Nurdle Patrol Without Borders

Nurdle Patrol Without Borders

Jace Tunnell, Director of the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, cleans up nurdles on the beach.

Thanks to a grant from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and the Matagorda Bay Mitigation Trust, Nurdle Patrol is expanding into Mexico to help document nurdle pollution and identify those responsible for it. 

“This addresses a critical gap in our understanding of the sources of plastic pollution in the Gulf,” says Jace Tunnell, Manager of the Mission-Aransas Reserve in Texas, home of a volunteer effort that has gone worldwide. 

While people may recognize borders, plastic pollution does not. One type of plastic pollution throughout the Gulf of Mexico is of particular concern: nurdles. The raw material used to manufacture plastic products, nurdles are washing up on beaches across the Gulf of Mexico. Clean up efforts are expensive and time-consuming, particularly when it’s not clear where the pollution is coming from. 

The majority of nurdles to date have been collected and recorded by a global citizen science project, Nurdle Patrol, a joint effort by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and the Mission-Aransas Reserve. So far, the project has counted and cleaned up 1,614,956 nurdles, mostly in the United States. While nurdle pollution is particularly concentrated on the coast of Texas, it stands to reason that nurdles are washing up on beaches across the entire gulf. However, the data on nurdle pollution in Mexico is limited.

ArcGIS® map of survey locations and number of nurdles collected as of September 2021.

The University of Texas Marine Science Institute and its Mission-Aransas Reserve will work with the Universidad Veracruzana to build a network across Mexico; host a symposium on plastic pollution in Veracruz, Mexico; attempt to bridge gaps in data throughout the gulf; and translate the Nurdle Patrol website, app, Startup Kits, and Teacher Nurdle Kits into Spanish. Long term, the project aims to both reduce the amount of nurdles in the gulf and inform legislation on nurdle pollution. 

“These projects will improve habitats and other ecological resources, and help build a foundation of knowledge and resources to change behaviors, raise awareness and promote the long-term prevention of marine debris,” says Jace Tunnell, Director of the Mission-Aransas Reserve. “We’re proud to support impactful, community-driven and cost-effective projects.”

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Welcome Bella & Adriana!

Welcome Bella & Adriana!

Bella Mayorga (left), new education coordinator at California’s San Francisco Bay Reserve. Adriana Reza (right), new education coordinator at Texas’s Mission-Aransas Reserve.

Please join NERRA in extending a very warm welcome to the two new education coordinators who have just added their skills, passion, and experience to our Reserve family. Welcome, Bella and Adrianawe can’t wait to see where you take us!

Bella Mayorga is joining the San Francisco Bay Reserve as their new education coordinator. Not only does Bella bring a strong scientific background to the role, but as a bilingual speaker and first generation college graduate, she brings impressive skills in mentoring and teaching, and a passion for reaching diverse and underserved communities. 

As a long-time lover of the quiet peace and unseen bustle of estuaries, I am immensely excited to continue the work of the former Education Coordinator Sarah Ferner in connecting diverse audiences to the San Francisco Bay Reserve sites and ongoing research,” says Bella. 

“I’m very much looking forward to building on her accomplishments and bringing my own background and experiences to the education program. I also can’t wait to spend more time out at the Romberg Tiburon Campus, China Camp, and Rush Ranch!”

Bella graduated this year from the University of Michigan with a Master of Science in Environment and Sustainability. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). Her background is in geospatial sciences and ecosystem science and conservation.

Bella spent time in Ecuador in a Wildland Studies Abroad Program and worked on a study of avian use of urban gardens which was published in Urban Ecosystems 2020 (1-11). She was education coordinator for the Graham Sustainability Institute, for the University of Michigan Compass Mentors Program, and President for the Strategies for Ecological Education, Diversity, and Sustainability (SEEDS) at UCSB.

Adriana Reza has joined Texas’ Mission-Aransas Reserve as their new education coordinator. She comes to the Reserve after starting her education career at the Texas State Aquarium in 2005, where she focused on distance learning programs using videoconferencing technology. 

“My passion is connecting students and the community to nature through hands-on programs. In my experience teaching through distance learning, there is a magic about showing students the ocean for the first time,” says Adriana. “I am excited to join a team of educators who share a passion to educate and continue providing engaging programming to our community.” 

During her time at the Texas State Aquarium, she managed multiple programs, facilities, and teams. She also worked at the Oso Bay Wetlands Education Preserve as an educator and at the Coastal Bend Bays Foundation as a project manager.

Adriana received a Bachelor of Science in biology from Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, and a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, focused on conservation education, through George Mason University.

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Superstars Among Us

Superstars Among Us

We know they’re awesome, but it’s wonderful to see Reserve staff from around the System receiving formal accolades for their creativity and hard work in support of estuaries and coastal communities. A big congratulations to these NERRS superstars—and thank you for all you do!

Sarah McGuire Nuss, Education Coordinator, Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Reserve

Sarah McGuire Nuss received the 2020 Conservation Educator Award from the Garden Club of Virginia. This prestigious statewide award honors Sarah for her education and outreach programs that bring marine science to K-12 students. These include family-friendly Discovery Labs, summer camps, teacher training workshops, and partnerships with local schools

She has also served as president of the Mid-Atlantic Marine Education Association and helps lead the Virginia Scientists & Educators Alliance. Through these and many other activities, she has impacted thousands of children in tidewater Virginia and beyond. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah and the education team have continued to provide alternative online opportunities for learning about the environment. 

Julie Stone, President of the Garden Club of Gloucester, says “Sarah’s students not only learn about marine science but also about how to bring a spirit of scientific inquiry to exploring nature. Whether her students are in elementary school, middle school, or high school, or are teachers themselves, they are truly inspired by her energy and passion for science.”

Kristin Evans, Education Coordinator, Texas’s Mission-Aransas Reserve

Kristin Evans received the Higher Education Award from the Coastal Bend Bays Foundation’s Environmental Conservation & Stewardship Award program. Kristin’s award recognizes her work with educators, students, families, and professionals across the Texas Coastal Bend.

The foundation credits her as being “among the most innovative educators in the Coastal Bend, holding over 25 years of experience which include education, professional services, and hands on pedagogical expertise.” They also acknowledge how her ability to deliver effective education programs during unpredictable, challenging times “has shaped the community of not only teachers and students, but families, and other educators in the informal realm.”

Rose Masui, Harmful Species Program Coordinator, Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve

Rose earned the Alaska Invasive Species Partnership’s Outreach Award for her outstanding efforts and commitment to the early detection of marine invasive species. She continues to build partnerships across communities and agencies to provide education and outreach, share protocols, guides and datasheets to support local efforts for the early detection of marine invasive species.

Rose is also the coordinator for the Kachemak Bay Community Monitor European Green Crab Early Detection Program and the Kachemak Bay Reserve’s Invasive Tunicate Monitoring Program. Her nomination recognizes that she pursues all her work “with a professionalism, openness and reliability that enables partnerships and programs to thrive.” Rose also coordinates the statewide Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring Network, a lifesaving outreach program.

Chris Bowser, Education Coordinator, New York’s Hudson River Reserve

Chris Bowser received the 2020 Leadership Award from the New York State Outdoor Education Association in honor of his 25 years of service as an environmental educator in the Hudson Valley. 

This touching and inspiring video (that Chris was asked to prepare by the awards committee) recognizes how the programming he has run behind for many years has made a difference in  one of the New York communities he supports. Thanks in part to Chris’s work, there is a new generation of environmental stewards emerging in the Hudson River Valley. Now that’s something to be thankful for!

Lake Superior Reserve, Wisconsin

The Lake Superior Reserve won an award from the National Weather Service (NWS) in September for enhancing community understanding of lakeshore flooding. The Ambassador of Excellence awards recognize local community members who have made significant contributions to helping build a weather-ready nation. The Lake Superior Reserve was recognized as a critical partner on multiple fronts, most recently in organizing a local conference on the subject of high and low water levels in Lake Superior, at which the National Weather Service presented. The conference connected National Weather Services resources with dozens of stakeholders across the Lake Superior shoreline. Afterwards, the Reserve partnered with NWS to establish the working group CHAOS (Coastal Hazards of Lake Superior), whose activities are continuing to connect communities with science, data, and best practices around lakeshore flooding and other coastal hazards.

Talk Nurdle to Me: Jace Tunnell

Talk Nurdle to Me: Jace Tunnell

Jace Tunnell is NERRDy about Nurdles. Talk NERRdy to Me is a column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29 reserves. This month, NERRA’s Maine correspondent, Nik Charov caught up with Jace Tunnel, manager of Texas’ Mission-Aransas Reserve and the Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas of the NERRS—all wrapped up into a really nice guy.

Nik: Jace, you’re the third manager I’ve interviewed who’s doing hurricane recovery. Hurricane Harvey was almost three years ago.

Jace: August 25th, 2017. They say it’s a five-to-eight year recovery—we’re just in the beginning. 

Nik: Luckily, a hurricane will never hit the Texas coast again.

Jace: Knock on wood!

Nik: Tell me about the manager role. Do you actually know what you’re doing? 

Jace: I’m not sure any of us managers do, haha. A lot of it is what you’d imagine: writing grants, doing budgets… no fun stuff. If you write yourself into a grant with fieldwork, that’s your excuse to go outside. 

Nik: So when we see you out on the beach, you’re actually working, not just fooling around with your GoPro?

Jace: Every once in a while. 

Nik: Tell me about the Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK). Is it some kind of fortress? 

Jace: The ARK was started in 1982 by Tony Amos to rehabilitate coastal animals and birds. The first year they had seven animals; last year we had more than 1,500. I don’t know of another Reserve with a rehab facility, so that’s a unique feature at Mission-Aransas. A lot of the funding comes from community donations and a large grant from the BP oil spill. 

Nik: That’s right—you’re also recovering from an oil spill.

Jace: That happened in 2010. We actually never had oil on our beach, so a lot of people ask me why we got money. But if you look at sea turtles and migratory birds, they were impacted, and those animals do come to Texas.

Nik: They bring the oil to you?

Jace: Yeah, indirectly. Our main job at the ARK is to get these turtles in, find out what’s wrong with them, and get them back out there. So we help to reestablish what was lost in the spill.

Nik: So much of your recent work has become about plastic pollution. How do you square that with this massive Texas petrochemical industry you’re surrounded by? 

Jace: We don’t play the advocacy role or point fingers at the plastic industry. We just collect data on where these plastic pellets, called nurdles, can be found in the highest concentrations. Before the Nurdle Patrol, no one knew where these pellets were coming from. Now we can see the highest concentrations are where plastic manufacturing facilities are. 

Nurdles, which are the raw material for everything plastic, spill when manufacturers load them for transport and during transport. When it rains, they get into the stormwater and go out to sea.

The upcoming Texas Nurdle Bill legislation is going to try to make some mandatory changes to stormwater permitting. In Texas and most other states, plastics manufacturers are allowed to spill a “trace amount” of “suspended solids.” This bill wants to replace that language with “zero discharge of plastic pellets.” That would be huge. 

Nik: What do you have against nurdles?

Jace: As with all plastic, wildlife swallow them. There’s chemicals and additives in them, and the longer they’re in the environment, the more chemicals they absorb. There’s no nutritional value, and if birds eat enough of them, they clog the intestinal tract. Fish experience behavioral changes, and we don’t know yet if those chemicals leach into the muscle tissue of fish that we’re eating.

Jace Tunnel shows off a nurdle—a raw plastic pellet—found on a Texas beach.

Nik: Y’all just won a big settlement award to expand your Nurdle Patrol, right?

Jace: Yeah, Formosa Plastics was found guilty of discharging these pellets. They settled for $50 million, and Nurdle Patrol got $1 million. We’re going to use the money to host a Texas Plastic Pollution Symposium and to expand the patrol. We’re making kits for organizations that want to start their own patrols. They can put their data into, see what their community looks like, and take that to local representatives, political leaders, and state agencies. We’re making good improvements, including videos to help get people more active. 

Nik: I knew you were going to budget yourself more filmmaking time. Jace Tunnell is the Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas of the Reserve System all rolled into one. 

Jace: Videos were cool before, but videos are really cool now that everyone’s stuck in the house. We’ve been trying to reach people who are not able to make it to the beach with a series called Beachcombing.

Nik: You’ve also got a series on your volunteers, including Tony Amos. Seems like he was a really important figure for you guys and the area. What would he have thought of finally getting a handle on the nurdle problem?

Jace: Early in the 1970s, Tony started doing his beach surveys every other day. He was counting all the trash and where it came from, every other day for 40 years. So I think he’d be really behind the whole nurdle thing 100%. If zero pellet loss can be done in Texas, it can be done anywhere, right?

Nik: I’m sensing some enthusiasm. Why’d you get into this work? Why the coasts? Why clean water and animals and estuaries?

Jace: My dad was a marine biologist at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. So I just grew up at the beach all the time doing bird surveys and looking up shells and looking at oil spills.

Nik: So… you don’t know how to do anything else?

Jace: It’s all I know! Actually, I went into journalism. I was going to be a writer. But then I went into the science field and never looked back.

Nik: What’s your favorite part of the job?

Jace: Getting to be on the beach. Now what’s my least favorite? Can you guess?

Nik: Sitting in the office? 

Jace: Doing budgets!

Nik: Budgets aren’t important; you’ve got more than enough money between oil spills and nurdle grants! Salty or fresh?

Jace: I like both, but salty.

Nik: You like everything. What’s next for you guys?

Jace: Nurdle Patrol is a big deal. We’ve got 29 partners now. We just announced an international partner over in Scotland. We’re also doing our 312 evaluation and our management plan. I mean, who doesn’t like that?

Nik: Yeah, but you get to do it all remotely! It’s much easier.

Jace: Yeah! We’re really trying to expand our reach. We’ve done a lot of work within our boundary, but we’re seeing that we can have a huge impact outside our boundary and even into other states, so we’re working towards that. 

Nik: Texas isn’t big enough for you?

Jace: We need more!

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NERRds + Volunteer Power = Global Action

NERRds + Volunteer Power = Global Action

Stennie Meadours, a founding member of the Nurdle Patrol, holds a bag of thousands of plastic pellets she found on a local beach. 

“The first place I looked, I collected 30,000. I was horrified, and the more I looked, the more I found.”

Stennie Meadours is remembering the first time she combed the Texas City Dike Shoreline for nurdles, the lentil-sized pellets used in plastics manufacturing. She went looking after she saw the Mission-Aransas Reserve’s call for volunteer nurdle monitors on Facebook. 

“Before I retired, my job was to investigate spills and hazardous waste that was disposed of illegally,” she says. “I had never heard of nurdles, so I thought this was some type of odd occurrence.”

What she found, however, was a “big problem that was not really on anyone’s radar.” Stennie, an avid birdwatcher and master naturalist, promptly set up a training with her naturalist’s group so they could help with monitoring. She also became committed to building awareness of nurdles and the threat they pose to marine life and our seafood supply.

Tiny plastic nurdles are literally a poison pill for marine life—they absorb harmful chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs and are commonly mistaken for food by fish, trutles, birds, and other animals. 

Stennie’s reaction was not unique. What began as a call for a few volunteers to monitor one Texas beach has grown into Nurdle Patrol—a multinational movement engaging nearly 2,000 volunteers who have collected nurdles at more than 1,200 sites.

Their data not only shows high concentrations of nurdles near plastic manufacturing sites around the country, it also informed a $50 million legal settlement. The Mission-Aransas Reserve is charged with using $1 million of this to build the Nurdle Patrol in other regions and enhance public understanding of the issue through efforts like the Texas Plastics Pollution Symposium

“That’s the power of volunteers—they amplify everything” says Jace Tunnell, director of the Mission-Aransas Reserve at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. “We knew there’d been a spill, but the state didn’t—Stennie encouraged us to report it to the Coast Guard. We figured we’d need four volunteers to track the spill, and that first week we got 300 responses from around the Gulf of Mexico!”

“Kids shouldn’t have to deal with this,” says Jace Tunnell, whose children help with the volunteer Nurdle Patrol. “They should be picking up seashells, not plastic pellets off the beach.”

Tunnell and his team saw Nurdle Patrol as a way to harness that enthusiasm in 2018. Their goal was to create a simple monitoring protocol that would be rigorous enough to support research and legal action, but easy enough for anyone to run with. Today, Nurdle Patrol is supported by 27 partner organizations, including interest by Europe’s Great Nurdle Hunt.

 “More volunteers means more data, and that means a bigger and better picture of what the problem really is,” he says. Nurdle spills, particularly during transport, are an industry wide problem that began with the mass production of plastics in the 1940s. Estimates for the number of nurdles that have accumulated in watersheds and oceans are in the billions. Cleaning up the past may be impossible, but according to Jace, there is a path to changing the future.

“Because of the data collected through Nurdle Patrol we can see that spills are not just a legacy problem. Volunteers are routinely finding nurdles in rivers and streams, which means the spills are happening up watershed.”

He says that plastics manufacturers have the technology to reduce or eliminate nurdle spills, but that the key to ensuring this happens means stronger federal regulations and state stormwater permits—and that can only happen when everyone gets involved. 

“When volunteers show up to take samples, then we have something to work with, to bring to a state agency,” says Jace, who is working with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality  to encourage stricter state regulations. “It’s a great opportunity for anyone who is concerned about this to get involved and make a difference.”

Stennie, who is still on Nurdle Patrol, could not agree more. “Wherever you are, join the Nurdle Patrol, document the problem near you to make others aware of it. Never think there is nothing you can do— everyone can do something to get involved in protecting  the life and beauty our earth provides.”

A big shoutout to Mission-Aransas Reserve staff, friends, and volunteers—you make us proud!

Thank you, whooping cranes

Thank you, whooping cranes

Mission-Aransas Reserve visitors, volunteers, and staff all report: we love whooping cranes! 

Many visitors consider a whooping crane sighting the highlight of their trip to the Mission-Aransas Reserve. These enormous birds, which stand five feet tall when fully grown, are the rarest of all cranes—and the Mission-Aransas Reserve is their only winter home in North America. Much to the joy of self-described ”crane-iacs,” sightings around the Reserve are becoming more common thanks to dedicated conservation efforts.

The growing presence of whooping cranes inspires local citizen groups to host whooping crane festivals and events that celebrate the arrival of these magnificent creatures every year. Whooping cranes spend each winter and spring at the Reserve after travelling 2,500 miles from their summer nesting grounds in Canada.

Seeing whooping cranes thrive on the Mission-Aransas estuary was not always a given. Their increasing numbers in the Coastal Bend in recent years are the result of  decades of dedicated conservation, science, and education. We know that when we see whooping cranes, we are also seeing a marsh healthy enough to support and protect them.

Thank you, whooping cranes! You inspire us to keep working to protect what is precious to both our natural and human communities.

ReservesMission-Aransas, Texas