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Students Aid Scientists, Wildlife, and Potomac Shoreline

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

Each bottle, bag, and fishing line picked up by students on the banks of the Potomac last weekend was one less threat to sea turtles, birds, and other wildlife.

It also aided science. The students inventoried what they found for the Ocean Conservancy, working under the eye of a professor who knows the importance of volunteers’ data. After all, data from such cleanup days was part of what biology professor Kiho Kim and his colleagues used for a report to Congress released last week by the National Research Council.

Kim sits on the Ocean Studies Board, part of the National Research Council, whose report concluded that current measures to prevent and reduce marine debris are inadequate. The report relied in part on a study by the Ocean Conservancy, using data from volunteers doing beach cleanups between 1996 and 2006.

AU isn’t on a beach, but the students who took part in the 23rd annual International Coastal Cleanup were adding to the data on litter that can wash into the oceans. “By the latest estimates, 80 percent of what ends up in the oceans comes from land,” notes Kim.

A plastic bottle chucked into a clump of shoreline weeds can end up in a sea turtle’s belly. Bottle caps and plastic bags can be mistaken by marine life for tasty jellyfish.

“Plastic can lacerate intestines. Animals can choke, or their intestines can be blocked up so they can’t eat any more,” said Kim, a marine biologist, as the students combed the water’s edge by Fletcher’s Boat House, a popular fishing and jogging area near Georgetown.

Debris in the oceans doesn’t, of course, come mainly from people who toss litter onto the shoreline. But wildlife-killing debris can start on its journey to the ocean even in a setting that seems pristine.

The students found fishing lines tangled on driftwood, ropes embedded in mud, and bottles lodged in thickets like the one where Mackenzie O’Donnell foraged for trash, heedless of the scratchy thorns.

“Cuts and scrapes are no big deal,” said the senior in environmental studies. “People are off doing more difficult stuff every day. It’s three hours out of my morning. What else would I be doing, sleeping in?”

Around 30 early-rising AU volunteers cleared the shore of more than 60 bags of trash.