PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE, Texas -- Sand-filled rubber gloves. Bulk onion bags stuffed with empty egg cartons and milk jugs. A busted television set with barnacles. On any given day, hundreds of pieces of trash wash up on the shores of this starkly beautiful barrier island, turning 68 miles of undeveloped beach into one of the most littered national parks in the country.
Fed up with sodden garbage that's not only an eyesore but a danger to wildlife, the National Park Service set out 10 years ago to locate the source. Last month, in a report filled with color photos of sea turtles and birds tangled in frayed fishing lines, the main culprit was identified: the Gulf of Mexico shrimping industry, which researchers concluded is responsible for more than 80% of the trash strewn among the dunes and salt grass on the north end of the island.
The assertion is not made lightly on the South Texas coast, where livelihoods depend on a healthy shrimping industry, said William Botts, education coordinator at the Padre Island National Seashore. "Something has to be done about the problem. All of the trash, it's like trying to mop up seawater from the beach. It keeps coming back."
In the face of the evidence -- thousands of pieces of garbage, much of it from items commonly used on shrimp trawlers -- shrimpers reluctantly accepted some, but hardly all, of the responsibility.
"Yes, we will lose some of our gear overboard when we hit 14-foot seas," said Wilma Anderson, executive director of the Texas Shrimp Assn. "But 80% of the trash? No, ma'am. Go out on the water, there's party boats, offshore oil drillers, sport fishermen, you name it," and they all generate trash, she said. "The industry did not take too kindly to the report. It was a shocker, let me put it to you that way."
While the trash study, funded by six government agencies and trade groups, is not the first of its kind, it is the most exhaustive, said Darrell Echols, the park's chief of science and resources management. From March 1994 to February 1996 and March 1997 to February 1998, park crews collected 376,396 pieces of trash from a 16-mile stretch of Padre Island. Researchers then focused on 43 categories of debris most commonly found along the shore. Items such as aluminum cans and cigarette butts, which could not be conclusively traced, were not used in the survey.
The study found that much of the trash matched items used by shrimpers, such as rubber gloves, fish baskets for separating shrimp, salt bags for preserving shrimp and round wooden disks that weigh down nets. The second worst offender was the offshore oil industry, whose hard hats, lumber and plastic sheeting accounted for 9.2% of the trash recorded.
Over the years, a pattern emerged: the trash increased during shrimping season and shrank in the off-season. Data for the study were reviewed for five years and sent to three outside statisticians, Echols said.
"We tried to be as fair and balanced as we could," he said. "[Shrimpers] can sit there and say it's not 80%, but forget about the percentages. They will agree they're responsible for some of it; they can't deny it. So what can we do to change that and keep the trash out of the system? It's an educational process."
Shrimpers unhappy with the study question how some trash items -- such as bleach bottles and egg cartons -- can definitely be linked to them, and say they adhere to strict federal laws that prohibit dumping of plastics into the ocean. In addition, the Coast Guard boards shrimp boats at sea, spot-checking for bagged trash. On the docks, the shrimpers' trash is sometimes weighed to make sure it correlates to the amount of time spent at sea.
"Why would we pollute the water and mess up the shrimp?" said Jennifer Reiter, 29, who shrimps with her husband, Billy. "Why would we do that? We'd only be hurting ourselves. No one we know would throw their trash overboard. We bag it and put it in the dumpsters at the dock."
On the Polly Anna, a 100-foot shrimp boat docked in nearby Port Aransas, 54-year-old Molly Nixon walked the deck in white rubber boots, her gold earrings -- shaped like tiny fish skeletons -- swinging with indignation. "We're not the only traffic out there. That trash comes from everywhere and gets pushed by the currents here," she said.
Nixon was referring to opposing currents that collide offshore, causing flotillas of trash to drift inland. "If you dump it in the gulf, it has a high probability of ultimately ending up here someday," Echols said.
Though crews stopped collecting garbage for the shoreline study in 1998, the battle with trash continues. Park employees are required to pick up a bag of garbage every time they go to the beach, and volunteer groups regularly collect what they can. "You can go out and fill two 40-cubic-yard dumpsters with trash, and two days later the beach will be littered again. It's disheartening and very frustrating," Echols said.
The seashore was a skewed picture postcard last week, the sky a dense blue, egrets resting near the rolling waves, trash heaps on the dunes.
Michael Broome, a 22-year-old student at the University of Texas at San Antonio, drove slowly on the sand, quietly watching the migrating birds. Sandpipers skittered past, and a lone pelican stood with a dozen gulls, all perfectly still as the breeze ruffled their feathers.
"You just try to ignore the trash," he said, barely glancing toward the litter. "Don't look in that direction, and this is like a long private beach that no one has ever touched."