Marine Debris to Energy Program Debuts Interactive Online Map

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May 2011

Balloons and whales may have more in common than you think — according to a new GIS map, they are likely to be found in the same locations in the Gulf of Maine.

Whale Map of areas where whales travel off the coast of N.H.The map, created by Shane Bradt, UNH Cooperative Extension specialist in geospatial technologies, provides a visual connection between the areas that some whales travel off the coast of N.H. and the location of litter that may be floating nearby. To check out the map, please visit http://cegis.unh.edu/whalesanddebris.

With funds provided by the N.H. Coastal Program, the map relies on data collected during the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation's whale watch cruises that take place May-October each year. Volunteers record the sightings of floating trash and the whereabouts of four finback whales — Comet, Fjord, Ladder and Trigger — and four humpback whales — Pinball, Satula, Flask and Owl — that are also available for "adoption" from the Blue Ocean Society.

To keep the map simpler and easier to use, Bradt chose to highlight the top five most commonly encountered debris types — including balloons, bottles, cans, plastic bags and wrappers — that together account for 80% of the debris recorded.

"People can relate to these types of debris because they use them in daily life," Bradt says.

The various map data layers can be turned off and on to select whale locations by individual whales each year and trash type by month. However, Jen Kennedy, executive director of the Blue Ocean Society, points out that the map does not necessarily indicate whales directly encountered the marine debris, rather that their locations could potentially overlap. Kennedy and Bradt hope to eventually improve the map so direct whale encounters with debris will be included.

"This map really shows the personal connection between how we dispose of our trash and the impacts that can have on marine life, including whales," says Kennedy. "We hope this map will make people more aware of their actions and help improve the marine environment."

Kennedy and Bradt say that the GIS map may appeal to the general public or to teachers who could use it in their lesson plans. Bradt encourages online site visitors to take the virtual tour by clicking on the links at the top of the homepage for instruction on how to use the map more easily and effectively.

The map is an offshoot of the N.H. Marine Debris to Energy Project, an effort funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program that seeks to remove derelict fishing gear and human-generated trash that washes out to sea.

Since the beginning of the project three years ago, approximately 36 tons of derelict fishing gear — such as buoys, fishing line, lobster pots and nets — along with 12 tons of trash has been collected from hundreds of beach cleanups along the Seacoast.

Data on debris types and locations in the Gulf of Maine and on the coast are recorded by volunteers who spot whales while out on the whale watch vessels, scientists using underwater sonar and fishermen who report any debris sightings, then entered into the project's database.

The debris itself is placed in marked dumpsters, collected and combusted into energy via a waste-to-energy plant, Wheelabrator Technologies, in Massachusetts. N.H. Sea Grant and UNH Cooperative Extension are collaborating with the non-profit Blue Ocean Society to help facilitate the program's progress in the Granite State.

For more information, please visit the N.H. Marine Debris to Energy website at www.nhmarinedebris.org or the blog at www.nhmarinedebris.blogspot.com, or contact Shane Bradt at shane.bradt@unh.edu or 603.862.4277 or Jen Kennedy at jen@blueoceansociety.org or 603.431.0260.

Rebecca Zeiber, N.H. Sea Grant Science Writer