Foreign trash continues to wash up on regional shores
Regional residents across the Bering Strait/Norton Sound have continued to report unusual amounts of foreign trash washing up on their beaches in what seems to be a continuation of the debris pulse that started in late July. The trash appears to come from the Russian side of the Strait. Although the federal government continues to work on addressing it, little headway has been made in preventing more from washing up.
Ken Stenek in Shishmaref saw the issue firsthand when his son and daughter brought him a 16-foot bamboo pole they found on the beach. Stenek had never seen anything like it, but there it was, with eight hooks sticking out of one end in a circular pattern. Subsequent research found that the pole was a pike pole, a tool used by the Russian commercial longliner fleet to grab the buoy attached to the longline string of hooks and begin reeling in their catch. Other items washed up in Shishmaref this fall involved consumables.
“We get Russian liquor. Russian beer bottles, vodka bottles, et cetera,” Stenek said. “General trash. We get Korean and Japanese stuff, too.”
Experts say that trash with Korean writing on it is likely to be from the Russian commercial fishing fleet as they often provision at the port in Busan, South Korea.
The trash has been even worse on St. Lawrence Island, where boots, clothing, fishing equipment, nets and all kinds of cans, bottles, plastic containers and even an entire chest freezer without lid, have been washing up in alarming amounts since the end of June. Other Bering Strait communities like Wales and Diomede have seen similar trash.
The amount of debris is particularly alarming to subsistence communities around the region that rely on fish, seabirds and marine mammals for food. Many of the objects have been containers for hazardous materials, such as roach killer or lubricating oil, and it’s unclear what effect they might have on critical food resources.
Peter Murphy, regional coordinator for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, has been spearheading the federal effort to respond to the spike in debris. Since August, his team has been trying to “hindcast” the debris, using data on wind and ocean currents to trace it from the beach where it washes up back to its source. Because of the inherent variability of marine weather, though, it’s a difficult proposition. “The more days you’re trying to model, the more uncertainty there is,” he said. “With the hindcast modeling, we’re trying to work weeks into the past from the original location. So, what ends up is a pretty big potential area.”
After months of working on the models, NOAA has been able to pin the source of the debris as likely somewhere southwest of St. Lawrence Island in the Gulf of Anadyr. Debris that hits the water there can make it even as far north as the northern Seward Peninsula and often comes ashore near Shishmaref, as water is forced north through the Bering Strait and loops back in a huge gyre in the southern Chukchi Sea.
The Gulf of Anadyr lies within the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and has seen increased ship activity this year. As the ocean warms and lucrative commercial fish like pollock move north, fishing fleets on both the U.S. and Russian side of the border have followed.
American trawlers are required to stay south of St. Matthews Island and the American longline fleet is allowed to fish the northernmost point for any federally managed commercial fishery, the US waters between Little Diomede Island and Wales. But Russian ships fishing in Russian waters are under no such constraints. The Automatic Identification System (AIS), which broadcasts ships’ locations for safety reasons, has shown unprecedented numbers of trawlers and longliners in the Russian waters of the Gulf of Anadyr this year.
While the trawlers have mostly moved south for the winter, AIS shows that the longliners are mostly still there. Russian naval operations may also be contributing to the debris – pieces of naval uniforms have washed up on St. Lawrence Island, and recent naval exercises in the Bering Sea may indicate an increased Russian military presence.
Industrial marine traffic through the Bering Strait has also spiked this year and continues at unusually high rates. Just last week, three tankers longer than 900-feet passed through the Bering Strait to the Northern Sea Route, a shipping route along Russia’s northern coast that has become more utilized as the Arctic ice recedes. Unseasonably high summer temperatures in Siberia this year may mean that the North Sea Route is still navigable later than ever before.
All of this activity raises the question of who might be responsible for the dumping of trash, if anyone can be held responsible at all. The intentional dumping of plastic and hazardous materials into the sea is prohibited by the international treaty MARPOL, which most major maritime countries have agreed to honor. Violators can face serious fines, and the law is strictly enforced within U.S. waters.
But debris that happens to fall off a ship is just bad luck, and proving intentional dumping can be next to impossible. “In this case it’s very difficult to say whether this was the result of intentional dumping or an accidental loss, and that’s unfortunately the case with a lot of debris that we see on shorelines,” Murphy said.
Some recent finds may provide clues about the ships responsible. One broken marking buoy from a Russian commercial Pacific Cod longline set washed ashore at Wales. This buoy still had the Russian identifying permit tag with the name of a Russian fishing company, Sigma Marine Technology, their fishing permit number and the Russian word for “Pacific cod”. Murphy said the tag could be traced to a specific fleet of longliners from the Sigma Marine Technology company, but not which specific ship, and it still didn’t prove that the dumping of the trash was from this fleet and whether if was intentional and punishable by law.
Accident or not, though, the increased volume of debris at sea is still a problem, and Murphy said another major prong of NOAA’s response effort is transboundary communication. “We’re working with Coast Guard and with NOAA International Affairs on ways to connect with the Russian Federation, both to share information and ideally find ways to prevent or reduce the chance of this happening again,” he said.
Not much headway on that front has been made since August, though. “International engagement has to go through the official channels, so that can take a significant period of time,” Murphy said. “That’s part of the reason we’re trying to approach this from multiple fronts.”
Petty Officer Nathan Littlejohn with District Seventeen of the Coast Guard said that if a large piece of debris like a capsized vessel is loose in American waters, the Coast Guard will issue a safety broadcast to nearby ships, but that smaller debris usually doesn’t warrant a Coast Guard response.
“We’re about protecting the environment and protecting our living marine resources,” said Kip Wadlow, a Coast Guard spokesperson. “We are aware there is marine debris out there, but the primary agency for marine debris in Alaska is going to be the NOAA Marine Debris Program.”
In Washington, some headway has been made recently to address the issue of marine debris more broadly. The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, which aims to curb marine plastic pollution and was cosponsored by Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, passed through the House of Representatives on October 1.
The bill would “improve our nation’s ability to respond to marine debris events, lead to greater international cooperation on preventing trash from reaching the oceans, and spark innovation to manage and reuse plastic waste,” according to a spokesperson for Senator Sullivan.
It would include the groundwork for an international agreement to ban the dumping of plastic into the ocean from the land. Getting foreign countries to honor existing agreements about dumping plastic from ships, however, is the responsibility of the executive branch and isn’t addressed by the new legislation.
As winter looms and the days grow shorter, the sea ice remains a long way from the Bering Strait. Fish and the commercial ships that harvest them are farther north than ever, and a huge bolus of warm water north of Siberia means the North Sea Route may stay open long after the fall’s last sunset in the Arctic.
“The amount of industrial maritime traffic and the size of the ships we are seeing today is unprecedented,” said UAF Marine Advisory Program Agent Gay Sheffield, who has worked in the region for decades. In addition to the increased marine debris, she worries about an increased risk for large industrial vessels traveling in the dark, in the relatively confined shared U.S./Russian waters of the Strait, with fall/winter weather, and a lack of U.S. response capabilities in the event of a large ship in distress.
“This marine debris event seems to be in response to a novel industrial maritime issue to our region. And I think it is a watershed moment,” she said. “We are all in this together trying to get this documented and the trash coming ashore to stop.”
Sheffield and Murphy agreed that local documentation was critical to understanding the scope of the issue and making prevention plans down the line, especially in these early stages of what may become a new normal for the region. “Moving into the late fall and early winter, keep reporting. Stay vigilant,” Sheffield said. “Know that every time you send a photo in it’s a clue that helps us all.”
Regional residents who find unusual trash on the beach are encouraged to take a photo and call Gay Sheffield at 907-434-1149 or Kawerak’s Marine Advocate Austin Ahmasuk at 907-434-0962. They can also email NOAA’s reporting system at email@example.com.