Last week, members of BLUE’s team in the mid-Atlantic island of St Helena visited Sandy Bay beach to carry out their first weekly beach clean in collaboration with the St Helena National Trust. During the clean, the team were saddened to find large quantities of nurdles washed up on the beach. Nurdles are small plastic pellets used to manufacture plastic products. When spilt or disposed of irresponsibly, nurdles can get washed into watercourses, ultimately ending up in the sea and resulting in a global marine catastrophe.
The team had found small numbers of nurdles on Sandy Bay beach in previous months, mixed in with other micro-plastics. However, the large number of nurdles discovered last week is both highly significant and extremely concerning. There was a well-reported spillage of billions of nurdles (50 tonnes) from a shipping container in Durban, South Africa during a storm on 10 October 2017. Having liaised with Lisa Guastella, an Oceanographic Consultant from South Africa who is coordinating the report on the spillage in 2017, BLUE’s team believes that the nurdles now being washed up in Sandy Bay are from Durban, delivered to St Helena’s beaches seven months later by the Agulhas and Benguela Currents. A sample of the nurdles found at Sandy Bay is being sent to Lisa in order to confirm this.
Lisa Guastella has commented that “while accurate sample comparisons are yet to be made, the 5mm diameter, round, translucent white nurdles found on Sandy Bay correspond precisely to those lost in a spill in Durban harbour, east coast of South Africa after a freak storm on 10 October last year. While approximately 25% of the 2.25 billion nurdles have been retrieved from South African beaches, that leaves some 75% unaccounted for. A portion was deposited along South Africa’s beaches and may now be buried in beach sediments, but the remainder will be floating in the ocean”.
She went on to explain that “ocean current theory suggests some will have entered the South Indian Ocean gyre and sub-gyres, while some may have ‘leaked’ westward into the South Atlantic Ocean, where expected current trajectories place St Helena Island in the pathway to possibly NE Brazil. Those washed up at St Helena may have been transported in eddies or perhaps unbroken bags, which have now broken. The timing and location of those found at St Helena fit in with expected ocean current transport. From an oceanographic perspective, this find in St Helena is very exciting.”
Three new Marine Assistants – Luke Bennett, Jamie Ellick and Kenickie Andrews – are being trained in beach clean methodology by Leigh Morris, BLUE’s Marine Project Consultant. The team will now check the beaches every week and, importantly, collect information on what is being washed up. An agreement reached between BLUE and the St Helena Government means that BLUE’s team alone will be responsible for cleaning the beaches at Sandy and Rupert’s Bays, allowing the team to collect accurate debris data for the beaches over the entire year.
Leigh returned to Sandy Bay shortly after the initial discovery last week to find that many more nurdles had since washed up. He and the rest of BLUE’s team plan to return to the beach this week to conduct further monitoring and beach clean-ups. This case highlights the incredible distances that ocean plastic can travel, as well as the importance of accurately recording and communicating the extent to which plastic debris is ending up in our precious Marine Protected Areas.