Plastic soup

Turning the Tides sponsors concert with Alaska Native music groups Pamyua and Northkut Wolf Pack, and actress-singer-activist Q'orianka Kilcher

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2008

Stephen Blanchett, of the Yup'ik-Inuit funk band Pamyua, was glad to be invited to perform in Juneau for an event celebrating the ocean. The band's ancestors and relatives have lived off the sea. The connection is a deep part of their culture.

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Photo Courtesy Of Pamyua
Photo Courtesy Of Pamyua

"We're happy to come down and be a part of (the celebration) and actually find out more," Blanchett said. "That's one of the things we really enjoy about performing in the state, is going to the communities and getting involved in some of the things that are happening." The group is based in Anchorage.

Pamyua, whose members include Blanchett and his brother Phillip, both from Bethel and Anchorage, Ossie Kairaiuak, originally from Chefornak on the Kuskokwim River, and Karina MĀller, who is Inuit from Greenland, will be performing at Ocean Celebration, to be held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 21 at Centennial Hall.

Put on by local non-profit Turning the Tides, Ocean Celebration was organized to raise awareness about the rapid increase of pollution in the ocean.

"We're trying to raise awareness that this is the situation and we have to wake up," said Dixie Belcher, Turning the Tides founder and director.

Other presenters and performers at the event include actress, singer and activist Q'orianka Kilcher, who starred as Pocahontas in the film "The New World," and local Tlingit hip-hop rappers Northkut Wolf Pack.

Pamyua has just returned from an international tour that took them from Denmark to New Mexico and now to Juneau.

Since the band's inception over a decade ago, they have transitioned from an a cappella group to a more funk-oriented band with a percussion section and back-up musicians. Blanchett and his brother are Yup'ik and African American and experienced different styles of music from each parent growing up.

"The range of our repertoire is from real tribal grooves with percussion, very percussive, to R&B and funk-oriented grooves," Blanchett said. "A lot of the songs that we're doing are historic and actually compositions of traditional dance songs that we've rearranged. We're still telling the stories and we're still dancing. That element is still there," he said.

Q'orianka Kilcher has dedicated herself to "pressing environmental and human rights issues," especially in the rain forest regions of the world. When she met Belcher and heard about Turning the Tides, she was interested in learning more.

"I started educating myself about the products that poison our oceans and I started realizing the problem runs really, really deep," Kilcher said.

"The ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth's surface and supplies up to 85 percent of the world's oxygen and nitrogen, so, sadly, this problem is not confined within borders. It's really going to hit us all and affect us all," she said.

Kilcher, who has extended family in Alaska and is second cousin to singer Jewel Kilcher, wants to inspire her generation to own responsibility and step up to the challenges of their future.

"I hope I can help to encourage other people, especially my generation, to participate in finding out solutions and actively be committed to preserving the health and life of our oceans," she said.

Ocean research scientist Dr. Marcus Eriksen agrees there is a strong need for people to step up and face the issue of pollution in the oceans. He recently sailed a boat made from 15,000 plastic water bottles from California to Hawaii to raise awareness of the plastic pollution issue.

"It's become a huge environmental issue as we keep adding to the list of species that are either consuming or becoming entangled in plastic marine debris," he said.

Eriksen works with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation studying the impact plastic trash has on the marine ecosystem and the implications of that pollution on the food chain.

"Plastic is a material that we create that is not biodegradable. It's built to last. It's persistent in a marine environment," Eriksen said. "Plastics absorb toxins and there are all kinds of toxins already washing down our coastlines."

Pesticides, PCBs, smog from cities, oil from cars and other toxins are entering the oceans and attaching to the plastic, he said.

"It doesn't mix with water. It sticks to plastic making plastic a toxic material. ... So we have these toxic little pills of pollution floating around the ocean and animals are eating it. We're finding now that pollution migrates from the plastic into the animals that consume it. So when you eat a fish, you're likely eating everything it ate, including pollutants from plastic," Eriksen said.

He described finding a Lantern fish three inches long containing 84 pieces of plastic in its stomach roughly 800 miles off the coast of Juneau.

"It's one thing to tolerate millions of tons of plastic trash 1,000 miles off our coast. Even though it's an ugly sight and has an environmental impact, it really hits home when we learn that those pollutants are ending up on our dinner plates in our homes. ... We're eating our own pollution," he said.

Algalita's research has found that there are six times more plastic bits than plankton in the water, making it so animals are mistaking the plastic for plankton, eating it and dying by the millions, Belcher said.

"It's been estimated that we are losing about a million seabirds a year and up to 100,000 sea mammals. Fish are eating them, shellfish are eating them. They don't biodegrade, but they break down into little tiny pieces and they become part of the flesh," she said.

"We cannot live without the ocean. We can't breathe without the ocean. It's declining and it's going faster and faster," Belcher said.

According to Algalita, in the North Pacific Gyre there is a swirling concentration of plastic trash known as "the garage patch" that covers an area twice the size of Texas.

Eriksen added there is no economically feasible way to retrieve the plastic trash that is already in the ocean, so something else has to be done.

"The solution is a cultural fix, to stop adding more plastic trash," he said.

"The words disposable and plastic should never be in the same sentence. It makes no sense and its irresponsible for our next generation to produce a material that is non-biodegradable. We make it so it does not go away, it does not break down. Then to make it disposable? To throw it away? There is no such thing as 'away.'"

Since learning about the impact of plastic trash on the ocean, Q'orianka Kilcher has cut back on her use of plastics and has begun carrying bags with her to the store. She even makes her own bags. And when a store worker tries to put her purchases in a plastic bag she says, "No thank you, it's bad for the environment."

"We get caught up in our little lives and forget about the rest of the world," she said. "Sadly, we are the leaders of environmental destruction and we're forgetting that we can't eat, drink or breathe money or profit. There's an absolute, beautiful interdependence and connection between all living things - the ocean, the earth, the air, the animals, the plants and humans, the list goes on. ... Some things don't have a price, but they do have value and we can't forget that."

• Teri Tibbett is a freelance writer and musician living in Juneau. She can be reached at

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