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St. Paul Island, Alaska Marine Debris Cleanup 2019 Ocean conservancy PHoto Blog by Patricia Chambers

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Welcome to St. Paul Island, a remote wind-swept island located in the heart of Alaska’s Bering Sea in one of the most important and biologically rich ecosystems in the world. The largest of the Pribilof Islands, it is home to more than half of the world’s population of northern fur seals, nearly 300 species of birds, sea lions, Arctic fox, reindeer and other plants and animals. It is also home to many Unangan, also known as Aleuts, who are part of the island’s vibrant community.

But the island’s location also makes it a focal point for marine debris carried by ocean currents. This poses a threat to this rich ecosystem and its inhabitants—both human and non-human.

(From top left, counter clockwise): Northern Fur Seal, Thick-billed Murre, Reindeer, Arctic Fox, Juvenile Fur Seals, Tufted Puffin & Thick-billed Murres (TIP: CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE)

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Partners working for a practical solution

In an effort to help alleviate the ongoing problem of marine trash on St. Paul Island, Ocean Conservancy teamed up with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and Trident Seafoods for a week-long marine debris cleanup in May 2019. Together, we removed nearly ten tons of trash from the island's northern shores, helping to protect some of its key fur seal and birding habitats.

These photos tell the story of the hard work, partnership and persistence it takes for this community to protect its remote island home from the unceasing onslaught of marine debris on its shores.

Can you spot the adult male northern fur seal on the beach (hint: circled in yellow)? The cleanup operations take place before most of the seals have returned to the islands and the crew is careful to not disturb the early arrivals. (TIP: CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE)
The debris consists mostly of nets, lines, buoys, floats and other plastics, almost none of which originates on the island.
From boots to bottles to buoys, the plastic floats in.
A watchful eye helps keep the buoys in the cart during the bumpy ride.

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Charge of the Cleanup Brigade

The cleanup crew kicks off with a morning meeting and safety briefing. After that, the day steadily ramps up into a flurry of activity, beginning with travel to the designated sites where we work the shore—stooping, pushing, pulling, digging, cutting, tugging and prying at the larger pieces of debris. Then there's the dragging and heaping of piles for the “haulers” to load and tow back with their 4-wheelers to the truck drivers. The truck drivers then load up even larger piles and transport them to the local landfill.

It takes serious teamwork and a cheerful disposition to continually lift the heavier lines and nets up and over the lip of the bluffs. (TIP: CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE)

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To haul or not to haul?

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Assessing the situation

The shoreline struggle continues as the beach cleanup crew navigates through tough uneven terrain, deciding what can be carried by hand or towed by a 4-wheeler over the lip of the steep bluffs.

Dragging a heavy tangle of line across the tundra.
Inspecting for hazardous materials, which require special attention.
Cutting countless pieces of tangled line from driftwood that floats in from faraway places.
A deadly nemesis to marine mammals—the notorious packing band.

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Ocean currents carry all sorts of marine debris.

What washes ashore...

Each item that lands on the island carries a story that the crew occasionally stops to ponder. Among the more unusual items, both organic and non-organic—glass fishing floats, whale baleen, a U.S. Navy submarine patch, and even a message in a clear plastic bottle written in Japanese characters on the back side of a mariner's guide detailing magnetic anomalies, dated October 17, 2018.

Examining a recreational fishing lure.
A prized ivory walrus tusk!
Some days brought Japanese glass fishing floats.
A uniform patch from the U.S. Navy Sturgeon-class attack submarine, "USS Archerfish". Commissioned: 1971 Decommissioned: 1998

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And finally...sort everything by hand & collect the data

At the end of the week, the crew gathers at the local landfill to sort the huge piles of debris into cube-shaped sacks. Each sack is weighed and the data carefully recorded.

Time, date, location of each cleanup site is recorded.
Not all buoys are equal—hard buoys are separated from the rubber buoys.
Packing bands are set aside to be counted and recorded.

St. Paul Island Beach Cleanup 2019 is a wrap!

The 20,000 pounds of marine debris removed from the beaches is securely wrapped and stowed at the local landfill where it waits to be hauled off the island. We are hoping that it will be removed and taken to a recycling facility as part of an expanded effort next summer.

The Ocean Conservancy team from left to right: Patricia Chambers, Andrew Hartsig and Michael LeVine. (Credit: Lauren Divine)

Want to read more about the marine debris cleanup on Alaska’s St. Paul Island, please visit us.

Credits:

All Photos: Patricia Chambers, Ocean Conservancy

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