Trash piles up in a Columbia River 'mega sink'

Volunteer on Oregon Coast says he — we — can't stand idly by

WARRENTON — "When you start picking this stuff up, the volume is amazing," said Marc Ward, picking through a tidal inlet on the north end of Fort Stevens State Park he's termed a "Columbia River South Jetty Mega Sink."

The inlet, he and others found, plays host to anything as large as tires down to granules of microplastic hidden on and under driftwood and in the rolling dunes north of South Jetty.

Ward, who along with 57 other volunteers took out about 600 pounds of debris from the site June 22, is organizing a second cleanup for July 28 he hopes will clear up most of the remaining visible marine debris.

Ward, who runs the nonprofit Sea Turtles Forever with his wife, Rachel, originally was tipped off to the mega sink by North Coast Land Conservancy founder Neal Maine. Also an avid wildlife photographer, Maine noticed it while taking pictures of snowy owls on the spit. In a 1-square meter sample, Ward extracted more than 51/2; pounds of debris, including anything from bottle caps, bottle rockets and PVC piping pieces to straws, syringes and cigar tips. He still spots copious amounts of nylon rope and other fishing gear, nickel-sized plastic fragments, and sand grain-sized microplastic debris weathered from years of floating in the ocean.

Ward suspects another debris-laden inlet to the west of the one he and others cleaned in June, although not in as grave a condition.

The material in the sink, he said, comes almost entirely from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which slowly spins in the North Pacific Gyre, a slow-moving, clockwise, circular ocean current that shoots straight at Oregon before turning south, periodically dumping its beaches with debris. Much of the 2011 Japanese tsunami debris, he added, is being caught in the gyre, and Oregon's at the perfect spot to get dumped on by it.

With the growing heat, much of the plastic debris threatens to leach Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and other harmful chemicals into a wetland site frequented by killdeer, snowy owls, pelicans, small mammals, reptiles and clams. He said the animals often mistake the microplastics for food, eating them and tearing up their digestive tracts.

Ward's bane is a lack of funding directed toward marine debris cleanup. "People can't volunteer endlessly," said Ward, adding he's done so the past decade of his life in the marine debris effort.

He said that while fishing gear cleanup gets assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the agency doesn't help with microplastics. The state, although supportive in the cleanups, doesn't have any money for dedicated cleaners.

"If we're just standing by, our beaches are going to be covered with that stuff," said Ward.

"I really hate that thought, our beaches just becoming a sink for that stuff. That's my nightmare."

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