BELFAST, Maine — A gleaming white sailboat with a mission to clean the oceans made a stop in Belfast Harbor this week, and scores of visitors climbed aboard to learn more about it.
American Promise, a 60-foot yacht that is the oceanographic research vessel for the Rozalia Project, was making its first-ever port of call in the midcoast city. The Vermont-based nonprofit focuses on the problem of marine debris.
“There’s no life without the ocean. It’s as important as anything on the planet,” Rachael Miller, the founder of the project, said Thursday morning while giving a tour of the ship. “We see marine debris as a problem that is so clearly human-generated, and it’s possible for humans to get ahead of it again.”
Marine debris is an issue everywhere, with plastics and other trash in the oceans creating problems as large in scale as the so-called Great Pacific garbage patch and as small as the tiny microplastics that have been found in Maine waters and in the state’s seafood.
The Rozalia Project works to address the problem with a combination of cleanups, prevention through education, research and the use of technology. Over the past nine years, organization members have removed more than 850,000 pieces of trash from waterways, including a 2012 mission to Rockland that involved a small robot that plucked debris from the harbor floor.
The number grew this week, thanks to a cleanup of a small portion of the Belfast waterfront. Crew and more than 30 community members scoured the area from the public landing to the Boat House, picking up more than 1,200 pieces of trash in an hour. Cigarette butts accounted for 700 pieces, according to Ashley Sullivan, the executive director of the Rozalia Project.
Water bottles, food wrappers and plastic sheeting accounted for much of the rest, which she said was “compatible with global data.” She contrasted that with what project members found a couple of days ago when they stopped at Greens Island near Vinalhaven, finding lots of fishing-related debris, including rope and bait bags, lobster buoys and trap parts.
No matter where it comes from, marine debris is problematic. It can kill marine mammals, sea birds, fish and turtles when they eat it and get entangled in it. It can be inadvertently consumed by people in the food chain or contaminate marine environments.
“The ocean is worth protecting, and I think we can protect it,” Miller said. “The ‘we’ is a big capital we. The collective of people.”
As part of the solution, the Rozalia Project helped create a simple device that can help stop the problem of microfibers getting into the waterways. It’s a laundry ball called the Cora Ball that catches the fibers shedding off clothes in the washer.
Project members are also eager to get the word out about marine debris and ocean cleanup on voyages such as the one to Belfast. Although American Promise has a sailing pedigree — it was the boat used by Maine sailor Dodge Morgan to break the solo circumnavigation world record in 1986 — it now spends most of its time in the Gulf of Maine.
That’s fine with ship visitors such as Anna Wood-Cox, who teaches at the Edna Drinkwater School in Northport. She talked to Sullivan about a school project to study microplastics that had a powerful impact on the students.
“It was interesting and eye-opening,” she said, adding that she enjoyed learning more about Project Rozalia and the work done aboard the boat. “It’s just fabulous.”