01 Jul 2013

No Refuge: Tons of Trash Covers The Remote Shores of Alaska

A marine biologist traveled to southwestern Alaska in search of ocean trash that had washed up along a magnificent coast rich in fish, birds, and other wildlife. He and his colleagues found plenty of trash – as much as a ton of garbage per mile on some beaches.
By carl safina

I am back ashore after an unusual expedition that brought scientists and artists to witness and respond to beach trash on the shores of southern Alaska. I have good and bad news.

The expedition was called GYRE, partly because much of the trash spins out of the North Pacific Ocean gyre, and partly because of the trip’s message: what goes around comes around. The trip was conceived by the Alaska SeaLife Center and Anchorage Museum, with National Geographic and the Smithsonian involved. A resulting traveling museum exhibit will premier in Anchorage in February and then, like ocean trash, spend a few years traveling around.

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GYRE Expedition

Kip Evans/GYRE
Much of the trash scattered on Gore Point Beach and elsewhere in Alaska is plastic.
So what shall we take first, the good news or the bad? Actually, almost everything I saw was a bit of both, so let me share impressions. We traveled from Seward in southern Alaska and headed southwest for about 300 miles, with stops, to the shores at Gore Point on the Kenai Peninsula, Wonder Bay on Afognak Island, Blue Fox Bay on Shuyak Island, and Hallo Bay at Katmai National Park.

We met concerned citizens — paid and volunteer — who collect and catalog trash on some of the more accessible beaches (a very relative term in a roadless region where every beach requires a boat or an airlift). At Katmai’s Hallo Bay, rangers had worked for a week to pile and bag stuff that doesn’t belong on a beach or in a national park; we hauled four tons of trash from a four-mile beach.

That’s a lot, and on some of the coast there certainly is a lot of trash. On most of the coast, though, there’s little. Vertical, rocky, high-energy shorelines make up most of the region’s crenellated coastlines. Most of what washes up there in fine weather washes away in savage winter storms. It then funnels to quieter, protected beaches — most of which are crescents of sand at the heads of bays between headlands — and there, yes, it collects. That’s where you’ll find your trash, so those are the places we landed on.

Almost all problematic beach-trash is plastic. Plastic’s signature rot-less inertness makes it last many years. And so, it’s used for many things, including fishing nets. On beaches we visited, fishing gear made up a lot of
If trash washes up on a beach so remote that no one is there to see it, does it make a mess?
the trash. When I walk the beaches of the U.S. East Coast, I find a lot of toy soldiers, action figures, and balloons. Noticeably, by comparison, Alaska trash is adult, working trash. Yes, we found soft-drink and plastic bottles (how could we not?). But a lot of it was fishing net floats, fishing nets — old driftnets and new trawl nets — buoys, ship bumpers, and dock lines. There were also cargo nets and products that had spilled from shipping containers washed from freighters in storms.

How could we tell what came from shipping containers? Because we found fly swatters with the logo of one specific sports team, and hummingbird feeders, on each beach we visited. The fly swatters were everywhere. We also found consumer product containers — soap bottles, for instance — with various Asian and English writing.

Several people arranged to meet us to show-and-tell of their efforts to catalog and remove washed-up junk. Expedition member and California-based educator Kate Schafer observed that the people we met were all outraged, yet none was defeated. I liked that characterization.

But their effort is nothing if not Sisyphean. Trash comes off; more trash washes in. No end in sight. This is how it will be as far into the future as we can see. Unless we look past our worn-out noses and...

But before we talk about solutions, let’s consider a serious question: if trash washes up on a beach so remote that no one is there to see it, does it make a mess?

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GYRE Expedition

Kip Evans/GYRE
Crew members remove trash from Hallo Bay Beach in Alaska’s Katmai National Park.
This is not a deserted place. This is the last best megalopolis of life for hundreds of species of bird, fishes, and mammals long since driven from their strongholds farther south by human crowding and destruction of their living places. Alaska has the largest remaining salmon runs in the nation, but a hundred years ago, the world’s largest salmon runs came and went from the rivers of Oregon and Washington, especially the Columbia River, before it was dammed to the damnation of it native inhabitants, both human and fish. Grizzly bears, now more abundant in Alaska than anywhere in the world, were once commonly encountered out on the Great Plains (where Lewis and Clark confronted, shot, then wrote of them). Those open-country bears must have fed well on buffalo until white people decided to starve the Native people to near-extermination.

How we treat our lands and other living inhabitants reflects how we treat other peoples and how we treat one another. That’s why trash, even on a “remote” beach, insults our dignity and sullies our humanity.

The national park from which we removed one ton of trash per mile is frequently visited by tourists, who don’t want to hire planes and guides only to find garbage. In this not-remote place, plastic causes harm and suffering. Before it gets ashore, it causes harm and suffering to seals, turtles, fishes, and seabirds who die from tangling in it and from the consequences of eating it and who feed it to their young. I’ve seen all of these creatures in trouble with trash.

Clearly, plastic is a problem. One of its main features is that it greatly resists getting metabolized by bacteria or chemically degraded. It doesn’t
The price of plastic reflects the fact that the sellers privatize profits and socialize the costs.
go away. It just gets smaller. Animals eat it, and even at the scale of molecules, it’s still plastic. Plastic polymers have been found circulating in the blood of mussels. Some plastics are non-toxic; some have toxic additives like lead and metals. We found both of those additives in some (though not all) of the samples we tested.

Even the tons of plastic we took were destined to be piled ashore in a landfill, though much of it could have been reused or recycled. We just moved it. That’s what the market bears. It’s too cheap to recycle because the makers and sellers don’t pay the costs of disposal. As with many “cheap” things, the price reflects only the fact that the sellers privatize their profits and socialize the costs. Many things priced cheap are really rather costly.

Plastic collects. It collects near where many people live. It collects far from where people live, close to where other beings live. It goes where we don’t think it goes because we don’t think about where it goes.

And people who do actually know where it goes, don’t know where it comes from. It’s been 30 years since I heard about the first organized beach

View gallery
GYRE Expedition

Kip Evans/GYRE
Author Carl Safina holds a fly swatter that appeared to be debris from a shipping container.
cleanups, and I’m getting tired of hearing the experts explain how we don’t know where these nets come from or can’t tell how these bottles get into the ocean.

It’s time for environmentalists to stop simply categorizing the human-made debris. We need to start understanding how and where it gets into the ocean. The U.S. government has observers on fishing boats to monitor catches; why isn’t there a question on the form asking captains how many nets they’ve lost in the last year? Why not a survey asking if they’ve ever dumped an old net because on-land disposal is too expensive? Why no adequate sampling and surveying of rivers for plastic outflow rates, no adequate dialogue with shipping companies to understand rates of container loss?

I’d rather not land on another beach where a person with a clipboard is counting how many bottles have Chinese lettering, unless that person has a colleague studying whether those bottles come from rivers or fishing boats, and what can be done about it.

Why is there no initiative to pay for old nets, rather than charge for their disposal? And why is there no legislation requiring a refundable deposit for new nets?

Cataloging and removing trash is important, but some of the effort must now be peeled off the beach and applied farther up the trash stream. After all, we want this to stop, right? The only way to do that is to understand how it gets into the ocean to begin with.

The proper posture for addressing this problem starts with our personal choices in stores and community recycling. But that isn’t the solution. The solution lies in developing a new generation of materials whose lifetime
I’ve seen albatrosses on distant places dead, their innards packed with toothbrushes and cigarette lighters.
trajectory is scaled to their use, whose fate in nature is appropriately timed to their function.

I would not want a fiberglass boat that dissolves in seawater in under 50 years; but I would indeed want yogurt to come in a container that isn’t for all practical purposes eternal. Products with a two-week shelf life would be well-served in containers that take just a few months to rot in seawater and sunlight and release nutrients to bacteria.

Some people believe they “know” that the Pacific Garbage Patch is a mat of trash the size of Texas that’s so thick you can walk across it. In truth, there’s no such mat. There’s a very large area in the north Pacific where an accumulating array of trash is slowly whirling. It’s enough to kill sea turtles, and albatrosses eat enough of it that I’ve seen them on distant places like Midway Atoll and Laysan Island, dead, their innards packed with toothbrushes and cigarette lighters. But in most of the ocean the garbage is too sparse for a person to notice unless you’re really paying attention. Yet even that thin soup, clearly, is far too much for the health of the wild inhabitants.

On our Alaska trip, we saw plastic trash on each landing. But between landings, in the company of whales and seabirds, we saw many rugged shores seemingly devoid of debris, and we observed not one floating human-made object.

What we did see, in the greatest remaining remote wilderness of the United States, is that, as Nick Mallos of the Ocean Conservancy noted, “These shores are not untouched; now the challenge is, how can we keep them unspoiled?”

Correction, July 2, 2013: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly identified the location of Gore Point. It is on the Kenai Peninsula, not in the Pye Islands.


Carl Safina, a marine biologist, is the founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute and a research professor at Stony Brook University. He is also the host of the PBS television series Saving the Ocean. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about what is needed to save the bluefin tuna and how carbon levels in the world’s oceans threaten the survival of marine populations.

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In Maine there is no law requiring lobstermen to report or collect their lost gear. Any gear that washes up on a beach is considered "property" under state law, so even mangled traps have to be left alone or the remover risks a fine. Also in Maine, there is no state money dedicated to the cleanup of lobstering debris, and no impact fee on any part of the lobster industry for gear cleanup. The results are predictable.

Posted by Harold Johnson, 'The Flotsam Diaries' on 01 Jul 2013

On a very senseless and tiny good point on this, if the fly swatters work on Alaska mosquitoes they might be very useful to the finders ...

Posted by Jim McCallum on 01 Jul 2013

Great article Carl. It was fun to meet you at Gore Point. Wish we would have had more time to visit.

One point. Don't be fooled by supposedly clean rocky steep or vertical shorelines. Rarely are they clean. Often you can find nets and line that you can never see from a boat. Debris collects in the boulders or crevices which makes it impossible to see from offshore. Our crew just cleaned a mile of such shoreline and removed 24 tons of debris, most of it old commercial fishing debris. Furthermore, there are unnoticed tons of lines and nets hung up on rocks below the surface along much of the supposedly clean shoreline. But that is a story for another day.

Posted by Chris Pallister on 01 Jul 2013

How much of the trash is due to the Japanese tsunami?

Posted by Bob Koss on 01 Jul 2013

I'm not sure what the answer is. Voluntary compliance does not seem to work. The same story is told in every creek and river, every street and field. Trash is polluting every part of our ecosystem and the more volunteers pick up, the more debris returns.

I've participated year after year in annual clean ups on the Occoquan River, as well as "owning" 2 Adopt a Spot locations. Month after month, year after year, we just keep returning and cleaning up the same locations.

I identified with the volunteers you met: "the people we met were all outraged, yet none was defeated." Sometimes, I think what other good things I might do with that time I spend repeating the same cycle over and over :-(

Posted by Connie Moser on 01 Jul 2013

This is a useful website for informaton on Japanese tsunami marine debris:

Posted by EJH on 02 Jul 2013

Disturbing article plus thoughtful comments. This trash situation needs to reach a higher level of national attention. How about reaching out to Congress, maybe through the NRDC or other advocacy organizations?

Posted by Charlton M. Lewis on 03 Jul 2013

The only workable solution is to enact both national and international laws requiring 100 percent safe recycling of all human-generated waste materials. Otherwise, the growing human population and its growing economy will trash the biosphere to ecocide and extinction, a part of which we are seeing every day.

Posted by J.T. Ross on 05 Jul 2013

Thank you for once again asking the questions that we should be asking and raising the issues that lead to real solutions instead of making us feel dedicated and yet helpless in the face of the onslaught of this insanity.

I will be forwarding to many people I love and also to those who I believe can and/or will take action in the right ways.

Posted by Charlotte Vick on 07 Jul 2013

I grew up in midcoast Maine in the 1970's, where I collected many large garbage bags of plastic and styrofoam trash from beaches only to find those beaches repopulated with trash a few months later. In the winter of 1990 and 1991, I worked as an observer on Alaskan fishing boats in the towns of Kodiak and King Cove. At that time trash from fishing vessels was routinely thrown overboard without much consideration from anyone. No questions asked. A navyman friend of mine reported the same practice on American vessels to me. Twenty years later I believe this continues to be widespread practice among seafaring vessels from all countries.
Posted by Jaime Haskins on 13 Feb 2014

It is very disturbing that the dangers of plastics are well known yet no one is trying to find a better alternative. I realize that plastic is supposedly more sanitary but what is the true danger versus the true benefit? That is the question. We cannot continue to pollute the Earth we must come up with something else. What about cardboard lined with wax? Or going back to glass containers instead of plastic? Or a natural substance that is hygienic yet biodegradable? There needs to be more research for an alternative product, and it needs to be done now!
Posted by Dianna Addison on 09 Sep 2014

A marine biologist traveled to southwestern Alaska
in search of ocean trash that had washed up along a
magnificent coast rich in fish, birds, and other
Posted by Atiqa Ali on 23 Apr 2016



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