Jenna Schwerzmann, Joanna Toole Intern

During my time with the Center for Coastal Studies, we have achieved some unique cleanups!  First there was the adventure out to Lobster Cove at Long Point; later we accomplished our first Brand Audit, and since then, the adventures have continued.  These are not your average beach cleanups, and not for the faint of heart, as you’ll see in this account about debris removal efforts we completed on the Wellfleet shellfish flats and the very Outer Cape.

On a dark October morning, a large group gathered outside the Wellfleet shellfish office before sunrise.  Bundled up and snacking on Hole-in-One donuts, we awaited instructions from the Shellfish Constable, Nancy Civetta. She and Laura Ludwig organized this event and recruited help from experienced shellfishers, AmeriCorps volunteers, a few of us from the CCS Beach Brigade, and interested locals! We divided up in teams to conquer different areas and needs in the flats.  Some volunteered to be heavy lifters while others were assigned to pick up zip ties.

You read that right, zip ties!  My first thought when I heard this was, “Really?” We have collected stray zip ties on our other cleanups, but only a few here and there, so I was surprised that we would need to assign this task to multiple teams.

I had never been on a shellfish grant before, so the focus on zip ties was unclear until we reached the location on the oyster flats where we had permission to conduct the cleanup. We only picked up a few zip ties on our walk out, but quickly realized they were surrounding the shellfish gear.  Zip ties are used by many shellfishermen to secure cages and seal seed bags.  Unfortunately, they don’t all make it into a trash bag: hundreds of zip ties lay in the mud where they’d been dropped or carried by the tide.

Left: An oyster bag attached to rebar with zip ties, with one cut loose, right above the footprint.  Right: One of several handfuls of collected zip ties, a half-hour after sunrise.

Loose zip ties have the potential to wash out to sea with the next outgoing tide, or make their way further inland on a winter storm tide.  They can photodegrade — break down in the sun — into smaller pieces called microplastics.  These tiny fragments can infiltrate the environment in other ways, making their way up the food chain.  Scientists still don’t know how microplastics might affect us, but we do know that they can adsorb toxins from their surroundings; and they have been found in the food we eat, air we breathe, the water we drink (both tap and bottled), even in our salt shakers!  Picking up plastic can have a much broader impact than just the visible benefit you can see of a cleaner beach.

It was not easy, picking up these abandoned scraps of plastic while treading around in the Wellfleet mud.  A couple of times we did get our feet stuck and had to twist our way out!  Without the willingness of all the volunteers that day, hundreds or maybe thousands of zip ties would still be out there. We also picked up other lost shellfishing gear like broken black mesh bags and rusty pieces of rebar.

Even though we got pretty muddy, it was a beautiful morning on the flats! And while we don’t have an official number yet, I believe we picked up hundreds of cut zip ties.  Our collection is stored away until we can count it,* but until then we can feel good about making a difference in a location that doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic from beach cleaners!

That brings me to my next story…about what it takes for volunteers to clean up the Outer Cape every year! Click here for Part II.

Proud to represent the Debris Brigade! Jenna Schwerzmann, Laura Ludwig, Alice Gong, and Genevieve Martin.

*Inventory of the debris collected by the Beach Brigade on the Wellfleet flats was conducted on December 11, 2020 – total number of zip ties in our collection was 571, reflecting the hardest-hit of the shellfish areas cleaned that same day.

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