Colleen Rankin is a debris cleanup veteran. She lives in Blue Fox Bay, Alaska. Colleen regularly hauls debris from miles away back to her home, where she re-uses whatever she can and stores the rest for eventual disposal.
I am fortunate to live in one of the most remote locations on Earth. I have one seasonal neighbor 5 miles away and another family 25 miles from there. The closest town is 40 miles from us. All of us live on different islands separated by the powerful waters of the Gulf of Alaska. To live here is to witness the rhythm of the interdependent cycles of life on these beaches ̶ the sea depositing kelp and seashells on the shorelines, creating what I call the line of life. We see bears, birds and other animals foraging in them. We call it the ocean’s gift of nutrition. I have felt a part of an ancient world. But that is changing. And even here on the coast of Alaska, I’m surrounded every day by reminders of people from far away places.
That’s because the beaches near my home are literally covered in plastic, trash and netting. I take my skiff out and fill it with debris, stopping only because the boat is full to capacity. The beaches are accumulating trash at an alarming rate, and I am giving back to this beautiful place that has enriched my life so much in the most obvious way I can. And that is cleaning the beaches, sometimes the same beach over and over.
The Bering Strait—the only marine gateway between Pacific and Arctic oceans—is a key biological hotspot. As this recent blog post explained, the strait hosts an extraordinary abundance of wildlife. Every spring, huge numbers of marine mammals and birds migrate north through the strait on their way to Arctic waters.
In recent years, the Bering Strait has also turned into a hotspot for shipping. As sea ice in the Arctic retreats, vessel traffic is growing steadily. A recent analysis by the U.S. Coast Guard notes that “commercial ventures in the Arctic have increased maritime traffic in the Bering Strait. From 2008 to 2012, traffic through the Bering Strait increased by 118 percent.” Many types of vessels contribute to the growth in maritime traffic. Some of these ships provide supplies to coastal communities, some support oil and gas activities, and some travel between Europe and Asia across the Arctic Ocean on the Northern Sea Route along the Russian Arctic coast.
This past Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard released a report on its investigation into the grounding of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk near Kodiak, Alaska on December 31, 2012. A tug lost control of the Kulluk in heavy weather on the way to Seattle after Shell’s failed attempt to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean in 2012.
The Coast Guard report provides a detailed account of the events before the Kulluk ran aground and identifies a number of causal factors, including lack of experience in Alaska waters, failure to recognize risks, use of inadequate equipment, insufficient planning and preparedness and major problems with the primary towing vessel.
Photo: Valdez-Cordova Census Area County, Alaska/Creative Commons
On March 24, 1989, a few hours after the Exxon Valdez spill began, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper and I boarded the tanker. At the time I was serving as Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation. We flew on a single-engine floatplane from the town of Valdez to a cove near the tanker, hitched a ride on a Coast Guard boat, climbed a long rope ladder dangling from the deck, and found our way up to the bridge. From there, we could see that there was hardly any response activity underway.
After several hours, we flew back to Valdez, where we went directly into a community meeting—still wearing our oily boots—to report on what we had seen on the water. Already on the stage of the community hall were Exxon officials, who had arrived from Houston. The auditorium crackled with tension; the audience, including many fishermen—who for years had opposed the shipping of oil by tanker and who felt that their livelihoods were at stake—were angry and frightened. It reminded me that a big oil spill is always a human crisis, not just an environmental disaster.
Picture five oil rigs in your nearby ocean. These oil rigs are different sizes and operate in different locations and at different times. Each of these rigs has an impact on marine life and water quality, but each to a different degree.
When the individual impacts of each of these rigs accumulate over time and space, it is known as “cumulative effects.” Think of this like a snowball fight. It’s easy to dodge snowballs when you’re up against one other person. But when five people are throwing snowballs at you, it’s much harder to avoid getting hit. And the more hits you take, the more bruises you’re bound to get.
Cumulative effects recognizes that the impact of an individual action may be relatively minor on its own, but could be much more significant when considered in combination with the effects of other past, present and future actions. Effective assessment of cumulative effects is one of the most challenging issues in resource management.
Scientists, artists, educators, citizens—we all view the world through different lenses but we can agree on one thing: there is no place for plastics in our natural environment. This was the sentiment that brought together Team GYRE, a group of 14 experts from drastically different backgrounds—science, art, education, film—to research, educate and eliminate marine debris from the ocean.
Over the course of seven days, my teammates and I surveyed some of Alaska’s most remote beaches in an attempt to document the scale and scope of marine debris on the vast coastline. Alaska is unique in that the magnitude of debris on its isolated pocket beaches are is among the largest concentration of plastics and trash on this planet, yet adjacent to these artifacts of human consumerism, magnificent wildlife thrive both above and below the ocean’s surface.
The video above, produced by National Geographic, perfectly illustrates this contrast.
In this video that I shot during the trip, I explain what I saw on my journey, from marine debris that would dwarf a human to breaching humpbacks, fin whales, mothers and their calves. Yes, we have blemished these landscapes, but the incredible wildlife that still thrive there is all the more the reason to continue our work to keep trash out of our waterways and our ocean.