Surge of unusual foreign plastic found across region
Around the end of July and beginning of August, communities throughout the region began noticing an unusual amount of plastic debris washing up on their beaches. Reports came in from Gambell, Savoonga, Nome, Unalakleet, Diomede, Wales and Shishmaref. Most of the debris appears foreign in origin, with bottles and packaging showing Russian and Korean writing.
Community members across the region have been mobilizing to clean up the trash, but the exact source of the debris remains unknown.
Austin Ahmasuk, Kawerak’s marine advocate, said that he had never seen such a big a surge in marine plastic. “To this extent it has not happened before,” he said.
He said residents across the region have called in expressing their alarm at the sudden deluge of plastic, which has been found on beaches and caught in fishing nets.
A Kawerak press release documented a number of specific reports, including one from August 3 in which two Gambell residents filled 19 trash bags with plastic over a three-mile stretch of beach, each bag weighing around 50 pounds. Other written reports have come from Savoonga, Unalakleet and Nome, and Ahmasuk said they have also received reports from Diomede.
Robb Kaler, a seabird biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a Strait Science ZOOM presentation from Nome’s Northwest Campus on Thursday that he received a report of 124 pieces of plastic with Russian writing from the Sinuk River near Nome. For comparison, he knows of just one other report of debris with Russian writing in the last four years.
Kaler had a call with NOAA, the Coast Guard, and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to see if they could “hindcast” the debris, using wind and ocean current data to estimate where the debris may have come from based on where and when it washed up. But the unpredictability of weather patterns and the debris’ foreign origin make it difficult to trace, he said.
Meanwhile, local residents have been saddled with the immediate fallout. “Folks have taken it upon themselves to clean up the beaches and document this trash,” Ahmasuk said. Kawerak has also been organizing cleanup efforts, collecting information about the debris, and urging state and federal agencies to take concrete action.
Anyone who sees unusual plastic debris on the beach is encouraged to take photos and report it to Austin Ahmasuk at (907) 443-4368 or email@example.com.