Tackling Debris on Ohio’s Lake Erie

May 17, 2024

Along Lake Erie’s Ohio coast, change is happening and its epicenter is the Old Woman Creek Reserve. With Reserve training and support, six volunteer teams are monitoring and removing the coastal “marine debris” that threatens local water quality and wildlife. The data they are providing is supporting policy, behavior change, and science to turn the tide on marine debris in Ohio.

“Plastics are a big concern for local communities, and there was a ton of interest in this right out of the gate,” says Jennifer Bucheit, the Reserve’s education coordinator. “Our goal was to harness that by training volunteers and getting them out there. We started in January, and while we haven’t covered the entire Ohio coastline, 45 miles to the east and 30 miles to the west of the Reserve, volunteers are monitoring the beaches each month and picking up the larger pieces of trash.”

The Great Lakes experience many of the same impacts of marine debris seen on saltier coasts: wildlife consume plastics and become entangled, increasing microplastics and nurdles are working their way into the food chain, trash is degrading habitats on and offshore, and floating debris is putting boaters at risk. 

To engage community members in addressing the problem, Bucheit and Veronica Hardy, the Reserve stewardship coordinator, joined up with the Ohio Coastal Management Program to host a training based on NOAA’s Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project (MDMAP). Participants learned the monitoring protocol; those committed to monitoring a beach for a year also received supply kits. The Reserve is well-placed to coordinate an effort like this, according to Hardy.

“We have a volunteer base and we are already stewards of the land, beaches, and water, within and outside of Reserve boundaries,” she says. “We’d done the MDMAP survey for a year and could see the debris in the landscape. The protocol is pretty self explanatory, so we wanted to bring it to the general public.”

Training alumni include a local Sea Scout troop, who, because of how many mylar balloons they found while monitoring, have joined an inquiry-based opportunity to learn why mylar is used in balloon manufacturing, how long it takes to break down, and what alternative materials could be used. 

“Our Sea Scout group started the NOAA Marine Debris Survey program because it keyed in nicely to a project that they were doing on foil balloon litter. Monitoring the same stretch of beach has been a great experience,” says Cherry Bochmann, Sea Scout Mate with Sea Scout Ship 41. “It empowers the students to look at big problems like microplastics and feel that they can have a direct impact. Each survey fosters a deep appreciation for the beach and lake.”

The Old Woman Creek Reserve is not the only group working to combat marine debris in the Great Lakes Region, but there aren’t many in Ohio, where the heavily populated shorelines could benefit from a larger program, more collaboration, and persistence.

“This isn’t just a one-time beach cleanup,” says Bucheit. “The Reserve is contributing to a larger knowledge base to address this issue systemically and partnering with other groups. Ultimately, we want to work with the other Great Lakes to show them how easy this protocol is to implement with an existing volunteer base.”

MDMAP supports Reserves and other NOAA partners and volunteers around the world to survey and record the amount and types of marine debris on shorelines. By using consistent monitoring protocols, they can provide comparable survey data that can be used for policy development, education, outreach, behavioral change, and research and is comparable across sites.

“One goal for the training was to provide people with an outlet for people who want to help and be impactful and have it all be meaningful. This program ticks all of those boxes,” says Bucheit. “NOAA did a great job in creating the protocol—they have tutorials. It wasn’t too complicated and an everyday lay person could use it. Not everybody decided to volunteer after the training, but many did, and they were off and running.”

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What We Work ForHealthy HabitatsTackling Debris on Ohio’s Lake Erie