Harpswell pollution assessment yields 900 pounds of ocean trash

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HARPSWELL — As the weather warms and Mainers look forward to eating more local seafood, Harpswell Marine Resources is finding more than just shellfish in town waters.

On April 21, shellfish harvesters and conservation wardens from the Cumberland County Sherriff’s Office conducted a “pollution mitigation assessment” at Lookout Point.

It yielded an even 900 pounds of trash.

According to a post on the Harpswell Harbors and Marine Resources Facebook page, the nearly half ton of debris collected was a mixture of household trash, fishing gear, and polystyrene foam.

Harbormaster Paul Plummer said the April 21 cleanup was the second one conducted in town this year.

During the first cleanup in April, Plummer said, harvesters worked in various areas around town, including Card Cove, Strawberry Creek, and High Head, but the result was the same: “Trash and Styrofoam galore.”

Plummer said in both instances, workers filled up the town pickup truck with the trash collected, and had the truck weighed at the Recycling & Transfer Station at the end to determine the total amount. They properly disposed of the garbage afterward.

Plummer said regularly holding such cleanups can be difficult due to requirements from the Department of Marine Resources, which mandate conservation efforts conducted by harvesters must be shown to enhance a town’s resource.

“Towns stopped doing these cleanups because it was hard to articulate how they enhance the resource,” he said, adding he doesn’t think Harpswell is “overstepping (its) bounds” with regard to the state regulations.

“It’s been proven Styrofoam and micro plastic are really bad stuff,” Plummer said. “Our goal out here is to provide a good product for people that consume shellfish.”

The damage from micro plastics – tiny pieces of plastic debris resulting from the breakdown of plastic over time – ending up in shellfish has been examined in other parts of the world;  a 2016 research project at Vancouver Island University  was based on the issue, according to NPR.

Harpswell’s shellfish ordinance, available on the DMR website, defines “Conservation Time” as projects approved by the Marine Resources Committee “from time to time that serve to preserve and protect the Town’s clam flats for the purpose of taking, propagating, harvesting, or cultivating shellfish therefrom.”

Plummer said the town’s Marine Resources Committee agreed this winter it would do a full year of ribbon worm eradication, with harvesters doing roughly two weeks worth of digging for the invasive species in 2018. 

In return, Plummer said he suggested the pollution assessments as a way to “break it up a little bit.” Another pollution mitigation assessment is planned for Sept. 15 in Quahog Bay. 

At Lookout Point, he said, workers found multiple old foam buoys, which were in such rough condition that they couldn’t be returned. Many were also cracked where their serial numbers used to be, making it impossible to identify where they had come from.

Foam and micro plastic are especially problematic types of pollution, Plummer said. The tiny particles can stay in the area and potentially affect the shellfish harvest.

Foam is also problematic in general, because it can take more than a million years for the material to decompose in a landfill, according to the EPA. 

Plummer said workers also found an abundance of old rope at Lookout Point, which was difficult to remove because it was intertwined with salt marsh grass.

“We noticed as we were trying to pull the rope out of these bank beds, we were also ripping part of that embankment as we (went),” he said.

Figuring out how to stop such items from ending up in the town’s water, he said, is “the million-dollar question.” But just because the trash is ending up in Harpswell, doesn’t necessarily mean it originated there, Plummer added.

“A trash can could blow over anywhere in Harpswell, and because we’re so thin (trash could travel),” he said. “It could be coming from Portland, it could be coming from Brunswick, it’s hard to know.”

Plummer’s goal for now is to raise public awareness on the issue, and make people think before abandoning a float or anything else near water.

“(People think) ‘well out of sight, out of mind,'” he said. “But it does go somewhere, and this is what’s left of it.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Shellfish conservation wardens from the Cumberland County Sherriff’s Office pick up trash at Lookout Point as part of a “pollution mitigation assessment” by Harpswell Marine Resources April 21. 

A pickup truck loaded with foam debris gathered at Lookout Point in Harpswell April 21.

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