By: Peter Murphy
Editor’s note: Peter Murphy, the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, was recently invited to participate in the GYRE Expedition, an innovative and unique project planned by the Alaska SeaLife Center that brought together scientists, removal experts, educators and artists aboard the R/V Norseman to observe, discuss and explore the issue of marine debris in Alaska and work on ways to raise awareness nationwide.
It’s been a few weeks since we got back on shore after the GYRE Expedition. A few weeks to get caught up on email (and get behind again), but also a few weeks to think back on the trip and what the team saw and learned, both on the beaches and from each other. For me, as part of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, this trip was a valuable chance not only to collect monitoring data in remote and frequently inaccessible locations, but to participate in dialogue about the science work we normally do and the impressions and expressions that artists draw from debris. The results of this dialogue will hopefully provide us with new tools to raise awareness of the issue and prevent debris in the future.
Here’s a quick recap of what we did:
The seven day trip was packed, aided by the long Alaskan summer daylight (sunset was after 11:00 p.m., with sunrise just a few short hours later). We started out in Seward, where we met the boat and were briefed on the trip ahead. From there, we moved to Gore Point, a very high density catcher beach, where we met with Chris Pallister of Gulf of Alaska Keeper. He and his team have been cleaning the beach for each of the last six years, including 2007-2008, when they removed over 20 tons of debris from less than a mile of shoreline. There were piles of logs sometimes 10-15 feet high, evidence of the force of the winter storms that bring debris ashore here.
From there, we transited to Shuyak Island, where we had the chance to visit multiple beaches and bays, collecting monitoring data and debris for further analysis on-board the boat. Odile Madden, of the Smithsonian Institute, brought with her several tools capable of analyzing substances for composition, a potentially valuable tool for better understanding debris sources in the future. We also met with Andy Schroeder of Island Trails Network, who came to Alaska with the Coast Guard and later transitioned his kayaking guiding experience to begin to clean the remote beaches he saw littered with debris, bringing in volunteer and school groups from as far away as New York City.
The next day, on Afognak Island, we rendezvoused with Colleen Rankin, a debris cleanup veteran, at her home in Blue Fox Bay and heard about her cleanup efforts. Colleen hauls debris from miles away back to her lodge, where she re-uses whatever she can and stores the rest for eventual disposal. She’s even insulated a room of a cabin with foam debris pieces she found on the beaches (after some cleaning). Our last stop on the trip was at Hallo Bay, where we met with National Park Service (NPS) staff to help ferry the nearly 4 tons of debris that they gathered on the beaches back to our vessel for eventual disposal in Seward. This highlights one of the challenges of debris cleanups in remote locations like Alaska; even once you’ve picked up the debris, you have to find a way to dispose of it. Going back ashore the next day, we got the chance to do a little beach cleanup of our own and see the plot where NPS had been doing its own debris monitoring. Despite a close encounter with a few of the local residents (Hallo Bay is famous first for its bears), we departed safe and sound for Seward, debris and data laden. Throughout the trip and on the transit back, the diverse background, trainings and perspectives of the team made for lively and thought-provoking discussions on the issue. In going through my notes, a few key themes kept coming up:
Alaska is a very big place. This is not news, and any Alaskan will not be shy to tell you this, but this trip certainly is a good microcosm of that fact. The Norseman traveled right around 500 miles during the expedition, and as you can see, the places we visited are basically in the same neighborhood when it comes to Alaska.
There’s a lot of debris, but a lot of beauty too. Over the course of the trip, we certainly saw a lot of debris. The scale can sometimes be deceiving. You drive up to a beach on a boat and only see a few floats, but as you get closer, you start to see the smaller pieces. Despite that, we also saw displays of nature we’re working to preserve: whales and porpoises, seals and otters, and even the occasional bear (not a NOAA trust resource, but they definitely interact with debris!).
There’s an active, innovative and positive debris community. The debris problem is big and multi-faceted, so it can seem overwhelming. But having had the chance to meet with people on the beaches they’ve worked hard to clean, and listen to stories of the ways they’ve come up with to do that work, shows how much difference a few people can make.
Humans are the source of debris and the solution. Every piece of debris we found on beaches came from one source – people. Whatever country it came from, it still was manufactured by people for use by people. Cleanups on the beaches (and in the water) help reduce the amount of debris in the ocean, but preventing more debris is the key as Chris, Andy and Colleen all agreed. That prevention takes people changing their behavior, not just at sea but on land, where data shows more than 80 percent of all marine debris starts. Hopefully this trip is part of the awareness that leads to those changed behaviors.
Overall, this expedition was a great experience, and it gave us the opportunity to gather and share information and perspectives with a diverse group of people who all care about the issue of marine debris. We got to interact with the marine debris community in Alaska in the places they have dedicated their time and energy to preserve. These interactions are a good reminder of the combination of scientific research, on-the-ground removal, and awareness raising outreach that it will take to address the issue of marine debris.