Traveling by kayak and armed with a battery-powered Sawzall, 30 volunteers from the U.S., Wales, Ireland, England, Australia and Singapore spent six weeks cruising the shoreline of Shuyak Island and collecting tons of trash that had collected there from all over the world.
Between June 12 and Sept. 14, groups of four to six volunteers working in two-week shifts removed more than 35,000 pounds of garbage along 45 miles of shoreline on the northwestern perimeter of the island. The Shuyak Island Marine Debris Removal project was spearheaded by the Island Trails Network and supported by a Community Marine Debris Removal Grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Tom Pogson, director of marine programs with the Island Trails Network, said that at the outset of the project, cleanup crews expected to spot the majority of the marine debris from the water and go ashore to bag it up.
“But as we started moving around even the protected waters of Shuyak we realized that the shorelines were horribly polluted.”
He said the quantity and variety of material found on the beaches was striking, as was the variety of countries from which the debris originated.
“There is stuff from all over the world,” he said. “From toothbrushes to jugs of dialysis fluid, light bulbs, waste oil, fish crates, jugs, buoys, floats, nets, rope. Most of the weight is probably nets and rope but there is an awful lot of plastic.”
The nets, lines and other fishing-related trash was expected, but the amount of household-related trash that had accumulated on the remote island was surprising.
“Drink bottles, fabric softener, household cleaners, all kinds of stuff that would come out of a town were on this island that is so far from anywhere.”
As they collected the trash, the crews studied the labels and realized that much of it had travelled thousands of miles before washing up on Shuyak Island.
“There was so much Oriental, Cyrillic, Indian, French, German and other languages, it wasn’t just English as you’d expect,” he said. “The trash that comes from other parts of Alaska, the trash that comes from the West Coast of the United States that is delivered here by the gulf currents was only part of it. Most of the products were foreign.”
On average each mile of beach yielded 800 pounds of trash. The heaviest concentration was 13,000 pounds found on one mile of outer shoreline. Pogson said the island’s geography seemed to sort the trash, with nets and lines being found predominantly in protected waters while plastics, including jugs, buoys and fish crates, found on the outer coasts where the wave action is more dynamic.
“We didn’t expect the back bays, the protected waters to be so polluted,” he said. “We expected to go cruising along in our kayaks and bypass all of the inner protected waters. I never thought we’d find so much.”
The age of the trash, some dating as far back as the late ’60s, also indicate that the beaches may never have been cleaned before but just how long it took for the debris to reach such high concentrations is difficult to determine.
Trash collected during the cleanup filled 196 high-capacity super sacks that were collected and transported to the City of Kodiak for analysis.
“We’re just biding our time to start sorting the stuff and doing the second part of the project, which is to analyze what we’ve got.”
Pogson and his colleagues want to engage the community in helping to sort the material, raising awareness about marine pollution. They also hope to identify the origins of the trash. With that information, the Island Trails Network hopes to hammer home the fact that marine debris is a worldwide problem affecting all who live near, work and recreate on the world’s oceans.