Wed Apr 14 2021 04:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

FACE MASKS HAVE BECOME a necessity during the ongoing pandemic, but they are also a new threat to local waterways, including the Barnegat Bay, Commissioner Joseph H. Vicari said.

"I am receiving a steady stream of reports that disposable face masks are turning up on beaches and the coastline all over Ocean County," Vicari said. "I ask everyone to please dispose of your face masks properly and do not toss them on the ground."

The masks are joining a long list of plastics, including bags and bottles, which wash into storm drains and end up in the bay.

"This problem can be easily controlled if people will simply place their used masks into the trash," Vicari said.

Clean Ocean Action reported last fall that it collected more than 1,000 pandemic-related items, including face masks, during its local beach cleaning last fall.

Vicari, who is liaison to the Barnegat Bay Partnership, said he expected the number of masks to increase when Clean Ocean Action again scours the beaches this month.

"It's a growing problem," he said. "We all know the harm plastics can bring to our environment. Masks are no different. They must be disposed of correctly."

And the problem doesn't end in Ocean County.

The nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, which monitors water and beach pollution around the globe, said its members have found the number of disposable face masks washing ashore is increasing.

From July through December of 2020, Ocean Conservancy reported more than 107,219 pieces of pandemic-related items were removed from the ocean and beaches. Masks constituted the overwhelming majority of the items found.

Vicari said there have also been reports of seabirds and other wildlife becoming entangled in the elastic bands of face masks.

Face masks can also be mistakenly eaten by larger sea creatures, he said.

Vicari suggested that people purchase reusable cloth face masks rather than the disposable variety.

"Cloth masks are widely available and can be washed and reused many times," Vicari said.

Gary Quinn, Director of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners, said clean water and pristine beaches help attract thousands of visitors to Ocean County each year.

"With the summer tourism season fast approaching, we must all do our best to protect our environment and our wildlife," Quinn said. "Let us all work together to keep our beaches and our waterways clean and safe for everyone."