Uncovering the waterfront

Robert Gans is the founder and program manager of the Volunteer Beach Floatable Program, which is run through the city's Department of Environmental Protection. Photo: Michael DeSantis
City DEP program enlists volunteers to survey shorelines for debris


In April, a young sperm whale washed onto Spain's southeastern shore, having died after eating 64 pounds of waste. Plastic, ropes, pieces of net and other debris was found in its stomach. That's the danger posed to sea life by man-made debris.

Robert Gans is trying to do his part to ensure that doesn't happen to the aquatic life around New York City. In 1998, he founded the city Department of Environmental Protection's Volunteer Beach Floatable Program as an effort to monitor the city's water and shorelines of “floatables,” or waterborne waste material that floats. Fish, birds, turtles and other animals could ingest or get tangled in that type of debris, often killing them.

The program, which started with a handful of volunteers monitoring three locations, has expanded to 100 volunteers monitoring 65 waterfronts around the five boroughs.

“I've always been a beach bum and water enthusiast,” Gans, 70, said. “I love the beaches, I love clean water and I hate dirty beaches.”

He asks that his volunteers take about 25 minutes per week from April to mid-October to complete a survey in which they monitor a 200-foot stretch of water and its shoreline for floatables.

Kerry Halvorsen has been a volunteer for 12 years and monitors the beach near Tottenville, Staten Island, once a week.

“I've been around this beach since the '60s,” Halvorsen said. “I've been living on the beach my whole life.”

Halvorsen and other volunteers measure out their survey area, jot down landmarks to identify where they're doing the survey, and then carefully scan the beachfront and water for floatables of any category: plastic, Styrofoam, rubber, cloth, wood, metal, glass, paper and other wastes. They will then tally what floatables they find on a sheet under the corresponding sub-categories. Plastics, for example, include bags, bottles and candy wrappers.

After they've done that, they'll rate three categories from a range of very good to very poor: open water, near shore and shoreline. Finally, they'll send their weekly findings to Gans, who enters them into his database. Volunteers don't have to pick up any floatables.

“If you've ever done a cleanup, they probably take a few hours to do a single area of a beach or a shoreline,” Gans said. “If I were to ask my volunteers to do that, I might get them once per season. We don't want to intrude that much on their time.”

Instead, cleaning up the floatables is a team effort. The city's Department of Parks & Recreation cleans the city's beachfronts daily. The city DEP monitors the waters and performs cleanups with its skimmer boats. Large pick-ups occur on International Beach Clean-up Day in September and on Earth Day in April.

DEP measures water pollution based on the amount of floatables in the water and on the shoreline, and compares those numbers across each location in the city and to previous years. Gans uses his volunteers' surveys to make two year-end reports: one for the shorelines and another for the water.

Gans said his program has largely been successful over the past 20 years. He said a 1990 baseline study on debris in the water showed that New York City was not meeting expectations. In 2003, five years after his program began, the city reached the baseline study, he said. The amount of floatables around the city's beaches steadily decreased from there until about 2015, when Gans said their success has plateaued since.

“I don't know if it's because of the temperature rising and so many more people are using the shorelines and beaches,” Gans said. “There are so many more building developments. It's not getting worse but I'm looking for a jump up in getting better again.”

Gans is always looking for volunteers. Reach him at 917-658-2380 or ozonelayerllc@me.com.