ST. PAUL ISLAND - Huge, whiskered male fur seals called "beach masters" are back on St. Paul Island after swimming a gantlet of lost or discarded fishing gear floating in the Bering Sea.
The males, weighing up to 600 pounds, arrive at the island's rookeries in May or early June and wait for the females to come onshore to give birth and complete their harems. The scene at first appears idyllic on the treeless, wind-swept island, home to the world's largest population of fur seals.
But a closer look unveils an ugly truth. The fur seal rookeries of St. Paul are an unintentional dumping ground for tons of debris, from plastic bottles and tires to netting and rope in which some seals become fatally entangled.
Some of the junk comes from the domestic fishing fleet - Alaska produces more than half of the nation's seafood landings - but much of the debris bears identification from Russia, Japan, Korea and other parts of Asia. It's carried to the islands by ocean currents.
St. Paul Island and neighboring St. George Island, part of the Pribilof chain, have seen declining numbers of fur seals, which were declared depleted in 1988 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The downturn comes decades after the commercial fur seal harvest on St. Paul and St. George was stopped. The population of fur seals in the Pribilofs is less than half of what it was in the 1950s, when between 40,000 and 126,000 animals were harvested annually.
In 2007, 10,140 adult males were counted on St. Paul, a decrease of more than 10 percent from the previous year. Numbers declined 5 percent on St. George, according to the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. Overall, pup production in the Pribilofs is declining by about 6 percent a year.
Meanwhile, concerns about fur seals becoming entangled in debris and dying are increasing. From 1998 to 2005, there were 795 sightings on St. Paul Island of fur seals that appeared to be entangled in debris. Of those, 337 capture attempts were made and 282 fur seals were disentangled, according to the island conservation office.
"There is a culture that has abused the oceans for decades and decades and that has got to stop," said Bob King, debris coordinator of the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation.
Cleanup efforts are one way to attack the problem. Last year, 20,000 pounds of debris were removed from 2½ miles of St. Paul Island beaches - enough to fill two 20-foot truck trailers. Cleanup organizers expect even more this year.
In 2006, a stockpile of 157,000 pounds of marine debris were removed from St. Paul. It cost $114,000 to ship and dispose of the debris at a landfill in Washington state.
"Whoever lost that crab pot mess should pay for it," said Phillip Zavadil, co-director of St. Paul Island's Aleut tribal government Ecosystem Conservation Office, as he and a cleanup crew arrived at a rookery to find several large males surrounding an old crab pot and a mass of jumbled fishing line.
Zavadil approached to get hold of the line but had to back off.
"It is human garbage and I think it is our job to clean it up," said Katiana Bourdukofsky, 23, one of about 20 island residents participating in a five-day cleanup earlier this month.
The work is backbreaking. The masses of line and other junk can weigh hundreds of pounds. Removal is difficult, often requiring lifting boulders with a long-handled crowbar or digging out debris embedded in the shoreline.
"1, 2, 3, pull!" yells the crew as they try to yank free a piece of large trawl net. "Stevo, bring that prybar," yells crew chief Dustin Jones.
The crewmembers use knives to cut the large nets into pieces so they can be pulled from shore, loaded onto four-wheelers and trucks and taken to the dump.
In one day, the crew filled 25 1-cubic yard sacks with about 400 pounds of debris each.
"It never ends," Jones said.
Over the five-day cleanup, 80 sacks were filled.
When Tyler Melovidov, a 16-year-old redhead with a spray of freckles across his face, was asked why he's part of the cleanup, he said, "So this place doesn't look like crap, so the seals don't get entangled in the nets."
In 2007, crews collected 822 pounds of debris over a ¾-mile stretch of beach on St. Paul. This year, they returned to the same stretch of beach and collected 634 pounds of debris, mostly fishing gear. The debris also included a 34-pound tire and drinking bottles and other plastic containers, aluminum cans and shotgun shells.
Residents of St. Paul, through the island's conservation office, have been cleaning up the debris for more than a decade. Without funding, the effort was small-scale.
The Marine Conservation Alliance, a trade association representing Alaska's groundfish and crab fisheries, got involved several years ago to bring federal money to the cleanup.
Since then, the cleanup has gone statewide, said King.
The job is a big one. Alaska has 44,000 miles of coastline. Last year, $415,000 was spent on the cleanup. The budget for the 2008 cleanup is twice as large, King said.
No matter what beach is being cleaned in Alaska, it is more or less the same stuff - fishing nets, line, floats, and lots of plastic, King said.
Last year, 175 tons of trash were removed from Alaska's coastline.
In the Pribilofs this year, a trawl net weighing several tons was found. It probably dates back to the Soviet era, King said.
"You look at all the bottles, the majority of them are Asian. They have Chinese, Korean, Russian and Japanese lettering," King said. "Some is accidental and some is negligent, people without a thought throwing a bottle overboard."
The plan this year is to send much of the debris to a recycler in Washington state where it will be compacted and shipped to Asia. There, it will be turned into plastic pellets where it will be made into plastic items.