by Jimmy Pasch

This photo is from one of the recent kayak patrols of Lake Union that I coordinate and participate in as part of my AmeriCorps service project. Paul, a Puget Soundkeeper employee, and I lead a group of volunteers every Wednesday morning to patrol the waters of Lake Union from kayaks. We look for any pollution and possible pollution sources – oil spills, sewage and stormwater outfalls, boat maintenance work – which we record and report as needed. We also pick up debris that we come across in the water and along the shorelines. Our volunteers often particularly enjoy removing this debris, as it is a satisfying and tangible improvement to our waters, environment, and community space. We often see families of ducks swimming and feeding amidst pools of debris – plastic wrappers, bits of Styrofoam, and toxic cigarette butts – which are a direct reminder of why removing and preventing marine debris is so important.

Equally rewarding for me as the actual patrolling and debris removal is the chance to connect new volunteers with this urban waterway, teach them to safely maneuver in a kayak, and watch the new realizations that result from these patrols. Debris, trash, and pollution are common enough in an urban environment like Seattle that you tend to instinctively ignore their presence. When you are on the water, however, directly interacting with the marine environment and seeking out such pollution, you can’t ignore them, and it changes the way you look at trash, at plastic, or at oil. Once you realize that every cigarette butt that falls on the street ends up in our waters—in Puget Sound—where it will leach out toxic chemicals and never biodegrade (cigarettes butts are made of plastic), you begin to notice the cigarette butts on the ground and see them in a different light. Hopefully, you politely remind your friends of why it’s so important to dispose of cigarettes properly, and you remember that an oil leak in your car is not just a problem for your vehicle, but for the Sound. I have certainly experienced these realizations since beginning my term of service, and I love hearing and seeing other volunteers having similar epiphanies, or having their previous knowledge reinforced in a more powerful and emotional way. In order to protect and reserve Puget Sound, we need to keep finding ways for everyone in the watershed to understand this direct link between activities on land and pollution in the water.