With another major storm bearing down the Atlantic Coast a few days from now, I thought back to my survey of Coney Island the day after Sandy struck. Sand swept over the boardwalk. Smoke poured out of a building. Power lines and trees were down everywhere. An upended SUV rested on a park bench. A public bus had floated into the middle of the street. Cars and trucks were almost at a standstill because the traffic lights were out due to the power outage.
But it was the debris strewn across the beach that really stood out. Thousands and thousands of bottles, plastic bags, beach toys—you name it. People with wagons were hauling away whatever they deemed valuable. The police and other authorities ordered everyone off the beach. For all anyone knew, syringes could have washed up, causing wounds or infections. But curiosity seekers paid no mind.
Next to my bike I picked up a 40-year-old Rheingold beer can which once contained beer actually made in Brooklyn before the brewery closed in the late ’70s. Beside it was, sadly, a dead rabbit that must have drowned—somewhat ironic considering that Coney Island was named after rabbits. According to PBS's American Experience, “since the Dutch word for rabbit was 'konijn' and the island had a large population of wild rabbits, many have supposed this fact to have led to the name. One variation of this theory is less flattering to the Europeans: When the Dutch battled the Indian inhabitants there, they are supposed to have said that their enemies 'ran like rabbits.'"
Sandy was mostly a human tragedy, but I wondered about all the flotsam and jetsam on the beach and birds, so I contacted Stacey Vigallon, education director for Los Angeles Audubon (and a Together Green fellow) whose pioneering work with snowy plovers was the subject of an article I wrote for Audubon magazine. She confronts the same garbage problems on a large scale on California beaches, trying to save snowy plovers and California least terns. “Anything that can entangle a bird is definitely a problem—plastic bags, string, wire, old balloons, six-pack plastic rings, plastic netting, etc.,” Stacey emailed me. “Even if a bird is only slightly (a bit of plastic string dragging on a leg) or temporarily entangled, it is obstructed from foraging, roosting, or moving around as it normally would. That can be energetically expensive and make it more vulnerable to predators.”
Furthermore, the EPA notes that seabirds might die from ingesting the harmful debris, mistaking it for food: “Ingestion can lead to starvation or malnutrition when the marine debris collects in the animal's stomach causing the animal to feel full. Starvation also occurs when ingested marine debris in the animal's system prevents vital nutrients from being absorbed. Internal injuries and infections may also result from ingestion.”
As I write this, the U.S. Weather Service is reporting that the over next two days a Nor’easter may bring 50-mile-per hour winds and rain to the areas already battered by Sandy.
I can only pray that much of the debris on Coney Island and all the other beaches up and down the East Coast will be cleaned up before the storm hits, so that it doesn’t float back out to sea where it can, once again, harm not just birds, but turtles, fish, and other marine mammals.