Slow, painful deaths of marine animals can be prevented, simply by keeping litter out of the environment, said Certified Rutgers Environmental Steward Charles Miller, 60, of Brigantine.

"There's a problem with plastic bags and helium balloons. Even if they get released inland, they get to the coast and hit cooler air. This is where they drop in," Miller said. "Bags and balloons definitely look like food (to marine animals). They block up their intestines. And six-pack holders are bad. An animal like a turtle can get its head stuck in (the rings)."

So Miller concentrated on litter prevention after being trained last January as an Environmental Steward through the program run by Rutgers Cooperative Research Exten-sion, and offered through the ACUA in Pleasantville. As part of the certification process, he had to dedicate 60 volunteer hours to an internship project.

He did an experiment on Brigantine beaches, where he was already an active volunteer with the Clean Communities program, to see if

signage on trash cans at beach entry points would influence beachgoers to litter less.

"We had signs made up, that said "Keep Brigantine Clean and Green,'" he said. "Then we looked at beaches with the signage, vs. those without, to see whether the message made a difference."

He studied a 10-block area from Sixth Street South to Fifth Street North, and found 17 percent less litter on the four beaches with the signs, compared to the six beaches without.

His is one of more than 20 projects completed each year statewide by volunteers in the Environmental Steward program. The program, which has trained about 330 people statewide at three locations, began in 2005. It came to Atlantic County in 2008, where about 16 people are trained each year, said coordinator Amy Cook Menzel, who is also communications manager at the ACUA.

Menzel said she'd like to see more people take the class in Atlantic County, with a goal of 25 to 30 people trained each year. The next class starts in January. It costs $250 to take the 60-hour, 20 week course.

It is designed to train non-scientists to help address local environmental issues, Menzel said. She said training covers soils and geography, water, sustainability, waste and energy, as well as leadership and dealing with conflict.

"The whole program is based on the Master Gardener program model," said Bruce Barbour, Warren County agricultural agent and statewide coordinator of the Environmental Stewards program. "It's a successful model of training adults and bringing them along as volunteers."

He said about 25 percent of those trained statewide have completed a 60-hour internship and become certified, and about half of those trained are working towards it.

"We are dealing with adults who are volunteering. Life doesn't always unfold itself nice and easy, and people can't always follow through right away," Barbour said. "The ultimate purpose is to get people involved in their communities and make them feel equipped to make a difference."

He said he has been impressed with the size of projects taken on by volunteers.

"Some are way beyond what I expected," he said.

The majority of those trained in Atlantic County have not yet completed internships, Menzel said, but there is no time limit on doing the internship.

"I'd like to see more get certified," she said. "It feels good to complete that and have that certification."

Ruth Murpy, 68, of Atlantic City, went through the training in 2008, and for a while didn't sign up for an internship.

"Life got in the way," she said.

But last May she heard New Jersey Audubon was offering two internships through its Cape May Bird Observatory Northwood Center for Research and Education in Cape May Court House. The time was right, as she had left her previous job as coordinator of support services with Covenant House in Atlantic City.

She has been helping with data entry on bird counts ever since, and now has arranged it so she can do the work from her home, working with data from projects such as the Christmas bird count, the hawk count, and backyard bird counts, she said.

She never worked with bird studies before, but saw it as an opportunity to learn something new while helping an environmental cause.

"Most of my career was as a business administrator at the University of Pennsylvania," she said.

Eventually she'd like to expand her work there, maybe even into field work.

"I'm being exposed to it, anyway," she said.

She was still working full-time when she went through the training, which is given one day per week for 20 weeks, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. She arranged to make up the time at work, she said, and since the training was held in Pleasantville, it didn't involve a lot of travel.

Murphy also does volunteer work as a check writer for AARP's money management program, where she helps lower-income senior citizens and disabled people pay bills.

Miller has also used his skills as an amateur videographer to help the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine get its message across to schools and other groups that either can't afford to make a field trip to the facility or are too far away to consider it.

The video also educates about the need to keep litter out of the environment, and what to do if you encounter a stranded animal. He said the center is looking for grant money to reproduce the video and send it to schools.

To make the video, he followed staff and volunteers for a single day, filming from about 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. as they took a rehabilitated adult harp seal to Sandy Hook in Monmouth County to be released. As they drove, they got called to relocate seals who were stranded, he said.

"One was an adult seal on a beach next to a marina. Another was in the marsh after the tide had gone out. It amazed me the volunteers that showed up to assist, and the local police, fire, and public works employees that helped carry, and keep people away. I saw it all day long," he said. "It turned out to be one of the busiest days they've ever had."

Miller is also a volunteer mediator for Atlantic County.

To view Charles Miller's video on litter's effect on marine mammals, and the work of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, visit:

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:


If You Are Interested

Environmental Steward classes will be held Wednesdays from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm at the ACUA on Delilah Road in Egg Harbor Twp. beginning Jan. 11. To apply visit

or contact the ACUA at 609-272-6950. The fee for the course is $250.