Editor’s note: The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Alaska Coordinator, Peter, participated in the GYRE Expedition last week. This expedition aboard the R/V Norseman brought together artists, scientists, and educators to raise awareness about the marine debris problem on Alaska’s remote shorelines. These entries are dispatches from his time aboard the vessel. You can read his send off blog here. Stay tuned for lessons learned and some additional photos!
By: Peter Murphy
Gore Point East Beach – 06/08/13
Friday we left Seward, Alaska, for our first stop at Gore Point, a “catcher” beach that extends into the Alaska coastal current and sees some of the highest debris densities recorded in Alaska. Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) cleaned the beach in 2007-2008 and removed over 20 tons of debris from less than a mile of shoreline. On Saturday, Chris Pallister, the head of GoAK, arranged to be at the beach with some of his crew to show us the site and how it’s changed over the six years that he’s been cleaning it. From his initial survey, he thought that the debris was significantly less than in 2012. What we saw in logs pushed far up the beach and broken tree branches were evidence of just how strong the weather and ocean forces are that bring debris ashore here. As we spent the day on-site, a small team of us set up our monitoring system, while others collected impressions and debris.
Over the course of the day, we worked together to conduct a full monitoring survey, following the NOAA shoreline protocol to select transects and catalog debris. This sort of snapshot monitoring data is very helpful in putting numbers to the impressions that people have of a place and the debris they see there– “a lot of foam” can become “___% of debris was foam.” When you collect data at the same site over time, it can also answer the important question of change, since differences in the composition (what) and the quantity (how much) of debris at a site can give us valuable clues to regional or local changes in the debris picture. We’re looking forward to doing the analysis, though it’s at least certain to indicate a lot of foam present.
Throughout the day, the diverse background, trainings and perspectives of the team made for lively and thought provoking discussions on the problem and potential solutions to the debris problem. These conversations continued at night as the team came back to the boat for dinner and presentations, where team members share information on their work and the issue. The sun was just settling under the mountains as the last of us headed to bed around 11 p.m. Looking forward to what the rest of the trip brings!
Shuyak Island – 06/09/13
Sunday morning broke while we were en-route to Shuyak Island. The Norseman’s crew woke up at 1 a.m. to move us in position for another day of beach surveys, debris collection, and shared experience. On our way, we saw an amazing display of the rich environment we’re working in, as there was an amazing concentration of fin whales, Dall’s porpoises, and seabirds. Once the Norseman put down anchor, we headed ashore, dividing into mixed boat teams. The first beach I visited, at Red Buoy Bay (so named because of the large red buoy on the shore), was actually relatively pristine. In our walks, it took more than 30 minutes of searching to find more than 15 or 20 pieces of debris. However, as we worked out towards the edge of the beach, we started to see more of the typical debris that we’d seen at Gore Point – small bits of foam, plastic bottles, broken up plastics, and tangled line and net.
As the day wore on, we shifted out to a more exposed beach on an outlying island offshore of Shuyak, finding higher energy beaches with tossed and piled logs. We set up a short pair of transects on one small pocket beach facing out into Stevenson Entrance. This beach, which was much smaller than Gore Point, included the same types of debris, but in smaller proportions. It also included a glass bottle in almost pristine condition.
The differences we’re seeing in debris deposition and types from beach to beach are a reminder of how many variables affect the eventual fate of a debris object, from open ocean wind and current forces to the type of beach by shape and composition.