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Ocean litter is everyone's problem My turn

Posted: Monday, July 09, 2007

When I was out in the Bering Sea last summer I learned an Aleut saying: "Ayagagnax Anagix Ukudax" or "One who walks usually finds something."

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And sure enough, you don't have to walk far in the Aleutian or Pribilof Islands to find something: tangles of trawl nets and crab lines, old fish totes and rusty 55-gallon drums, fishing floats, plastic buckets, water bottles, you name it.

It is marine debris, and it is recognized as one of the most pervasive problems facing the world's oceans and coastlines today. And not just because marine debris is an eyesore; it's a killer. Ghost nets kill fish, and nets, line and packing bands entangle marine mammals. Seabirds mistake brightly colored plastic as food and starve with gullets full of plastic scraps, bottle caps, even cigarette lighters.

Where does it come from? Nationally, 60 percent of this trash is typical litter - food packaging and pop bottles thrown away by people who live and play along the coast. Another 30 percent is made up of cigarette butts. It's the same here in Juneau and other Alaska cities where most debris comes from close to home.

But go along the outer coast and most debris is nets and line, derelict fishing gear. In the Bering Sea, where more than half the nation's seafood is harvested, marine debris is almost all fishing-related - but not necessarily all of it comes from Alaska. Ocean currents carry a huge amount of debris to Alaska from Asia. In fact, most of the fishing floats and nets you'll find on beaches here come from foreign fisheries or, because plastic doesn't go away, foreign vessels that operated in Alaska waters decades ago.

The labels on many plastic bottles tell you they come from Korea, China and Russia. A bottle found on Unalaska Island hailed from the United Arab Emirates.

The MCA Foundation was largely founded to do something about marine debris in Alaska, and, with a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we had 2,200 bags of trash removed from a single island in Prince William Sound last summer. We worked with tribal groups in the Pribilofs, cleaned five fur seal rookeries on St. George and pulled 10 tons of debris from just 2 miles of beach on St. Paul Island.

In Norton Sound, we partnered with a local fishing company and hauled 30 tons of trash including 200 gillnets and 30 derelict skiffs off beaches near Unalakleet. These cleanups are continuing this year, and we're expanding work in Southeast Alaska, Kodiak, the Aleutians and Bristol Bay.

Picking it up is only part of the solution. We're also working to develop a marine debris curriculum in the schools and fishermen's training programs to stop debris before it enters the ecosystem. And we're looking at ways debris can be recycled.

What can one do about marine debris? First, don't add to the problem. If you're out on the water this summer, stow your trash and pack it home. Secondly, start picking up. Community beachwalk programs, such as this fall's International Coastal Cleanup day, are a good start to get plastics out of the ecosystem.

Lastly, report accumulations of marine debris to the MCA Foundation. In five years, its cleanup efforts have steadily increased. It needs reports of where debris accumulates.

Report debris online at www.mcafoundation.org or e-mail at marinedebris@ak.net. The foundation is compiling these reports into a database of debris to help plan future cleanup efforts.

Take a walk on a beach anywhere and one will that find marine debris is a huge problem. But it is also a man-made problem that's within our ability to solve, and the MCA Foundation is committed to doing something about it.

• Bob King is marine debris coordinator for the Juneau-based MCA Foundation.

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