Plastic Debris and Whale Burps
by Sharon Moen
About a year ago, a curious Lake Superior beachcomber brought several plum-sized balls of fibrous material into the Minnesota Sea Grant office. Never having seen such things before, it took us a moment and a little help from Oregon Sea Grant to identify them as "whale burps." Although they have been scavenged from beaches around the world, we couldn't find any Great Lakes records of surf balls, as they are also called.
According to our friends in Oregon, no formal research has been done on surf balls. However, theory suggests that as lost monofilaments (or in our case, strands of black plastic) roll about in nearshore waves, they gradually collect seaweed, pine needles, dune grass, small feathers, shell fragments, and other debris, forming a tight, bristly ball. Surf balls the size of a grapefruit have rolled onto Australian shores.
Seeing these oddities as a way to splash the global problem of aquatic plastic litter into the public eye, Minnesota Sea Grant issued a press release that caught news traffic from California to Ontario. As Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer Sam Cook said, "Dangling 'whale burps' in front of a reporter is like dangling a huge worm in front of a hungry fish. You bet we'll be calling."
After the media buzz that likely reached an audience of well over a million, three people contacted our office saying that they, too, had found whale burps in the Great Lakes. Janet Vail sent a photo and commented that after years of walking Lake Michigan beaches she found surf balls near Grand Haven, Mich., for the first time in summer 2010. Vail said, "Ours are larger than yours (6 inches) and they are more oblong. They appear to be composed of roots with some shells (mussels, snails), nylon mesh in one, and some fibrous material."
We also received a report of whale burp sightings near Wilderness State Park along Lake Michigan. And we received a note saying that surf balls started
appearing several years ago near Shot Point and Au Train Bay along the south shore of Lake Superior.
Despite the curio-cabinet intrigue of finding a surf ball, discarded and lost plastics damage aquatic environments and the creatures that live therein. When these plastics break down, research has shown they can release the suspected carcinogen styrene monomer and bisphenol A (BPA), which has been proven to interfere with reproduction.
Lorena Rios, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, is studying plastics in Lake Superior. She reports that a diverse array of plastic fragments can be found around Lake Superior, but the primary form is polypropylene, followed by polyethylene, and polystyrene.
"Lake Superior has visible plastic debris on remote and otherwise pristine beaches and shorelines," she said. "I cannot detect plastic debris in sediments, but I found microscopic plastic in some water samples."
Rios notes that plastics are helpful and prevalent in our society but that these synthetic polymers are not biodegradable in any reasonable time scale in our environment. "We need to think in the three R's: reuse, recycle and refuse," she said.
Sarah Erickson of the Great Lakes Aquarium reports that Minnesota volunteers pick up thousands of plastic items from the Lake Superior watershed during the annual Beach Sweep in September. She estimates that about a third of the items collected are made out of plastic. "This does not include cigarette butts, which made up about 50 percent of the material collected," said Erickson.
Whale burps are definitely conversation starters ... but … they're also reminders of the non-biodegradable trappings of our lifestyles. You don't have to wait for the Beach Sweep to find shoreline trash and treasures. Take advantage of the next blustery day. Bundle up, grab a trash bag and as you are cleaning up shoreline litter, look for your own whale burp.
Learn more about aquatic litter through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program (http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/welcome.html).