Council, located in the Portland area. Some scout troops plan to make a weekend of it, camping out on the shore before the cleanup.

The limiting factor, says Ms. Sartwell, is access to the beaches. Much of the coastline is privately owned. Even in public areas, however, groups of children need to have access to bathroom facilities, telephones (in case of emergency), and trucks to haul off the bags of trash they collect. ``That pretty much limits us to the state parks and to the town-owned beaches,'' she says, noting that she has not received offers from private owners to open their coastlines for the day.

The information gathered about the source of the litter will help determine what steps to take. Already, says Mr. Silkman, there have been efforts to improve trash-disposal facilities at marinas. The Maine Coastal Program published a booklet, ``Charting Our Course,'' which is an activity guide for grades 6 through 12 on water quality in the Gulf of Maine. And a working conference on the Gulf of Maine, convened by the governors of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine and the premiers of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, is scheduled for December 10 through 12 in Portland.

``In the same way we went through the 1960s with an anti-litter campaign for the highways - basically we've got to go through that same exercise on the ocean,'' says Silkman. ``There is this sense that things sink and go to the bottom,'' he says, when in fact much of the debris comes ashore.

``This is a preventive program,'' says David Keeley, director of the Maine Coastal Program, who hopes to stimulate political action to protect the Gulf of Maine while it is still healthy. ``How do you get people to respond when there's not a crisis? Getting people to think about it is one of the first steps.''

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