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  • Lianna Burrows

The Hidden Dangers of Marine Debris

DEBRIS....We've been talking about it since Hurricane Dorian in September 2019. FRIENDS has been sharing efforts done by IDEA Relief and other NGO's like Eco-Blue Projects who have played an essential role in marine debris removal in Abaco. Without organizations like these, our progress with marine debris removal would be close to none. Marine debris has an impact on many areas of our lives, including our environment and our economy.

(Above) Debris is piled into IDEA Relief's dinghy following a cleanup dive in the Sea of Abaco before it is transported to land for sorting and disposal to debris sites.

Image credit: IDEA Relief.

Here are some of the impacts that we see in our communities following the disaster of Hurricane Dorian:

Environmental Impacts

  1. Resource deprivation. Large debris items can block sunlight and other resources from reaching the ecosystems that need them. Imagine what would happen to your lawn if you left a piece of plywood laying on it for a few weeks. Now imagine a piece of roofing laying on top of mangroves or seagrass beds for two years. This is what we are still facing.

  2. Physical damage. Debris might crush coral reefs or scrape across a sea bed habitat, which can destroy root systems and impact how quickly - or how well - an ecosystem recovers. Left alone, this debris is at the mercy of our tides and weather, causing further disturbance to already damaged systems.

  3. Contamination. Heavy metals, oil, coolants, and micro-plastics are just some of the potential pollutants resulting from marine debris. The longer debris is left exposed in the environment, the more likely it is to leech pollutants or to break apart into smaller pieces that can be consumed by wildlife, thus entering the food chain, and eventually showing up on our dinner plates. Chemicals can affect immediate survival of some wildlife or may impact their ability to reproduce.

"Conducting marine debris assessments and removal programs is critical in the immediate aftermath of an event to reduce and mitigate environmental contamination from chemical spills and physical damage to ecosystems from crushing for example. The longer marine debris remains in the environment, the greater potential for physical, chemical and/or biological damage to the environment, as well as human health and safety." -Juliette Deal, Debris and Waste Management Specialist

Economic Impacts

  1. Tourism Industry. The debris is a visual reminder of destruction, which can affect our tourism industry. Visitors may be concerned about safety issues with harsh debris in environments like coral reefs that they usually snorkel or dive on.

  2. Transportation. Floating wood, dock pilings sticking up at low tide, sunken boats/cars are a few debris types that pose navigational hazards in our transportation corridors. Ferry schedules were changed as a precaution to only operate during daylight hours as to avoid collisions by shifting debris in the water. In Abaco, we rely heavily on marine transport for goods and travel between the cays as well as importing from Nassau and the U.S.

  3. Fisheries. Fishing lines, nets or pots that get lost in storms (known as "ghost fishing") can be deadly to important fish and invertebrate species that commercial and subsistence fishing relies on. This "ghost fishing" can become competition to our fishing industry by depleting populations.

(Above) A mangrove ecosystem that provides nursery habitat for over 100 species of fish and marine invertebrates is affected from a large piece of roofing (?). IDEA Relief uses their equipment to remove! Image credit: IDEA Relief.

We are still seeing impacts from Hurricane Dorian debris in 2021, and it's likely that we will see them for a long time. We are thankful to organizations who are tirelessly working to remove debris from our waters, even two years later. The urgency of removing marine debris immediately after a disaster can prevent some of these long-term impacts. We have learned from experts how extremely important it is to work together with a multi-stakeholder approach with government agencies, NGO's and community members to give recommendations before an event as well as prioritize immediate removal needs after an event.

FRIENDS is a grateful recipient of Ocean Conservancy's 2021 Small Grants Program. Our title for this project is "Left behind, but not forgotten: A community approach to hurricane debris clean up and awareness". It is an education project that aims to build a community marine debris removal and awareness program that highlights the impact of common debris types and reinforces the need to prioritize debris removal following storms as well as better management of mixed material debris. Our goal is that through planned cleanups and a strategic social media campaign, FRIENDS will help community members better understand how to reduce their waste footprint and improve storm resiliency and response.

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