How do scientists choose their life’s work? For avid surfer Nick Mallos, a love of the ocean made marine biology an easy choice. But it was a black-and-white bird with a 6-foot wingspan that inspired him to focus his research on marine debris and clean up as many beaches as he can.
Nick first encountered the Laysan albatross during a grad school research trip to Midway Atoll in the North Pacific. With over 450,000 nesting pairs, Midway Atoll is home to the largest Laysan population in the world. The birds cover the 2.4 square-mile area, nesting in every available nook, from abandoned WWII gun turrets to grassy cracks in the pavement.
But once you look beyond those birds, “you realize there’s this scattering of plastic over the entire island,” Nick says. “It’s impossible to not see plastic – it’s just everywhere. The most perverse part of it is that it’s most heavily concentrated around every nest.”
The coast of southeast Alaska is renowned for its stunning beauty, and the pocket beach outside the town of Sitka was no exception: dark sand piled with tangles of storm-tossed logs and fringed with emerald grass. From a distance, the beach looked pristine.
But as our boat pulled closer, we began to see what we had come for: trash. Chunks of polystyrene foam, plastic bottles, lengths of line, bits of faded blue tarp and pieces of netting were wedged in the piles of driftwood and strewn in the beach grass. It was time to get to work.
I was in Sitka to take part in a series of beach cleanups that brought together staff from Ocean Conservancy, the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation and the Sitka Sound Science Center, along with volunteers from Allen Marine and Holland America Line. Together, we set out to find and remove marine debris that had washed up on the shores of nearby islands.
Debris in the wrack line shows a typical compilation of the foam and bottles that made up the majority of debris on East Beach. Credit: Ryan Ridge
Remote cleanups in Alaska are not your typical day at the beach; they’re difficult, physically exhausting and resource intensive. The possibility of debris from last year’s tsunami in Japan is adding to the already difficult task.
For the past six years, volunteers from Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) have spent hundreds of hours removing thousands of pounds of debris from the remote beaches at Gore Point, Alaska; recently though, cleanups on these beaches look very different. Twelve volunteers from GoAK and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS) recently spent six days cleaning roughly two miles of the Gore Point coastline. The cleanup, which was partly funded by a grant from Ocean Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and made possible through volunteer labor and donated boats, collected over 90 cubic yards of debris weighing more than 4,000 pounds—enough to fill an entire school bus. Half of that was foamed plastic.
Large, diverse quantities of debris are the norm at typical beach cleanups, but at Gore Point, data forms were dominated by counts of foamed plastic pieces and foam insulation. Combined, foamed plastic accounted for more than one quarter of total debris weight and over half the volume (greater than 45 cubic yards)—an amount nearly four to six times the average amount of foam debris documented during GoAK’s past cleanups. On one particular beach, a 93-fold increase has been recorded in foamed plastic (by weight) between pre- and post-tsunami cleanups. Patrick Chandler, Special Programs Coordinator at CACS and Alaska State International Coastal Cleanup Coordinator described the severity of foam flotsam:
After spending a long day pulling debris from logs, digging it out of sand and hauling it into piles for pickup, the most disheartening thing to see is a section of beach so covered with small bits of foamed plastic that you know it’s hopeless to try to pick it all up.
The likely source of this foam is insulation from buildings that were destroyed by the March 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and foam buoys commonly used in nearshore aquaculture—conjectures confirmed by Japanese marine debris experts. Continue reading »
Debris collected from Transect #1 at Sea Paradise Beach -- Nick Mallos
Mawar is the Malaysian word for rose, but Typhoon Mawar has been nothing but a thorn since we arrived in Yokohama, Japan. Like hurricanes, typhoons form when tropical depressions escalate into cyclones; in the Pacific, these cyclones are called typhoons, while in the Atlantic they are known as hurricanes.
This past weekend, Mawar delivered heavy rain and sustained winds of 110 mph to the Philippines, gusting up to 130 mph and taking the lives of eight Filipinos. We felt peripheral effects of Mawar in Japan as intensifying winds and strong gusts jostled boats and tested the strength of dock lines in the marina.
Surfers cross a debris-laden barrier island at Gamo Beach, Japan. Credit: Nick Mallos
A good wave is always worth the sacrifice. It’s a unanimous sentiment shared by surfers around the world. For surfers at Gamo Beach, Japan, though, it’s not pounding surf that yields a challenge.
Instead, a 200-meter-wide body of water requires them to paddle out to a barrier island, only to traverse another 100 meters of beach where remnants of houses, car parts, bottles and innumerable other tsunami debris items litter the sand. Still, they reach the waves.
Walls of water 10 feet tall formed this island, left this debris and destroyed—or at least severely damaged—everything in its path as it moved inland. Debris piles five stories tall are the only elevation visible on the coastal horizon.
The cleanup effort here is much further along than in the Tohoku region, but progress is relative considering the magnitude of destruction. I joined forces with 11 members of Cleanup Gamo and Jean Environmental Action Network to address this remaining debris in the best way we knew how: a beach cleanup.