The presence of plastic octopus pots on beaches in Little Cayman and throughout the Caribbean is shedding light on how the oceans’ currents are distributing a huge assortment of marine debris around the world.
Beachcomber Judie Clee, who lives usually in Bermuda but also owns a home in Little Cayman, has found the plastic pots in both places and with the help of a wildlife biologist based in Florida has even managed to trace some of the pots to their source in Africa.
Similar pots have also been found in the Bahamas, Grand Turk and the US Virgin Islands.
Research done by wildlife biologist Tom Pitchford revealed that one pot found in Little Cayman came from an octopus fisheries area in Morocco, while two other pots that washed up on beaches in Florida turned out to have floated from Mauritania.
Ms Clee and other beachcombers in Little Cayman are taking the octopus pots they find along to Keith Neale, the Cayman Islands Department of Environment officer based on the island.
“I’ve got eight or nine of the pots now,” Mr. Neale said. “People keep dropping them off. I’m storing them until we come up with a plan.”
The pots, along with a lot of other marine plastic debris, are being found throughout Little Cayman, but mostly on the eastern side.
Mr. Neale said he and others had been seeing these plastic pots among the marine debris on the beaches for some time, but had not known what they were until Ms Clee and Mr. Pitchford established they were octopus pots.
“There’s a loose affiliation of beachcombers in several locations who are scanning the beaches for the pots and trying to collect information about them to help determine where they are coming from,” Mr. Pitchford said.
He said tracing the source of the octopus pots and finding out they had travelled halfway around the world on the sea was indicative of the persistent plastic marine pollution that is being seen globally.
“Little Cayman getting a plastic pot from the Western Sahara is the same as the UK receiving plastic debris from the United States, or Florida receiving plastic items from the Caribbean. We are all on the conveyor belt, the plastic is circulating the gyres (large systems of rotating ocean currents),” he said, adding that storms can pull the debris out of the gyres and onto beaches.
Efforts are afoot by conservationists to convince fishermen to revert to using clay octopus pots rather than the plastic versions.
The pots are fished in trawls on the seabed and then tied together and also tied to a surface float. The fishermen use cement as ballast to weigh the lightweight pots down, but when the ropes break and the ballast breaks up and is lost, the octopus pots float up and drift away in the currents. The original terracotta pots were heavy enough to remain at the sea floor.
Ms Clee’s discovery of the pots in Bermuda and Little Cayman and her curiosity to find out what they were sparked a wider interest in the pots among the beachcombing community. She has long had an interest in combatting the plastic marine debris problem.
“They’re [the octopus pots] not the type of thing you really notice because we don’t know what they are. We do a lot of beachcombing and a lot of work on plastic debris awareness. One of the beachcombers asked what are these things that keep washing up. A few days later, I got a message from Tom [Pitchford] saying what they were and we sent them to him, so he could try to track them.
“Suddenly, there was this awareness,” she said.
In Bermuda, partly to raise awareness of the impact of marine debris, art displays of items made from plastic rubbish that had washed up on local beaches have been held. Ms Clee described one piece of artwork made from the octopus pots, “but we didn’t know what they were”.
Markings on the pots can identify their origins, although quite often those markings are degraded from being at sea. However, it was one such marking cut from the pot found in Little Cayman that led Mr. Pitchford to identify where it had come from.
“The idea is to try to find the source and one day find a solution to stop them coming loose,” Ms Clee said.
Urged by Mr. Pitchford to send the markings from the pots, she and her husband cut pieces from the pots they found, with her husband cutting a bit beyond the area where the obvious markings were. It turned out a tiny stamp and lettering at the edge of the plastic he had cut off was the key to finding out the source of that particular pot.
The octopus pots are usually about 1 feet long and come in a variety of types and thickness of plastic. The markings on the pots are often lettering or words in different languages, including French, Arabic, English and Portuguese.