Many mysteries wash up on the beach. A little over a year ago, I found a message in a bottle with a cryptic love note curled up inside, and on a foggy morning in April, I was surprised to discover a partial denture smiling up at me from the rocks.
I can’t help but wonder about the people behind the items I find, and I often make up stories about them as I walk, all the while wishing I knew what really happened.
A mystery I had always hoped to solve came to a resolution recently.
Because I have been cleaning the same stretch of coastline in Carlsbad several times a week for over three years, I have come to notice patterns. The type of refuse that washes up varies depending on the weather and the tides, but some things remain constant. Water bottles, bottle caps, straws, and balloons are common beach finds throughout the year.
In addition to everyday single use plastics, I have frequently found something unusual—small plastic sprockets. I actually made it a personal challenge to spot at least one every time I visited the beach because my clean up efforts just wouldn’t feel complete if I didn’t have any to take home.As my collection of sprockets grew, I became more and more curious about them. I was told that they were probably coming from sprinkler systems. The idea seemed plausible. I could imagine how sprinkler parts would enter the run off and end up at the ocean.
However, the sprockets continued to wash up, and I began to question this theory. Why were there so many and where were they coming from?As time went on, the sprinkler explanation didn’t make sense any more, and I felt compelled to find an answer. I posted a photograph to Instagram and asked the network of beach cleaners who are active on Instagram to help me identify them. I received several helpful responses. People suggested that they were aquarium filter media, plastic biodiscs, biofilm carriers, and wastewater treatment bacteria substrates. A few mentioned that sewage treatment plants use them, and another added that a sewage treatment plant was determined to be the cause of biofilters entering the ocean near where he lives.
Their answers led me to the water treatment plant located just east of the beach where I walk. Naturally, I assumed it was the culprit. I called the plant to report what I was finding and spoke to an engineer who assured me that they do not use that type of biofilter. I was glad that they weren’t the source but felt frustrated that I didn’t have an answer.In May, I posted another photo to Instagram and @justgrabbits responded with a comment: “When biofilters go rouge, geeze, Janis. Do you find a lot of these?” Then, Toby Brown, the man behind the @justgrabbits movement, messaged me on Facebook and suggested that I contact the local Waterkeeper or Coastkeeper organization.
I immediately contacted SD Coastkeeper, and it didn’t take long for me to hear back from Matt O’Malley, the Waterkeeper Legal and Policy Director for San Diego. He was interested in knowing more and sincerely wanted to help me solve the mystery.
In mid June, my husband and I met with Matt and gave him a handful of biofilters. He shared the information with the San Diego Regional Water Board, and they traced the biofilters to Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute, a sea-bass hatchery located at the Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad, CA.
On June 28, the Regional Water Control Board conducted an inspection. As a result, they issued a Staff Enforcement Letter and are holding the facility accountable for discharges that are polluting the Pacific Ocean.I am thrilled that this source of plastic pollution will be stopped and am gratified to know that my persistence led to a positive outcome. I expect to find fewer and fewer biofilters over time, but I will continue to clean the beach as often as I can because many more mysteries will be washing up.
I will never know the story behind the message in a bottle nor will I know how the dentures ended up in the beach, but this one important mystery has been solved with support from the planet-loving, beach-cleaning friends I have made through social media and thanks to my newfound friends at San Diego Coastkeeper.
To report pollution or water waste to SD Coastkeeper: http://www.sdcoastkeeper.org/act/find/report-a-pollution-incident
For information about how to have fun and “help pick up a bit” visit, Grabbits