Commentary: Debris survey under way; salmon product smoothes skin

Marine debris trackers are taking to the air any day to get a better idea of where and what is washing ashore from last year’s devastating tsunami in Japan. Best “guesstimates” claim at least 1.5 million tons of debris are afloat on and under the current driven waters that routinely cover Alaska coastlines.

The State has funded a $200,000 systematic aerial survey by Airborne Technologies Inc. of Virginia that will span waters and beaches from Cold Bay to Ketchikan to get a more complete view of the debris problem.

“That should give a good picture of where the debris is concentrated and some idea of the makeup and quantities of it,” said Merrick Burden, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance. “That allows us to have the next conversation about what is it we are really talking about — is it a $1 million or a $40 million problem? Then we can start putting together a plan of attack. Right now we don’t have that level of information.”

The MCA Foundation took the lead on debris tracking and radiation monitoring efforts in January when sightings began appearing a year earlier than expected. The group deployed experienced clean-up contractors over several months to multiple beaches at Sitka, Craig, Yakutat and Kodiak where debris was most likely to hit first.

A report released last week said while heavy snow was a hampering factor in all regions, seven trips to Craig showed patterns of early debris; 12 trips to Sitka yielded 1,600 pounds of mostly Styrofoam debris, and 34 percent of the debris found in June was tsunami related.

At Yakutat, in 10 trips, the crew hauled away 95 large Styrofoam blocks and 52 floats, along with 48 large black buoys; seven trips to Kodiak were foiled by bad weather. No radiation was detected at any of the Alaska sites.

The amounts of Styrofoam are very worrisome, Burden said, because it breaks up into tiny particles that look like food and can be deadly when it accumulates in fish and birds.

Much of what is coming ashore now are lightweight, wind driven objects, but many unknowns are riding below the surface.

“What we do know is that it will be a different type of debris,” Burden said. “The next level will be more submerged and we don’t know what it will be, although it is likely to be docks and things of that nature like we have seen on the West coast. The third category should be almost entirely underwater and driven by currents. That will be something else entirely.”

Meanwhile, questions remain over who will fund further debris monitoring and clean up efforts.

“When it comes to the state and federal response, we see a bit of a road block,” Burden said. “There is an information gap that needs to be filled. Right now we have a lot of questions about the scope of the debris problem. With the aerial survey we can acquire enough information and data to put together a plan and that should get things moving.”

The MCA Foundation plans to begin a “hot spot” clean up in Alaska by mid-September. Mariners can report debris sightings and see pictures of cleanup efforts at

Find the marine debris report at


Deadline sticks

Fishermen and Alaska Native groups are jubilant at the Environmental Protection Agency’s refusal to extend the 60-day public comment period on its draft watershed assessment of the Bristol Bay region beyond July 23. The extension was requested by the Pebble Partnership and had the support of the Parnell administration.

The EPA said in a draft assessment in May that the possible failure of a dam holding waste from a large scale mine near the headwaters of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery could wipe out or degrade rivers and streams in the region for decades. Since then the agency has held hearings in six Bristol Bay communities, as well as in Anchorage and Seattle. Nearly 2,300 people attended the meetings and provided more than 450 oral testimonies.

More than 90 percent of the people at the Bristol Bay region meetings supported the watershed assessment and the current timeline, according to Bristol Bay Native Corp.

“We commend the EPA for recognizing that further delay would not be beneficial,” said Jason Metrokin, President and CEO of BBNC.

“It was the right thing for EPA to stay with their original timeline. There is overwhelming support for the Watershed Assessment,” said state Rep. Bryce Edgmon, who represents the region in the Alaska Legislature.

Senator Lisa Murkowski was not pleased. She said in a press release that the July 23 deadline “doesn’t allow for Alaskans to offer their comments because of the busy summer season” and that “it demonstrates, once again, that the agency does not understand Alaska.”

To the contrary, Sen. Mark Begich said he believes the public has ample time to have their say.

“Believe me, Alaskans have never had a problem giving their opinions and meeting a deadline,” Begich said in a phone interview.

Opponents to the Pebble mine are urging the EPA to use its power under the Clean Water Act’s to protect Bristol Bay from future large-scale mining developments. Since 1972, when the Clean Water Act became law, the EPA has used this authority 13 times.

The EPA will provide another opportunity for public comment during a peer review meeting for the draft watershed assessment in Anchorage on August 7. The 12-member peer review panel will accept comments on several “charge” questions relating to the science used in the assessment. For more information and to read the charge questions, visit

Submit your comments through July 23 at


Salmon skin cream

A chance discovery by farmed salmon hatchery workers has spawned a line of skin care products that keep skin softer and younger looking.

“Aquapreneurs” in Norway became curious several years ago after it was noticed that hatchery workers who spent long hours handling salmon fry in cold seawater had softer, smoother hands. Researchers at Norway’s University of Science and Technology discovered the skin softening component came from the enzyme zonase, found in the hatching fluid of the salmon eggs.

The enzyme’s task is to digest the protein structure of the tough egg shells without harming the tiny fish. The scientists hailed this dual ability as the secret behind the beneficial properties for human skin.

Now, Norway-based Aqua Bio Technology, which develops marine based ingredients for the personal care industry, has launched the zonase infused product as Aquabeautine XL to make the name more user friendly, and it has signed with a major distributor in South Korea. The product also is available in Europe. Another personal care product using salmon hatching fluid is also set to be launched at the end of the year, according to ABT’s website. (See more at


Salmon jam!

Check out three days of fish and music at Salmonstock, Aug. 3 to Aug. 5 in Ninilchik.

07/12/2012 - 9:36pm