Trash stowaways – Scientist seeks creatures in debris

Payton measures little animals found in a pile of rope. Her research could influence marine management. KYLIE SMITH/Contributed

As Key Dives’ clean up divers hauled up marine debris, Tokea “Kea” Payton got ready to get to work. The incoming doctoral student at Clemson University meticulously combed through the trash picked up from the ocean floor — broken traps, old rope and bits of plastics — looking for little creatures that may have come up with the debris. 

Payton’s research for Michael Childress’ Conservation of Marine Resources Lab focuses on marine debris as a habitat for marine organisms. As such, she measures and documents all the little crabs, brittle stars, invertebrates, coral, shrimp and juvenile fish that come up in piles of debris. 

“I expect to find mostly small mobile invertebrate species such as crabs and brittle stars. I also expect to see larval reef fishes,” Payton told the Weekly.

So far, in the early stages of her research, she has found several species of crabs, including decorator and hermit crabs. 

Payton hopes her work can help better marine management and outreach practices regarding marine debris.

Kylie Smith of I.CARE joins Kea Payton on her debris surveys. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly
Divers on Key Dives’ clean up dive bring up hundreds of pounds of debris, mostly consisting of old rope and trap line and pieces. Nestled within that marine rubbish were crabs, shrimp, coral, invertebrates and juvenile fish. KYLIE SMITH/Contributed
Payton uses a metal ruler to measure animals she found in the debris pulled up from the oceans. KYLIE SMITH/Contributed
Payton removes debris from around a coral head using scuba and a knife. KYLIE SMITH/Contributed
Much of the debris in the sanctuary is old nets, line and fishing gear that continues to float around and entangle corals and animals. This “ghost gear” is very dangerous to marine life; it continues to entangle and kill many animals as it gets pulled around by the currents. KYLIE SMITH/Contributed