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Mysterious plastic strands on Cape Cod beaches lead to a shocking discovery

Laura Ludwig, manager of the Center for Coastal Studies Marine Debris and Plastics Program, noticed a bloom of a new and mysterious yellow plastic tubing along the beaches of Cape Cod during a beach cleanup in in September 2021.

 

The yellow tubing has a thin rope-like appearance, and continues to wash up on Cape Cod beaches in varying lengths from 1 millimeter to an astounding 90 feet. The beach clean-up teams have pulled more than 2,000 ft of the plastic off of several beaches from Provincetown all the way to Newport, Rhode Island. 

After speculation that it looked similar to a material used in blasting rocks in quarries, Ludwig reached out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to see if similar tubing had been used in projects in the region. As it turns out, the tubing on the beaches was indeed explosive shock tubing that came from a Boston Harbor dredging project concluded in January 2022. The yellow plastic strand is used to transmit a signal to underwater explosives, placed to break up rocks as the harbor channel was deepened.

So, why did they let all of this material pollute the water?

The contractor involved with the project did apparently have a strategy for containment, with vessels on the surface picking up the tubing as it floated to the surface. However, much of the debris escaped, likely mixed in with rocky debris. 

As for the safety of the material, "the shock tube is made out of low‚Äźdensity polyethylene (the same plastic used to make grocery bags) and is considered safe for humans to touch. But many of the pieces are small enough for birds or other animals to eat and can create health problems if ingested" (Center for Coastal Studies).

According to Ludwig, both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the contractor in charge are seeking ways to improve containment on future projects.

Whales are becoming more susceptible to entanglements

Rescuers free entangled whale

A new study shows that with increasing ocean temperatures, that whales could be pushed closer and closer to shore.  A large heatwave coined as "the blob" created increasingly warming ocean temperatures from 2013-2017.  During these years krill was in short supply, leaving anchovies as the primary food source for humpback whales.  Due to habitat compression, these anchoives were pushed closer to shore and the humpbacks followed their food source into prime crab fishing habitat.  

Read more from the Los Angeles Times here.

Another Beaked Whale Stranding!

Beaked whales are some of the most under studied whales, due to their deep diving and elusive behavior.  A few months ago our team at the Long Marine Lab had the rare opportunity to respond to a live stranded beaked whale on Scott's Creek beach.  Unfortunatly the animal was injured, so we made the decision to euthanize the animal.  Initially we thought the animal was a different species of beaked whale due to it's color pattern, but we later learned that younger individuals have completly different color morphs than the adults!   You can read more about that here.

A couple days ago another beaked whale washed ashore in Point Reyes and it has initially been identified as the same species as the one that stranded on Scott Creek, a Hubb's Beaked Whale.  Their suspicions will soon be either confirmed or denied once DNA testing is complete.  You can read more about that stranding case here.

 

whale in surf 410

Welcome to the Long Marine Lab Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Our mission is to advance science, education, and public awareness of marine mammals and ocean health through response and detailed examination of marine mammal carcasses. For over 25 years we have contributed high quality research data to the broader marine mammal science community. These data have been used by numerous researchers to further understand marine mammal populations. Along with data from our neighboring partners, stranding network data has also contributed to changes in fishing regulations, better understanding of marine mammal health and disease, and the link between human and ocean health.