Gulf of Alaska Keeper
In the 90s, future members of Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) became increasingly concerned that Prince William Sound (PWS) and the northern Gulf of Alaska (GOA) coast were under growing environmental threats from industrial pressures, increased recreational activities, unsustainable fish and wildlife harvesting practices, harmful logging projects, and other damaging exploitive activities. Not all of the damage to this fragile and beautiful eco-system was home grown. Enormous amounts of marine debris…primarily plastic, including everything from massive derelict commercial fishing nets from offshore fisheries to household items drifting in from Western Pacific countries…smothered untold miles of shoreline in Prince William Sound and along the northern GOA coast. We decided to organize to better address these issues.
Marine Debris, Scourge of the Oceans
Initially, the marine debris problem was going to just be one of the issues we worked on with the help of community volunteers. Eleven years ago we started to clean PWS beaches with the help of volunteers. But, we quickly learned that the marine debris problem was far more extensive and difficult than volunteer cleanups alone could address. We also learned that the environmental impacts from marine debris were far more wide ranging and serious than any of us had comprehended. Furthermore, nobody was doing much about it and, because of the myriad marine debris sources, most thought the problem was hopeless. Consequently, we decided that we needed to make a much greater effort to combat the problem, which meant addressing the problem with a sustainable professional effort. That helped spur the creation of GoAK. While GoAK was formed to address any conservation or environmental issue in PWS and along the northern GOA coast, one of our primary goals was, and continues to be, combatting marine debris in all of its forms.
Thirty Thousand Hours, One Thousand Miles, One Million Pounds
Our crew and volunteers have been hard at work now for over a decade removing marine debris from beaches throughout PWS and along the northern GOA. Hundreds of volunteers have spent over 30,000 hours helping with our marine debris project over the past decade. GoAK has removed over a million pounds of toxic plastic debris from over a thousand miles of critical coastal habitat, restoring and enhancing rich inter-tidal ecosystems in the process. Miles of blocked salmon spawning habitat have been restored by removing blockages of nets and lines from the mouths of numerous salmon spawning streams. Marine mammals such as seals and sea lions have been protected from the tons of nets, lines and packing bands removed from their feeding and rearing areas. Tons of plastic debris have been cleaned from meadows and forested uplands backing storm tossed beaches. Hundreds of fuel containers and drums of industrial chemicals and petroleum products have been hauled from the shorelines for proper disposal. We have accomplished an incredible amount with all of our volunteers and partners such as NOAA, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the Chugach National Forest, the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation, BP, and Princess Tours. But sadly there is still much to do.
Awash in Tsunami Debris
The greatest challenge GoAK has ever faced lies in front of us. Japan suffered a devastating blow from the March 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. Thousands were killed and entire communities were crushed and washed to sea. Millions of tons of debris flooded into the Western Pacific. Millions of pounds of that debris are now inundating Alaska’s coastline, particularly beaches along the northern GOA. Wild and remote beaches we’ve cleaned over the past decade are again being covered with plastic debris, including immense amounts of broken foam such as Styrofoam, polystyrene foam blue insulation board and spray-in urethane foam insulation from all the crushed Japanese buildings. Thousands of containers of hazardous chemicals ranging from small bottles of household cleaning agents to large drums and tanks of hazardous industrial chemicals are also hitting Alaska’s coast. Once ashore they will rupture, disgorging their contents and harming sensitive inter-tidal ecosystems unless they are quickly removed. Thousands of miles of beautiful Alaska beaches are currently being impacted by the tsunami debris. We must all work together and rise to the challenge of correcting this environmental disaster. Our beaches and the wildlife that depend on them are national treasures. They deserve our best efforts to protect them.
Now and the Future
GoAK’s crew is presently working on the northern GOA coast cleaning beaches between Day Harbor and PWS. This is a wild, uninhabited shoreline with few safe anchorages. It is a tough and demanding area to work, but is the last stretch of GOA coast we must finish cleaning this season under our contract with the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. That project should be completed by early September. GoAK then plans to spend some time cleaning tsunami-debris impacted beaches on northern Montague Island and inside PWS before fall storms shut our field projects down for the year. We have already hauled 10 landing-craft loads, or 400-cubic yards, of mostly plastic marine debris to port this season. We will likely pick up another 100-cubic yards before the season is over.
With staggering amounts of tsunami debris arriving on our shores, it is difficult to project what the future holds for marine debris cleanup projects. GoAK has the next two seasons of projects planned for EVOSTC; the summer of 2013 on the Barren Islands and the summer of 2014 on Montague Island’s GOA beaches. However, the immense quantities of toxic tsunami debris flooding our shores may necessitate a change in these cleanup plans. Next season, the State of Alaska and the federal government through NOAA are likely to become heavily involved with the tsunami debris cleanup. GoAK anticipates considerable amounts of tsunami debris to continue impacting our shorelines for the next 4 to 6 years. A large-scale, efficient and sustainable cleanup effort must be mounted to combat this problem. GoAK will do everything it can to help and will adapt its cleanup plans for the next few seasons accordingly. To all of our loyal supporters, we say thank you, and we hope to see you in the field with us again in the future. GoAK needs you.