I don’t intend to “coast” through my retirement, so I have kept my eyes open for volunteer opportunities that appeal to me. I mentioned in my Styrofoam Densifier post that I am a volunteer with Tillamook County’s Master Recycler program. The objective of the Master Recycler program is to be an advocate for the county’s recycling efforts. We want to keep recyclable materials from our landfills, waterways and the ocean.

While conducting research on recycling efforts in the Pacific Northwest, I learned of an organization that focuses on determining the impact of marine debris on the environment. The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) was formed 17 years ago at the University of Washington. COASST uses teams of volunteers to conduct monthly surveys of beached birds and marine debris. The data collection protocols are designed to create a baseline so that COASST will be able to evaluate the impact of natural disasters such as tsunamis and changes in human behavior (like plastic bag bans, bottle deposit programs, etc.). Their mission is described on their website:

In COASST, science is a team sport conducted simultaneously by citizens and scientists working together to collect, verify, analyze, and communicate high-quality data of direct relevance to scientific understanding of system processes and function, and natural resource management and decision-making.

This sounded like something that fit in nicely with my beliefs and values, so I volunteered myself and a friend to become a marine debris data collection team.


My friend John and I joined several other teams of volunteers at a training session in Manzanita on October 29th, 2017. We learned that the marine debris data collection module was started about a year ago, and there are currently 130 individuals conducting monthly surveys from Chukchi, Alaska to Mendocino, California. The beached birds data collection module includes over 1,000 individuals.

Each marine debris team received a COASST protocol binder, and a number of supplies that are utilized in data collection:

  • Data sheets
  • Zone flags
  • Pace clicker
  • Measuring tape
  • Sampling square (PVC plastic 1.6′ X 1.6′; see photo below)
  • Chalk and slate

We learned how to determine our paces per meter (mine is 1.7 paces). This is important, as it is the method we use to record the total length of our survey area and the Zone widths. The COASST approach to data collection is based on the fact that marine debris is never equally deposited along the beach. Random samples of debris are collected from each zone. The defined zones are:

  • Surf (where sand has been flattened by the waves)
  • Wrack (where floating material has been deposited during high tides)
  • Bare (no wrack or wood deposited)
  • Wood (where downed trees and branches have accumulated over time)

We also learned how to categorize the types of debris that we collect. The COASST protocol has identified many characteristics that they use to help them determine what the item is (or was), where it may have come from, how long it has been in the ocean, its potential impact on wildlife (ingestion, entanglement) and many other things.

On The Beach

Each team was given an opportunity to select an available beach to survey. John and I chose Oregon Beach 287, a one mile stretch of beach in Bayocean, just north of Cape Meares, and along the western shore of Tillamook Bay. The beach was once populated by the resort community of Bayocean, which is often referred to as “the town that fell into the sea”. It is a fascinating story about what happens when developers and mother nature don’t see eye to eye. I’ll write much more about Bayocean in a future post.

For the purposes of COASST, marine debris is classified as:

  • Large (over 1.6′; won’t fit inside sampling square)
  • Medium (1″ to 1.6′)
  • Small (under 1″, the size of the orange tape seen on the bottom of the sampling square)

Each team is encouraged to sample each type of debris. Our first survey was last November, and we chose to sample large debris. We sampled medium debris with our December survey, then small debris with our January 2019 survey. John and I have chosen to concentrate on medium size debris. There seems to be more of it on our beach than the other two types, and it is easier to collect, photograph and bag (to remove from the beach).

With each medium debris survey, we establish five randomly spaced rectangular areas that encompass each of the 4 zones. We then collect debris within each zone, place it within the sampling square, take a photograph of each square, and characterize each collected item within the square. Here is a photograph of a typical sample:

This sample was collected during our 2/6/18 survey, in Rectangle E (5th rectangle of the survey), Wood zone.

Once the data sheets have been completed, we upload all of the information to the COASST data survey site. Each photograph is associated with the appropriate data sheet, then all of our input is meticulously reviewed by a COASST staffer or intern. They contact us after every survey with helpful input about our data. They even provide translation services!

Garbage Patch

Plastic is the primary material that we encounter; nothing else is even close. Much of it probably makes its way to our beaches from the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (or more commonly called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). National Geographic says: “No one knows how much debris makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is too large for scientists to trawl. In addition, not all trash floats on the surface. Denser debris can sink centimeters or even several meters beneath the surface, making the vortex’s area nearly impossible to measure.”

Much of the plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is broken down by the sun into microplastics: tiny pieces of plastic, smaller than the surface of a fingernail. These pieces are easily digested by fish and seabirds. Most of this plastic junk comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and Styrofoam cups…single-use items that will never go away!! They never totally break down; only into smaller and smaller pieces. I will save a more detailed discussion of microplastics for a future post.

John and I have completed four surveys to this point, and plan to continue each month for the foreseeable future. I’ll keep you posted on any interesting items we come across.