Foreign plastic continues to wash up on region’s beaches
The surge of plastic trash that has been washing up on beaches across the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region has attracted the attention of national maritime agencies. The so-called “marine debris pulse” appears to have come from a one-time dumping event, but when and how the debris got dumped is still a mystery and what exactly can be done about it remains to be seen. One of the hardest hit areas in the region is St. Lawrence Island, which sits just miles from Russian waters and has had problems with Russian debris in the past. This time around, though, the amount of waste is unprecedented.
Ben Pungowiyi, acting president for the Native Village of Savoonga, was heading down the coast to his camp when he came across heaps of miscellaneous trash scattered on the beach. He described it as “cafeteria waste,” including plastic drink bottles and cardboard milk cartons.
“And along with the kitchen items I also came across some apples and onions,” he said. “They looked fairly fresh.” Most marine debris floats around the ocean for a long time before washing up on a beach, breaking down in the process. But the presence of fresh produce suggested that this trash was fairly new.
“At one point there was also that white oil,” Pungowiyi said, referring to the unidentified white oily substance that was found near his village about a month ago. That oily goo was reported to the National Response Center. Dead birds covered in the substance were sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin.
Samples of the oily substance were then sent to a lab in Louisiana, which determined it was biogenic – possibly used cooking oil, or fish oil produced by a fish processing ship. The samples are currently being processed by a lab at Texas A&M to be further identified, although no results have come back yet.
This time around, Pungowiyi found the oil covering more dead birds, including murres, fulmars and a snow goose. The birds looked emaciated, and he was unsure whether they had died from ingesting the oil or plastic, from starvation, or from some combination. He also found a dead seal among the trash, although it was partly decayed and may have been there before the debris washed up.
Around the same time, Kawerak’s Marine Advocate Austin Ahmasuk found and photographed 74 pieces of trash on the beach west of Nome. Those were mostly plastic drink bottles, many with Russian labels and some with labels in Korean. He also found some cans of butane and other aerosols.
A bit later, Alaska Sea Grant’s Gay Sheffield heard reports of water bottles with Russian writing in Unalakleet. She also received reports of a beer bottle and a shampoo bottle, both with Russian writing, washing up near Diomede and Wales, respectively. “That makes sense because all the water moves north in this region,” she said. “And that’s exactly what this trash is doing. We’re getting later reports as this stuff goes north. The communities to the north of us in the Strait and in the Chukchi are going to start seeing this.”
All the evidence points to a one-time dumping event, called a “point source release.” Given the makeup of the trash, Sheffield said, the release was likely from a ship rather than a land-based garbage dump. It’s still unclear whether or not the release was accidental or on purpose.
Dumping any kind of plastic debris into the ocean was outlawed in the seventies by an international treaty called MARPOL, which most countries of the world have signed. The treaty is enforced by the International Maritime Organization, IMO for short, and ships caught dumping plastic can face serious fines.
The U.S. Coast Guard monitors vessels on the American side of the Bering Strait but has little formal communication with their counterparts on the Russian side. Complicating the issue is the fact that any country’s ships can legally pass through the Bering Strait on their way into or out of the Arctic.
Wes Jones is the director of the Norton Sound Fisheries Research & Development arm of NSEDC. He’s been keeping an eye on the Russian fishing fleet in the North Bering Sea because fishing activities there directly impact fisheries on the American side, and he’s noticed some concerning patterns.
“The American and Russian fleets are drastically different in how they operate,” he said. While most American fishing vessels stay south of St. Matthews Island in the Bristol Bay area, Russian fishing vessels have been coming much farther north in recent years.
American vessels also come in and out of port much more frequently, offloading fish and garbage and picking up fuel and supplies. “On the Russian side, what we’ve been able to see, is that those boats go to sea, and then stay at sea for basically the summer months,” Jones said.
From what Jones has gathered, Russian fishing ships are resupplied by cargo ships that come up from larger ports like Vladivostok, and they deliver fuel and take fish and garbage back to the south.
He also said that the volume of ship traffic on the Russian side of the Strait has been significantly greater than on the American side, with around 70 fishing vessels this summer alone and 1,000-foot-long fuel tankers, twice the size of anything coming around the Seward Peninsula.
“In general, there’s a lot more activity on the Russian side,” Jones said. “The scale of the activity on the Russian side, I don’t a lot of people have a good handle on.”
He pieces together Russian activities through a combination of news articles and the Automatic Identification System, or AIS, which oceangoing ships use to broadcast their location for safety reasons. However, ships can turn off their AIS, so much of what happens in Russian waters remains unknown.
Peter Murphy is the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, and he’s helping coordinate the larger response to the trash pulse. Through the Coast Guard and the NOAA international affairs office, he said NOAA is “evaluating our avenues” for communication with the Russian government, but he wasn’t hopeful that a specific culprit would be held accountable.
“It’s very difficult typically to fingerprint debris to any one specific source,” he said. “The challenge is that for a lot of these items, if they’re relatively generic, it can be very difficult to trace it back to a specific location.”
In the meantime, NOAA has been working on research to evaluate the impact of the debris, setting up a reporting system, and trying to get support for immediate cleanup. Even that has yet to materialize, though, because grants to fund cleanup projects have a long application process. “It can take many months, but we’re trying to find options for more rapid support, to get support to communities that are being directly impacted by this debris,” Murphy said.
Petty Officer Nate Littlejohn with the Coast Guard said that a debris pulse is not something the Coast Guard usually responds to. If floating debris were causing a hazard to navigation, he said, they would issue a warning for passing vessels, but the Coast Guard leaves the handling of smaller debris to NOAA.
Senator Dan Sullivan has recently introduced legislation to combat ocean pollution through the Save Our Seas (SOS) 2.0 Act, which has passed in the Senate and is currently under consideration by the House. He said in a statement to the Nugget that he has “been working to link Bering Straits region leaders with experts and potential resources to tackle this trash, which appears to be sourced in Russia.” Senator Lisa Murkowski could be reached for comment.
Regional residents have instead been left mostly on their own. Jacob Martin, Tribal Resource Director at Nome Eskimo Community, runs a summer beach cleanup program around Nome, and said the local response has been strong. “As it turns out, there were actually people in the community cleaning up the beach by themselves,” he said.
As a result, East Beach has stayed relatively clean, although Martin did find some items with Russian writing, which is unusual for Nome. The bulk of the most recent debris has instead piled up in more remote places where cleanup happens less regularly.
NSEDC runs periodic projects to clean up ocean plastic over larger areas, but Jones said much of their funding was redirected to tsunami cleanup after the 2011 disaster that swept Japanese debris across the northeast Pacific. They still run two to four projects a year and have removed over one million pounds of debris to date, but have yet to receive funding for a project immediately addressing the most recent debris pulse.
In Savoonga, Pungowiyi said he’s hopeful that he will see some sort of immediate response in the near future. On beaches where trash and oil intermingle with dead birds, Savoonga residents still fish for trout and hunt marine mammals. “This is a subsistence area for most of the community,” Pungowiyi said, “and we worry that some kind of sickness may pass on from the kitchen items.”
Ordinarily, the Coast Guard would be around St. Lawrence Island this time of year to inspect halibut boats, but Pungowiyi said they haven’t made it there this year because of COVID-19. So, he’s sent pictures to multiple national agencies, and he’s waiting for a response. “I haven’t heard anything yet, so I’m hoping to hear something real soon,” he said.
Anyone who finds unusual debris on the beach can take a photo and email it to NOAA’s reporting system, email@example.com
They are also encouraged to report anything unusual in or around the ocean to Gay Sheffield at 907-424-1149 or Austin Ahmasuk at 907-434-0962.