A trip to the coast is always an adventure. Pebbles, sand, towering cliff faces, bustling estuaries or potent-scented salt marsh; as an island nation we have huge variation of landscapes and scenery around our shoreline. Just off shore are kelp forests, rocky outcrops, wrecks and sheltered waters. The depths hide unexpected inhabitants from cuttlefish to seahorses, whilst at the point where sea meets land you’ll find the creatures that cross both domains, the seals, the shellfish and the seabirds.
For me, every visit to the coast is a journey of discovery. I am more familiar with the creatures of hedgerow and furrow than those found above and below the waves. I wrote about my impressions of this strange kingdom in my recent blog and poem ‘Coast’. However, despite its magic, the sea and its shoreline is no pure sanctuary, but a habitat under threat. Beneath the surface and between the grains of sand on the shoreline is a grave danger; rubbish.
With all I have said about the coast, it is no surprise that people are drawn here. Indeed, humans have been visiting and inhabiting the coast for millennia. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors made use of the rich resources this landscape had to offer, and we’ve been here ever since. Unfortunately, unlike those early peoples, our lifestyles and activities are becoming increasingly detrimental to the environment we are so attached to.
Everything we do creates some form of waste, and a concerning proportion of this ends up in our oceans and along our coastlines. Much of this waste endangers the health of the environment and the complex ecosystems on and off shore. It also impacts on tourism and economy; no one wants to swim in a sea or picnic on a beach surrounded by rubbish, and clean waters are essential if we wish to continue to plunder the natural resources of the ocean for food and fertiliser into the future.
Last month I visited a local beach to learn more about this problem, and the efforts to tackle it, for myself.
Bognor Regis is a south coast seaside town in West Sussex. Once the playground of holidaying Edwardians, like many towns of its type its grandeur is now a little faded and worn around the edges. Despite the peeling paintwork, and the derelict corners where street pigeons nest year-round, the town is busy, especially in the summer months when the population is swollen by holiday makers from Butlins and the local caravan parks. Bognor has also retained its bandstand (recently repainted to disguise the effect of time and corrosive salt spray), annual visits by the funfair, and the ubiquitous crazy golf. Jutting out into the sea with the stoic vanity of a dame performing to a diminished audience all to aware of her age, is the pier. To the east and west of the pier structure, dark groynes segregate the pebbled beach into equal sections. When we arrived, the tide was reluctant to drop below the end of these groynes, revealing only a hint of the sand it secrets beneath foaming waves. The January wind whipped along the rise of pebbles.
We joined group of volunteers to the east of the pier. Bags of gloves, clipboards and litter-pickers told us we were in the right place. We were here to take part in a Beach Clean event, organised by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. The basic purpose of the event was to clear a section of the beach of litter, but we were also contributing to important science.
Survey forms provided by the Marine Conservation Trust were handed out and the group split into pairs or small parties to scour 100m of the beach for any non-natural items. Each item collected was put into our bags and then marked off on the form. There were categories for all kinds of finds, from wood and metal, to dog faeces, clothing, glass, and a bewildering number of different plastics. Once the survey area was picked clean, the group spread out and undertook a sweep of the general area, accumulating a satisfying weight of picked litter. The initial work with the survey forms was a vital part of the event; recording the finds from a measured area provides useful data, which can be compared with identical surveys successive beach cleans here and around the rest of the coast. This helps to build up an accurate picture of what is happening on our beaches; what litter is washing in, where or when the highest concentrations are, and whether the situation is improving. Careful recording of the type of litter found is also valuable information as it is then possible to decipher where the items are entering the sea and develop ways to tackle the problem at source.
On this occasion, the beach initially appeared remarkably clean, but once we got our eyes tuned in it was surprising the volume of items we found. Bottle caps, plastic fragments, wet wipes, and cable insulation… in fact 233 items in total of which 73.9% were some form of plastic.
Taking part in this beach clean certainly raised my awareness of just how much rubbish is washing up on our coastline and the scale of the problem we are facing and are all responsible for. Next time I visit the coast I will certainly take a bag, a pair of gloves, and look a little more carefully at what is under my feet.
If you have been inspired to take part in a beach clean on your local beach,
to help clean up our coastline and contribute to the citizen science then https://beachclean.net/ and https://www.mcsuk.org/beachwatch/events are great places to start.