A man on a mission to clean up the Jersey shore of trash; raise awareness of danger to animals

The amount of litter in New Jersey’s waterways and beaches tends to attract attention during the summer beach season. But it’s a problem that never goes away for wildlife.

In December 2021, park rangers and lifeguards from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center attempted to rescue a juvenile pygmy sperm whale that was found emaciated, in poor health and struggling in the shallows of Sandy Hook Bay. The whale died of a heart attack mid-rescue. Scientists obtained autopsy results last week and learned that the 350-pound whale died from suffocation on rubbish.

“We were surprised to find that the animal had in fact ingested a piece of tissue – a black tissue. We did not identify the tissue or where it came from, but it was blocking the entire stomach and he was unable to absorb other food and he had no food in his stomach,” says Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center.

Schoelkopf says the whale most likely mistook the fabric for food.

“They are very curious when they see something floating around that they would swallow it,” he says.

The fact that trash is a big concern on the Jersey Shore comes as no surprise to many who live there.

“There’s so much stuff, you’re like, ‘How much can I really grab? says Tony Costa.

Costa volunteers with Sandy Hook Park to give interpretive tours of military sites. He became so disgusted with the amount of trash on the beach that he vowed to start picking up whatever he could. He documents the mess on his “NJBeachTrash” Instagram account in an attempt to raise awareness.

“It pissed me off and I was always like, ‘Oh, someone should do something about it. Finally, one day, in the back of my head, I said, ‘Who is somebody?’ says Costa.

Costa documents every type of trash left on the Shore — items like cans, gaming chairs, fluorescent lights, and even a bong.

The Sandy Hook trash is most likely trash that washed ashore after finding its way into the streams, rivers, and storm drains of North Jersey, New York, and New York Bay.

“Little by little you find like-minded people who want [help clean up]says Costa.

The Brigantine Marine Mammal Stranding Center is still waiting for a sample of the tissue that killed the whale from a state lab, so they can get a clearer picture of its origin.

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