By: Peter Murphy, Alaska Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program
This week on the Marine Debris Blog, we’re featuring content from projects and partners in the State of Alaska. As a start to that, we wanted to provide some background on the issue of marine debris in Alaska, and the ongoing efforts to address it.
The word “Alaska” may bring to mind images of snowy mountains, icy glaciers, dogsleds, snow-machines, isolated cabins, fishing boats, glaciers, and amazing wildlife. While those are all things you can surely find in “The Great Land,” Alaska is also a place where marine debris is an especially impactful and challenging problem.
Alaska has over 44,000 miles of shoreline – that’s more than the rest of the United States combined, and enough to circle the earth nearly two times at the Equator. Accessing these rugged beaches can be difficult even in the best of weather, but Alaskan weather is often less than cooperative. This means there is a short field season where work can be done, in some places just a few months long. The amount of debris is also a challenge. Ocean currents and winter storms combine to bring huge amounts of debris to Alaskan shores every year. Those shorelines are home to rich habitat and diverse wildlife that can be negatively impacted by the many different kinds of marine debris.
Often, the areas that get the most debris can also be very remote, even by Alaskan standards. For instance, the remote Gore Point, on the Kenai Peninsula, held more than 25 tons of debris on less than a mile of beach when it was cleaned in 2007, enough to fill a 100 foot long barge to capacity and cement its reputation as a “catcher” beach. Once on the barge, the debris made its way more than 80 miles by boat to Homer, Alaska. Many of these catcher beaches exist in Alaska, from Dixon Entrance in Southeast Alaska across the Gulf of Alaska and into the Bering Sea.
Taking on these challenges requires innovation and determination, qualities Alaskans are rightfully known for, and qualities the Alaskan marine debris community has in abundance, from Federal and State agencies to NGO’s and private citizens. In Southeast Alaska, the Sitka Sound Science Center has built marine debris removal and data collection into high school curricula alongside their own professional cleanups, creating awareness and removing debris in parallel. The National Park Service is working out of Homer with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS) to leverage CACS’s years of experience in education and bring marine debris awareness and action to new audiences and communities in the Arctic. Gulf of Alaska Keeper has led cleanups in Prince William Sound and the Central Gulf of Alaska, and recently spearheaded an ambitious and innovative barge-airlift operation, building off of the concepts pioneered at Gore Point. Private citizens are also a huge part of the community, whether volunteering for an organization or leading their own community efforts. Tenakee Springs, a community in Southeast Alaska, built volunteer cleanups to coincide with a public works project, piggybacking transport of debris for disposal back to Juneau along with construction materials. Kathy Peavey in Craig and Colleen Rankin in Blue Fox Bay, two people as passionate and dedicated to removing marine debris as you could find, also work to raise awareness of the issue through local and international engagement.
The work done and the tools used may vary, but the goal is a common one – to assess, remove and prevent debris. This week you’ll hear perspectives and stories from a few members of that community, which NOAA is proud to be part of.