Where the world ends up when the ocean spits it out

Every day, debris from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami washes up on Alaskan shores. Lost crab pots “ghost fish” on the ocean floor. Tiny pieces of plastic almost indistinguishable from sand settle into Southeast Alaskan beaches.


The Pacific Ocean’s many types of debris may be vastly different, but all of it can pose threats to marine life, livelihoods, or, at times, human safety.


More than an estimated 5 million tons of debris washed off Japan during the tsunami, said Peter Murphy, Alaska Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. The Japanese government estimates 70 percent of it sank nearby; 30 percent of it floated away. Some of that 30 percent is still washing up on Alaskan shores, and it will be for a while.

Some places in particular – especially Outer Coast locations that “stick out” into the Alaska current, which runs north from British Columbia and curves along Alaska’s coast — collect significant amounts both tsunami and “normal” debris.

The spot hit the hardest in Southeast is Kruzof Island, near Sitka. Warren Island, near Prince of Wales, also earned a “red” coding on NOAA’s data map; so did a small areas of Chichagof. Parts of Yakobi Island and some other places are color-coded orange, the second most severe designation.

“The outer coast receives more outer ocean marine debris, but it’s amazing how much marine debris can make it inside Southeast from the outer ocean,” Murphy said.

Some locations’ light, high-floating debris, like Styrofoam, hard buoys, and building materials, increased manyfold after the tsunami. This winter has seen a resurgence of those things.

“Styrofoam is a big deal, because it’s hard to get rid of,” said Tory O’Connell, Research Director for the Sitka Sound Science Center. “They come floating in. Bears and otters play with them. The weather breaks them up, and then you’re left with pieces of Styrofoam everywhere.”

Nonnative species can also arrive on harder floating objects, though they haven’t found any that are alive, yet, she said.

“The take home message is, it’s going to take a while to clean even the tsunami debris up, because it comes in waves,” O’Connell said. “Some of it bypassed our shoreline, worked around Japan, and has come back again.”

Then there’s the “normal” debris. The center cleaned up what O’Connell estimates as around 120,000 pounds of that from beaches around Sitka even before the tsunami. In 2007 and 2008 — well before the tsunami — more than 20 tons of marine debris were removed from less than half a mile of shoreline at Gore Point, the most southeasterly place on the Kenai peninsula, Murphy said.


Container spills have left sometimes bewildering things in the water — thousands of fly swatters emblazoned with sport team logos. Rubber duckies. Nike shoes.

The Sitka Sound Science Center has been involved with marine debris removal since 2010, though O’Connell and others have been involved with it for longer.

Before the tsunami, they focused on derelict fishing gear that might entangle marine animals, as well as removing plastics from beaches.

“Quite a few trawl nets from westward — Japan, Korea — wash up on the beach here and create problems,” said O’Connell.

One of the hardest parts of cleaning up isn’t finding and gathering the debris — it’s removing it.

“For every hour we pick up debris, we spend two getting it to the disposal site,” O’Connell said. The Coast Guard has helped with that, at times, picking up gathered trash at Sea Lion Cove, a popular Sitka beach on Kruzof Island, via helicopter. So have local high school students.

One of the more modern threats to sea life is hard to pick up — they’re plastics smaller than five millimeters, also known as microplastics. Sometimes they form when larger plastics break down, which is inevitable with time, as, instead of decomposing, plastic just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Sometimes they’re designed to be small in the first place — in facial scrubs, or toothpaste, for example.

“There’s a really scary amount of small plastics that enter our drains every single day,” O’Connell said.

There may be less going down the drain, soon, in Alaska. This legislative session, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, pre-filed a bill — HB 14 — that, if adopted, would make the sale of cosmetics containing plastic microbeads illegal.

Another kind of “normal” debris is less bizarre, but still harmful to marine life. Auke Bay Laboratories’ Jacek Maselko was principal investigator for a paper on Dungeness crab pot ghost fishing, published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management in 2013. Researchers used sonar to find and identify abandoned and lost Dungeness crab pots, learning that 32 percent of lost pots “ghost fish,” and that Southeast Alaskan crab pots can ghost fish for up to seven years after they’re lost. Researchers are now testing pots with biodegradable panels, though they apparently degrade more slowly in Alaskan waters than the warmer waters of the Chesapeake Bay, in Virginia, which may be a problem, Murphy said.

“Reducing, reusing, recycling — it may sound cliché, but those choices really make a difference in the long run, especially as you add them up,” Murphy said.

So can volunteering, and staying informed on the issues.

“Marine debris is a big issue — one that can seem kind of overwhelming,” Murphy said. “But at the same time, it’s something people can take individual action on.”

“Coastal communities value our oceans, and so are concerned about marine debris,” O’Connell said. “We’ve had nothing but support from everybody — commercial fishing vessels, recreational boaters, the city of Sitka. We’re partnering with other communities as well. This is a global issue.”


There’s a long list of nonprofit, federal, and academic institutions working on the issue, including Gulf of Alaska Keeper, which says it has removed more than one million pounds of plastic from Alaska’s waters in the last 10 years; Alaska Marine Stewardship Foundation, Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, Island Trails Network, Airborne Technologies, Inc, Sitka Sound Science Center, Island Charters, NOAA, NMFS, Auke Bay Labs, USFWS, USFS, NPS, USCG, DOI, UAA, UAF and more.

Most of the Sitka Sound Science Center’s work is funded by the Alaska Marine Stewardship Foundation, the NOAA Center for Habitat Restoration, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and the state of Alaska.

Murphy spoke at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center’s Fireside Lecture on Jan. 23.


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