By Peter Murphy
When people think of Alaska, most imagine a pristine wilderness with jagged snow-capped mountains, blue-ice glaciers, salmon, bears of various kinds, and of course, a lot of space. While all of these things are to be found in what is rightly called the Last Frontier, it is also a place where marine debris is a very impactful and challenging problem. So what makes Alaska unique from other areas of the United States dealing with marine debris?
Alaska has a rugged and vast shoreline – more than the rest of the United States combined at over 44,000 miles, enough to circle the Earth almost twice at the equator – and incredible marine resources. Open ocean currents and winter storms bring significant amounts of debris to Alaska’s shores every year.
Some areas with the highest debris density on record have been remote beaches. For example, one beach at Gore Point on the Kenai Peninsula had over 25 tons of debris in less than a mile of shoreline when it was cleaned in 2007, enough to fill a 100-foot landing craft. That compares with other cleanups in Alaska that have less than one ton per mile, which would still be very high for beaches in the Lower 48. Plus, this area is pretty remote – the nearest landfill is at least a days’ travel away by boat, through seas that are rarely calm.
This beach gives a good picture on the challenges of removal in Alaska and shows just how much debris can come from the open ocean when winds and currents combine to concentrate a lot of stuff in a very small area. The combination of high density and low accessibility is a common theme in beach cleanups in Alaska, which actually makes it somewhat similar to the marine debris issue in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Another a unique element of debris cleanup in Alaska is the short field season. Beaches are frequently inaccessible from October to April in southern Alaska. In northern latitudes, beaches can be iced in as late as May. This means that a lot of work needs to be done in a limited time frame, and with resources that are not only limited in terms of funding, but also availability – equipment and transportation are booked quickly, and so are volunteers. While this means there is less time to do work, it also gives the marine debris community a good amount of time to analyze what was found and prepare for future seasons (part of why there are a lot more meetings in January than in June).
One of the key resources for this analysis comes from monitoring data. This data is regularly collected using standardized protocols at sites that NOAA and partners, such as National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and multiple NGO’s, have established at locations scattered across the state. Using a standardized method allows us to better understand and identify changes in composition and quantity – the “what” and “how much” of debris. As an example, scientists at NOAA Auke Bay Laboratories compared survey data they collected in 2012 to 2008 data in order to show just how much the amount of Styrofoam and light plastics had increased – it turned out to be over 1,000% in some places!
This challenging environment has fostered an innovative and active marine debris community – Alaskans typically spend a lot of time out in the environment and value the quality of life and livelihood it provides. Many techniques of debris detection, monitoring and cleanup have been pioneered in Alaska, from small plane surveys and helicopter sling-loading of debris to debris art and outreach.
As any Alaskan will rightly tell you, Alaska is a big place. That’s true of the debris challenges and the opportunities for positive change. These challenges emphasize the need for smart solutions to the marine debris problems, both in Alaska and worldwide, so we can keep shorelines and the marine environment pristine, productive and beautiful.