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On Marine Debris and Cows… the Early Days of the Marine Debris Program

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By: Nir Barnea, Pacific Northwest Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA MArine Debris Program 10 year anniversary identity marker.In early 2005 I read an interesting email: a new program, called the “Marine Debris Program,” was being established in the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration to work on marine debris, a big and growing problem. Volunteers from current programs were needed, part time, to help this program get off the ground. Any takers?

At that time, the Pribilof Islands Environmental Restoration Project I had been part of for five years was winding down. I thought to myself, “Why not? I can do it!” And so I have, ever since. It would take over a year for the program to become official, mandated by the Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act, but the early days were interesting and exciting, and much good work was done.

Marine debris in logs on a beach.

Marine debris on the shore of Unalaska Island, Alaska. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

The program selected its first round of supported projects in the spring of 2005. The list included several interesting projects along the West Coast, where I work. These included two projects with the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary: one to remove marine debris from the rugged and remote beaches of the Olympic Peninsula, and the other, in partnership with the Makah Indian Tribe, to locate and remove derelict nets and crab pots from Neah Bay. The project in Neah Bay caught the attention of The Cousteau Society, who was on a filming tour of the U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries; they decided to focus their Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary segment on these efforts to remove derelict nets and pots.

The Northwest Straits Initiative, three years into their effort to find and remove derelict fishing nets from the Puget Sound, was also selected for funding. It was very interesting to join the net removal project team and learn the ins and outs of derelict net removal. It would take the Northwest Straits Initiative ten more years and much hard work and tenacity to conclude this long and very successful project.

During those first days, the most unusual project I was part of was removing marine debris along the very remote coast of Unalaska Island in Alaska. An oil spill occurred there the previous year, and a shoreline survey to assess oil impact was coupled with a marine debris survey. We created maps showing marine debris concentrations on the island, and a project was initiated to clean this marine debris, mostly derelict fishing gear. In September 2005, I headed up to Dutch Harbor, met with John Whitney (who initiated the project) and Dan Magone (our removal contractor), and joined the Magone Marine team for the cleanup. We boarded the Makushin Bay, an old but trusty vessel, previously a tender for drill rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. For four days, we removed over 13,000 pounds from five beaches along the west side of the island. The boat was our base, and a skiff was used to shuttle the cleanup team to the beaches and bring the collected debris to the boat.

The work was hard, but interesting and very satisfying. However, I found the most remarkable part to be the diversity of the people involved in this project. Part of the cleanup crew, four young guys from Sudan, part of the Lost Boys of Sudan who came to the U.S., had come to Alaska to work at the fish processing plant in Dutch Harbor, and later found their way to Magone Marine. They were all smart, hardworking, and very respectful men. They wouldn’t let me carry more than a bag of debris at a time because, when they found out my age, they said that I could be their grandfather! While working on one of the beaches, we saw a surreal image: several cows, grazing peacefully in the distance. The guys got very excited to see cows, especially in the middle of a remote island in Alaska, and told me all about the value of cows in Sudan, where wealth is measured, among other things, by the number of cows one owns. I learned a lot while working on Unalaska Island.

To be honest, I didn’t expect to stay in the program for very long—definitely not ten years—but I am glad I did. There is much to be said about working for a good cause, with an energetic group of people that are keen to get things done, and with the many excellent partners I get to work with who care deeply about the marine debris cause. It’s been a satisfying and interesting ten years.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

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