Thursday February 28, 2013 | 11:59 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

Of the stuff that I find washing into various beaches here in Maine, one that perplexed me the longest was this:

I’m forever picking up old plastic shotgun shells, and the plastic wadding from inside shotgun shells. (This is a small part of what I've found.) Occasionally I’ll find a fairly fresh-looking shell, but many or most have been out in the ocean for a long time.

I wondered for years about the source. I asked around if the fishing industry used shotguns for any reason. But nobody I talked to had heard of such a thing. Maine permits seabird hunting. But it’s small scale. And most is done from islands and shorelines -- only a small percent, centered around sea ducks (scoter, eider, and long-tailed) seems ever to be done from boats. Not enough to account for all the debris I found.

I then wondered if these shells were from inland hunting -- ducks in saltmarshes, or deer/moose in the woods? But again, it seemed strange to find so many that had obviously managed to get into the ocean itself.

Then, out of the blue, I got a fascinating story* from a fan of my Flotsam Diaries Facebook page who lives in the Scottish Isles. He said that in the 1990s plastic shotgun shells started washing up in Shetland. They were of a gauge illegal in the United Kingdom, so the police were alerted.

As more shells washed up, fears of gun smuggling swirled. It was quite a to-do! Eventually forensics specialists traced back the batch numbers on some of the shells to gun shops in Newfoundland, Canada.

And that’s when the truth broke.

For centuries, Labrador and Newfoundland have had a traditional at-sea autumn hunt of a particular seabird – the murre (known also as a “turr”). Murre meat helped many generations survive the Maritimes’ long & biting winters. The hunt remains part of coastal culture. Into the early 1990s as many as 900,000 murres were shot and killed (mostly from boats traveling in open water) each year!

Regulations put into place at the beginning of the 21st Century have dialed that back to maybe 200,000 to 300,000 birds per year. Shot by about 8,000 licensed hunters. Which still means a fearsome amount of shotgun shells entering the ocean.

Thanks to the divergent ocean currents off of Labrador, some travel along the North American coast and wash up on my shore. Others ride the North Atlantic current all the way to Scotland’s northernmost isles. The Orkney Beachcomber has found these North American-sized shotgun shells on his shores:

If you find a shotgun shell on your beach, perhaps it’s a local drop. Or perhaps it’s come from somewhere very far off, and has quite a story to tell!

Wherever its source, no spent plastic shotgun shell that goes into the ocean really goes away. In a plastic world, there is no “away.”


* As he rightly warns, such stories tend to "grow in the telling." This one cannot be independently verified. Yet. Regardless of the details, it ended up pointing to the fact of the Newfoundland/Labrador murre hunt, which was a big find!


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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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