Face masks and "plastic dog poo bags" have become key problem items among the items of litter found around the Irish coastline, according to the autumn 2021 survey carried out by environmental NGO Coastwatch.
In preliminary results from their autumn 2021 survey, the organisation confirms the prohibition from sale of a range single-use plastic items earlier this year has had an immediate beneficial impact on coastlines but finds that other problems have emerged.
“The dog poo bag is now recorded as a shore litter feature in beach areas, but not mentioned five years ago,” it adds.
“There are more dogs around and it appears that there are many dog owners who use dog poo bags to clean up after their pets but then drop these on the shore,” it adds.
The number of survey sites where one or more face mask was recorded rose to 21 per cent, compared to 18 per cent of surveyed shores in 2020.
On the bright side, the count of most other types of litter has declined, very significantly in many instances.
“There was a remarkable reduction in marine litter reported, with improvement spread over most litter categories. The percentage of shores where one or more plastic bottle was seen has gone down for the sixth year running. The same has happened for drinks cans,” it confirms.
The ghost ship MV Alta, near Ballycotton, Co Cork, was recorded as "our largest lump of marine litter". Unless removed from the rock platform it is now perched on, the 77-metre long vessel with its metal, paint, plastics and asbestos "will break into umpteen pieces which will make their way down the coast", it warns.
Following its assessment of 710 coastal locations throughout the island Coastwatch highlights ongoing concerns about coastal erosion; water pollution problems and increased presence of invasive alien species.
It also underlines the critical need to protect seagrass populations, which capture carbon and enhance biodiversity. The report highlights areas with struggling and shrinking seagrass beds.
Eutrophication – where waters are enriched by excessive nutrients – pollution, invasive alien species encroachment and trampling are noted as most widespread pressures. In one area, what appeared to be raw sewage was making its way across a shore, its path marked by loss of seagrass.
The 2021 findings were welcomed by Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O' Brien. Earlier this month he met a Coastwatch delegation on the Malahide coastline in Co Dublin - part of the Minister's constituency.
In a video message, Mr O'Brien said he is establishing a new cross-government group, Project Marine, which will agree actions to address climate change in coastal zones, and enhance their carbon sink potential, while restoring and protecting biodiversity. "Seagrass should be really high on the agenda," he added.
The Minister noted the reduction in single-use plastic litter and paid tribute to Coastwatch’s efforts through the use of volunteer citizen scientists which, he said, was increasing local biodiversity, charting climate change indications and discovering new seagrass areas - while informing marine policy.
This was a key survey, according to Coastwatch international coordinator Karin Dubsky – the last before local authorities take over responsibility for coastal planning of the "near shore" zone.
A key Coastwatch priority for 2022 is to “follow up action proposals to protect, manage and restore this most valuable blue carbon habitat”, she confirmed.
Long known for supporting species-rich marine habitats, the extent of its importance for carbon sequestration and storage has only emerged in recent years.
Seagrass – mainly the zostera marina species – has been recorded in Coastwatch surveys for a decade. In 2019, the Marine Unit of the Department of Housing supported a qualified Coastwatch team to verify and map locations. New seagrass bed locations not registered on official maps were found - and even more during 2021.
Surveyors, however, also reported significant seagrass damage and loss. Losses are occurring worldwide, often through ignorance and avoidable damage like driving or trampling over intertidal seagrass lawn; ploughing or dredging through sublittoral seagrass meadows, Ms Dubsky added.
“Loss has also been recorded by invasive alien species taking over and by excess nutrients causing algal blooms and epiphyte growth on seagrass, so they can’t get enough light. Rising mudflat temperatures can cause die off in heatwaves,” Ms Dubsky said.
Coastwatch launched a campaign last summer to raise awareness of the importance and plight of seagrass.
It will host workshops with detailed case studies and recommendations to better protect and manage coastal zones early in 2022. On February 2nd World Wetlands Day it will outline the latest findings on seagrass populations around the Irish coast, and issue an all-island interactive map.
There is a continuing “loss of remote undisturbed shores”, the survey finds, with such locations often marked by damage, the survey finds. “We are seeing the cumulative impact of construction for many good and bad causes - from planned coastal paths, to unauthorised new vehicle shore access routes, to new developments behind shores and hard erosion control to protect these.”
By now, a dune cell without some sort of hard engineering is rare and there is no official landscape map layer to pick this up, it points out.
“Coastal erosion is a fact of life – one which is becoming more widespread and severe with climate change. The low-light is that we haven’t developed an erosion management policy yet,” noted Andrew Cox, regional coordinator for Co Waterford.
Water pollution remains a problem with “usual or frequent sewage pollution” in 14 sites, indicated by sewage fungus or filamentous blankets of algae. It is also noted as “a threat” in 62 survey areas, with sewage making up 40 per cent of likely sources, outstripping agricultural pollution.
Coastwatch could not support a number of training and event requests from new surveyors and schools due to lack of resources this year, while there was a shortage of people available during the survey and analysis period, as many who would normally become part of the data verification team could not participate due to Covid.
Cotton bud sticks; cutlery, plates, stirrers, chopsticks, straws, expanded polystyrene single-use food and beverage containers, and all oxo-degradable plastic products - ones that break into tiny pieces but never go away - are now banned in Ireland.