By: Peter Murphy
Recently, I had the chance to go into the field and work with one of our marine debris removal projects in Tenakee Springs, Alaska. The community received funding in 2012 from our program’s Community Based Removal grant, which we manage in cooperation with the NOAA Restoration Center, to do shoreline cleanups. The community was also conducting a small pilot project to look for derelict crab pots, and I’d come in to meet up with Art Bloom, the project coordinator, and help with it.
Tenakee Springs – or just “Tenakee” – is a small community of less than a hundred residents about 50 air miles, or 80 sea miles from Juneau, in Southeast Alaska. Like many communities in Alaska, air and sea miles are the most appropriate measure, since those routes are the only ways to get to Tenakee. Tenakee Springs sits snugged between the water and the mountains on the north side of Tenakee Inlet, a body of water with many small bays where subsistence and commercial fishing are an ongoing effort. As a small community where groceries cost quite a bit more than you’re used to in the local supermarket, fish and crab are a significant source of protein and income in the community. There are no roads or cars in Tenakee, just a wide, long trail that people use to bike, walk, or ATV from house to house, into town, or to the sulfur hot springs from which the town gets its name. With 40-50 year-round residents, it’s a place where everybody knows everybody else, and it seems that not too much happens without it being a community event.
This same “all in” approach is what Tenakee’s residents brought to their debris removal program. The project started when local residents noticed plastic bottles, cans, fishing floats, buckets, coolers, and other “typical” debris in the inlet, which entered the water through improper disposal, locally or abroad. The inlet also had long-term legacy debris, including rotting float houses and the remains from abandoned logging and other industry in the area. Using their own boats and a lot of ingenuity, Tenakee residents volunteered over 800 hours of their time in the spring of 2013 to clean over 35 miles of shoreline, removing nearly 3.5 tons of debris. To put that in perspective, in a town of 40-50, that would be an average of 20 hours of cleanup work per person!
Another specific kind of debris that I’d heard about before, but learned much more about on this trip, is woody and foam debris from the herring pound fishery. In herring pound fishing, nets are suspended from a floating structure called a “pound,” most often supported by large Styrofoam floats. The suspended nets are then filled with harvested kelp. Herring are then caught and released into the pound, where they spawn on the kelp. The eggs on the kelp are the product of the fishery and a lucrative one for export. The problem comes when the pounds are left unattended or stored improperly on shore. The foam floats, frequently over 10 feet long and 2-4 feet wide, weather and break up, putting smaller and smaller particles of foamed plastics on beaches that become difficult to clean as they get smaller. By the time I came to the inlet, the vast majority of the debris had been picked up, but there were still isolated examples on the shore of full herring pounds, or the foam floats used to support them. This illustrated again the many different ways that debris can get into the environment.
Part of the reason that there were still floats to see was that people in town were planning to reuse them. In fact, much of the debris and lumber that had been picked up from the abandoned float houses and herring pounds had already been used in the construction of a new cabin in town. This was not only a great example of the “reuse” ethic, but of big cost savings, too. Most of the funding that Tenakee Springs received from the grant went to the costs of shipping debris out of Tenakee and back to Juneau. In a town with no landfill, where your seaplane baggage is charged by the pound and big supplies come via barge four times a year, getting 3.5 tons of debris to proper disposal is a significant challenge!
My time in Tenakee was a great reminder of the diverse nature of the marine debris problem, and the challenges that it brings in remote places, but also the capacity and ingenuity of people working together to address it.
For more on the cleanup, and on the community you can visit: