Marine debris cleanup efforts in Alaska reached a milestone this year.
The Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation removed more than a million pounds of debris from Alaska’s 34,000 miles of shoreline since its program began in 2003.
“People ask how much is a million pounds? Think of it as getting four 747 cargo planes full of trash off the beach. It’s a lot of junk and a real accomplishment,” said program coordinator Bob King, adding that the group picked up almost 150 metric tons of trash this year alone.
The foundation has partnered with more than a dozen groups and communities to pick up debris from the panhandle to points far west.
The group had cleanups this year in Juneau, Prince William Sound, Sitka, Kodiak, the Pribilof Islands, Aleutian Islands, Bristol Bay, Shelikof Strait, Yakutat and Port Heiden.
“We had one of our biggest projects in Norton Sound,” King said. “We pulled almost 100,000 pounds of trash off of St. Lawrence Island with crews from Gambell and Savoonga hired by the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. And on top of that, they picked up another 20,000 pounds off of Golovin.”
One innovative partner is the Alaska Brewing Co., which provides “brew crews” and donates 1 percent of certain Alaska sales to a program called the Coastal CODE (Clean Oceans Depend on Everyone).
The marine debris in Alaska differs from other places in the nation, King said, where 60 percent comes from land-based sources, such as beach litter or urban storm drains. Roughly 30 percent is cigarette butts and other smoking-related trash.
In Alaska, it is mostly fishing related - but not necessarily from Alaska fishing operations.
“There has been intensive fishing going on in the Bering Sea for over 50 years, and there also are currents that bring over a lot of debris from Asia. So many of the nets picked up are scraps from old high seas drift nets, and trawl nets that are not a type used by our domestic industry,” King said.
Disposal varies depending on the location, King said, as certain communities have landfill capacity but many in rural Alaska do not.
“We are working with some recyclers in the Seattle area, and the Port of Seattle has been very helpful in putting together a program where fishermen can drop off their old nets and have them disposed of for free or at a low cost,” King said.
The MCA Foundation has so far invested about $1 million in Alaska clean up projects, most of which comes from federal funds as part of a nationwide effort.
“It’s hard work, but it is so gratifying to see the improvements to the shoreline, and also to reduce the threats to marine mammals, sea birds and fish,” King said.
Despite the accomplishment of removing a million pounds from Alaska’s shoreline beach, “there is still a lot more out there and it continues to come in, which is very troubling,” King said. “But more people are realizing that marine debris is a huge problem and we are committed to continuing this clean up effort in the years to come.”
Amid the growing chant of “drill, baby, drill,” one of the first areas that could be affected in 2011 is the nation’s “fish basket” - the nearly 6 million acres of the North Aleutian Basin, including the Southeast Bering Sea and Bristol Bay.
The region yields 40 percent of the nation’s wild seafood harvests, worth more than half a billion dollars to Alaska fishermen.
“The biggest red crab fishery happens there, it’s the catcher vessel operations area, it’s the halibut nursery grounds for the area and the major migratory salmon area,” said Joe Childers, president of United Fishermen of Alaska, which represents 37 fishing groups.
UFA is not opposed to oil and gas development, but worries that it poses big threats to Alaska’s fishing industry. The group has created an official position that claims Alaska’s seafood production is an integral part of our national food supply, and needs to be protected.
“We think of our operations as part of the national security equation, as well as the oil and gas that might come out of there. And we feel that our property rights to our fisheries are not protected at all,” Childers said. “In a lease sale, the oil companies are very likely to wind up with something akin to a property right and we would just be forced to move. We find that very threatening.”
Childers, who grew up fishing at Cook Inlet, said by its very nature, oil and gas development takes over traditional fishing areas.
“It involves putting in rigid physical structures, seismic testing, laying pipeline,” he said. “In every case, it is most likely that fishing activity will be changed, impaired or forced to move.”
Childers said UFA believes the Alaska fishing industry should be granted the same considerations as local boroughs.
“If there is going to be drilling, we want to require that a Regional Citizens Advisory Council be established immediately, and funded by the oil companies,” Childers said.
UFA also calls for, among other things, creation of a disaster fund to provide compensation to the fishing industry and coastal communities in the event of disruption of fisheries; research on the potential impacts of oil/gas development to seafood markets; and long-term scientific monitoring to assess impacts to fisheries and the marine environment.
National chairman Arni Thomson, director of the Alaska Crab Coalition, said he believes UFA’s position paper “has significant implications for all other U.S. states facing offshore oil development.”