NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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Sea Kayak Marine Debris Cleanup: Restoring Wilderness Shorelines in the Gulf of Alaska

By: Tom Pogson, Guest Blogger and Director of Education, Outreach, and Marine Programs for Island Trails Network

Even though Shuyak Island State Park is a remote wilderness island in the northern Gulf of Alaska, it has been heavily impacted by marine debris. Through a community-based removal grant project funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Island Trails Network (ITN) led 29 volunteers from June 12th to September 4th of this year to help remove marine debris in this area. There were six teams of five to seven sea paddlers, which each spent two weeks camping and collecting debris to restore coastal habitats on Shuyak. During 56 total days of cleanup, we collected 35,036 pounds of marine debris from a continuous belt of coastal habitat (52 miles in length) along the island’s northwest shore. Cleanup teams moved freely along the coast in sea kayaks, which were a convenient means of accessing shallow rocky shorelines.

Most of the debris we collected was made of plastic and was related to marine trades such as commercial fishing and shipping. Dominant items included nets and line, floats and buoys, fish crates, and polystyrene/polyurethane floats and pieces. A wide variety of personal and household items were also represented, including plastic jugs and buckets, water and drink bottles, personal hygiene items, crates, toothbrushes, and shoes. Plastic wads from shotgun shells were also common, as were pieces of plastic “film” (such as plastic bags).

Although we found marine debris on all sampled shorelines, we noticed a striking geographic pattern in the distribution of debris. Protected bays and inlets were the least littered with debris, with 50 to 1,000 pounds of marine debris observed per nautical mile. The shorelines of tidal channels that were exposed to wind and waves and exposed outer coast beaches had greater amounts of debris, with 1,001 to 3,400 pounds of debris found per nautical mile. The distribution of debris volume showed a similar pattern, with the greatest volume found on exposed outer coast beaches (10 to 16 cubic yards per nautical mile). Protected shorelines and tidal channels were more heavily contaminated with nets and line than expected, and their removal was time consuming, which greatly slowed the progress of the cleanup along the coast.

A map of how many super sacks of debris were found in certain locations around Shuyak Island.

We noticed a striking geographic pattern in the distribution of marine debris on Shuyak shores. Here you can see the number of “super sacks” collected in each location. (Photo Credit: Tom Pogson, Island Trails Network)

In September, we removed all the debris we collected over the summer using a specialized 21-foot skiff and an 80-foot charter vessel, which then delivered the debris to Kodiak Island for storage and eventual disposal. To bring the project to its conclusion, ITN staff and volunteers will sort and characterize the debris to provide data for a public outreach campaign to reduce marine debris in the Gulf of Alaska.

For more information on this project, check out the project profile on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website, the Marine Debris Clearinghouse, or contact

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Removing Debris in Tenakee Springs, Alaska: A Look Back

The NOAA Marine Debris Program 10 year anniversary identity marker.


Over the years of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, there have been many efforts around the country to rid our waters and shores of marine debris. As part of our ten-year anniversary celebration, let’s take a look back at one of those efforts in Alaska.


Back in 2012, the community of Tenakee Springs, Alaska received funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program to remove debris in their remote community. Tenakee Springs, with less than 100 residents, sits about 50 air miles from Juneau in Southeast Alaska and is inaccessible by road. In fact, there are no roads at all in the town, just a long, wide trail that people use to get around via foot, bike, or four-wheeler.

Residents of this secluded community began to notice debris such as plastic bottles, cans, fishing floats, and other trash items washing up on the shores of the town’s inlet. Between this influx of debris and other debris that had been sitting around for a while, such as old house boats and legacy fishing gear, the community decided it was time to do something! Tenakee residents volunteered to take part in the project and in the spring of 2013, they gave over 800 hours of time to clean over 35 miles of shoreline, removing almost 3.5 tons of debris! Some residents even reused some of the collected debris, incorporating debris from the old house boats in the construction of a new cabin in town.

Read more about this interesting project on this old blog post or on the Marine Debris Clearinghouse.


Marine Debris Research: What Happens When Salmon Eat Foamed Plastic?

By: Carlie Herring, Research Analyst for the NOAA Marine Debris Program

After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the Alaskan coastline experienced a rise in debris washing ashore. Although there was an increase in many types of debris, the abundance of expanded polystyrene (think foamed plastic) increased on some beaches by as much as 1,600% from 2008 to 2012. This spurred interest by NOAA scientists at the Auke Bay Laboratory in Juneau, Alaska, to explore the interaction between this foam debris and an important Alaskan fishery species: pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha). The researchers were interested in both determining the potential of juvenile pink salmon to ingest small foam pieces and understanding the physiological consequences of ingesting foam debris (such as, would ingesting foam alter their growth rates?). Through support from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the team began an experimental study to address these questions.

Foam debris on a beach.

Polystyrene and other plastics on a remote beach in Alaska in 2012. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

To measure the amount of polystyrene foam ingested and to test the impact of ingestion on growth, researchers mixed polystyrene foam pieces with food and fed the mixture to juvenile pink salmon for five weeks. The researchers developed a methodology to accurately measure the amount of polystyrene foam in the gut contents of the fish. Weekly measurements of the length and weight of fish were taken and after five weeks, this new methodology was used to record their stomach contents. In addition, nucleic acid (RNA/DNA) ratios within the fish were evaluated to examine fish growth rate at a cellular level.

Although the nucleic acid ratios showed differences between foam-fed fish and those that did not ingest foam, there was no difference in growth (fish weight and length) between the two groups. The researchers postulated that the difference could be from the body’s response to the introduction of toxic chemicals from the ingested foam. Overall, the experiment showed that polystyrene can be consumed by juvenile pink salmon when it is present in the ecosystem.

The scientists noted that this was a short-term study and suggested longer exposure studies in the future to more definitively test the effects of polystyrene ingestion on the growth of juvenile salmon. They also suggested that varied feeding levels may better reflect fish behaviors and feeding patterns in the natural environment.

For more on research projects supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, visit our website.

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Removing Marine Debris in Alaska

Although preventing marine debris is the ultimate solution, removing debris as it accumulates on our shores is an unfortunate necessity. In Alaska, there are currently some pretty cool removal efforts underway to clean up Alaska’s coasts, which are often remote and difficult to access.

The Island Trails Network (ITN) is addressing the issue of debris in remote areas in an innovative and unique way! This effort focuses on Shuyak Island, an area rich in biodiversity that’s located in the western Gulf of Alaska. This location is exposed to high winds and strong currents that cause marine debris to build up, but also make it difficult to access. To solve this problem, ITN recruited qualified volunteers from around the world to come to Alaska and clean the shoreline using sea kayaks, collecting debris and moving it to more easily-accessible areas, where it is later removed and analyzed. Learn more about this project here.

In communities across the Bering Sea, another removal effort is underway. The Sitka Sound Science Center is working with local communities to remove large accumulations of marine debris from critical areas in remote Alaskan locations. Working to restore habitat and prevent harmful wildlife interactions, they’re removing debris and assessing its composition, accumulation rate, and sources. Learn more about this project here.

There are lots of cool things going on in Alaska! Keep your eyes on our blog this week for more, and check out our website for more interesting marine debris projects in Alaska and throughout the country!

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Alaskan Marine Debris: A Podcast

The NOAA MArine Debris Program 10 year anniversary identity marker.Over the past ten years, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has worked to increase our regional presence and spread our reach throughout the country. These efforts have expanded our program to now include ten regions and eighteen staff. Seven years ago, Alaska became an official region of the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Interested in some of the marine debris work done in the United States’ largest and most remote state since then? You’re in luck! Last week, the National Ocean Service released the newest episode of their podcast, “Making Waves,” featuring our very own Peter Murphy of the NOAA Marine Debris Program! Peter’s been with the program for over eight years and in the role of Alaska Regional Coordinator since 2009. Check out some of his thoughts and stories about the work that has been done in Alaska during that time by listening to the podcast here.

A derelict vessel surrounded by sea ice and rough waves.

This derelict vessel, the F/V Ocean Clipper, was removed from Alaska’s St. Paul Island in 2010. (Photo Credit: NOAA)


Blue Fox Bay Lodge Marine Debris Cleanups

By: Colleen Rankin, Guest Blogger and Resident of Blue Fox Bay

Blue Fox Bay Lodge is located on a bay on the northwest corner of Afognak Island, the second largest island in the Kodiak Archipelago in the Gulf of Alaska. Two of us, Colleen Rankin and Jerry Sparrow, are lucky enough to call this wilderness home.

Arctic ERMA image of Blue Fox Bay and vicinity.

Arctic ERMA image of Blue Fox Bay and vicinity.

In 2012, through the outreach efforts of the Marine Conservation Alliance (now administered by the Sitka Sound Science Center), we were selected to receive a grant to remove marine debris from the remote beaches in this area. During the next three years, our efforts continued with the support of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, a private grant, and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, with funding provided by the Japanese government to clean up tsunami-related debris.

Along with a few volunteers, we have removed over 32,000 pounds of varying debris. Fishing gear including nets, lines and buoys, have made up the largest portion by weight. Nets and lines can also collect other items as they move through the water and we have found clumps of this derelict gear with over 30 different debris pieces entwined. Foam debris has increased significantly over the years and is very attractive to the bears that live here; we have found where they shred it and carry it into the forest. Plastic is the material that best represents the lives of our modern society and we have found countless single-use items including drinking bottles, caps, food packaging, and many household and personal items.

Gaining access to such remote beaches has presented many challenges, including the expense. In many places, local stewardship is a great model for removal because it uses the resources and knowledge that are already in the area. This is especially evident when inclement weather can hamper efforts and local people can slip out for cleanups between storms.

Once we have contained the debris, the biggest challenge we face is final disposal. So far, the Kenai Borough has granted us a variance (a special permission needed due to restrictions on the disposal of marine debris in many Alaskan landfills) and so a portion of the debris has gone to their landfill. Some debris has gone to local fishermen for reuse, and much of it has been given to local artists and gardeners. Some buoys have even been made into swings for kids. However, we are finding more broken plastic of no obvious use and a major reuse and disposal plan is a crucial step to deal with the issue.

Marine debris foam pieces were re-purposed as wall insulation. (Photo Credit: Colleen Rankin)

Marine debris foam pieces were re-purposed as wall insulation. (Photo Credit: Colleen Rankin)

We will continue to clean these important areas, particularly near bird rookeries, salmon streams, and high impact beaches. These efforts are crucial to protecting Alaska’s coasts from the harmful effects of marine debris.

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Past and Present Community Marine Debris Cleanups in Alaska’s Kodiak Archipelago: Tugidak and Shuyak

By: Tom Pogson, Guest Blogger and Director of Education, Outreach, and Marine Programs at Island Trails Network

Alaskan shorelines that are heavily impacted by marine debris are often remote and inaccessible. The Kodiak Archipelago, approximately 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, is greatly affected by marine debris because of its 1,500 miles of shoreline and its position in the Gulf of Alaska. Island Trails Network (ITN) is a community-based non-profit specializing in marine debris advocacy in the Kodiak Archipelago and works to address this problem.

A map of the Kodiak Archipelago in the Gulf of Alaska, including Tugidak and Shuyak Islands. (Photo Credit: Island Trails Network & Google Earth)

A map of the Kodiak Archipelago, including Tugidak and Shuyak Islands. (Photo Credit: Island Trails Network & Google Earth)

Tugidak (pronounced tug-ee-duck) – The Past
Tugidak is an uninhabited island that is located 120 miles southwest of Kodiak City and has one of the largest concentrations of marine debris in the western Gulf of Alaska. Funded by a NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) Community-based Removal Grant, ITN removed 86,000 pounds of debris from 16.8 miles of shoreline in the Tugidak Island State Critical Habitat Area in 2013 and 2014. Cleanup supplies were delivered to the island using large landing crafts, which were also used to remove debris. Volunteers and staff reached Tugidak from Kodiak in floatplanes, travelled and collected marine debris using ATVs with trailers, and camped in an abandoned mining compound a few feet from the surf. They collected mostly derelict fishing gear, totes, and buckets, but many industrial materials, household goods and plastics of all kinds were also removed. This project also included the creation of marine debris art and targeted Kodiak’s commercial fishing fleet to increase awareness of the problem.

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Shuyak (pronounced shoe-yak) – The Future
At the opposite, eastern end of the Kodiak Archipelago is the idyllic Shuyak Island State Park, whose shorelines have also been heavily impacted by marine debris. Shuyak is only about 100 square miles, with 60 miles of contoured shoreline and extensive protected waters. It is home to several species of Pacific salmon, Steller sea lions, sea otters, Humpback and Orca whales and harbor seals and its surrounding waters support commercial and sport fishing of salmon, halibut and cod. Because of the natural value and large concentrations of marine debris, cleanup projects on Shuyak Island are a high priority. However, like Tugidak, Shuyak is only accessible by boat or float plane and there are no roads or landing strips. A handful of residents live in Port William on the south shore, an abandoned cannery turned hunting and fishing lodge and the only settlement on Shuyak.

ITN was recently awarded another MDP Community-based Removal Grant for a cleanup of Shuyak Island. Over the course of 16 weeks during the summers of 2016 and 2017, ITN staff and volunteers will clean all of Shuyak’s 60 nautical miles of shoreline using sea kayaks to access beaches where the approach is often barred by shallow rocky reefs. The Shuyak project will also quantify the types of debris removed, develop a representative display of debris from the area, build strategies to reduce common sources of debris using a community forum, and estimate the rate of re-accumulation of debris on a large stretch of shoreline.

Conducting marine debris removals from remote shorelines in Alaska is difficult and expensive; however, the benefits of restoring wilderness shorelines are untold. ITN thanks the MDP Community-based Removal grant program for enabling the completion of these cleanup projects in Alaska.