Community-Driven Activities Create a Strong Foundation for Successful Marine Debris Campaigns in Alaska

Posted Tue, 11/24/2020 - 11:00

In celebration of National Native American Heritage Month, the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Marine Debris Program and Assessment and Restoration Division are highlighting examples of collaboration with native communities, nations, and peoples.

Guest blog by: Lauren Divine; Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Ecosystem Conservation Office

The Pribilof Islands are among the most unique and important places in the world. Three of the five islands making up the Pribilof Islands are uninhabited, but two of the largest islands, St. George and St. Paul Islands, host vibrant communities that are predominantly Unangax̂/Unangan (singular/plural, also referred to as “Aleut”). Pribilovian Unangax̂ depend on the health of the marine ecosystem that supports diverse marine mammal, bird, and fish populations surrounding the islands. 

The island archipelago in the eastern Bering Sea is referred to as “The Galapagos of the North,” and provides vital breeding and feeding habitat for more than half of the world’s population of laaqudan (in the Native language Unangam Tunuu) or northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), as well as important habitat for endangered qawan or Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), isuĝin or harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) and millions of san, or seabirds. The Pribilof Islands are part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and by virtue of their position straddling the continental shelf and deeper ocean waters, the islands also play a central role in creating the productive ocean zone that makes it prime fishing area for some of the world’s most profitable and sustainable commercial fisheries.

A removed derelict net on the beach next to an all-terrain vehicle.
This is a discarded net that was hauled off the shoreline by resident Shaun Lekanof (Photo: Shaun Lekanof).

However, these communities have long shouldered the burdensome and overwhelming responsibility of removing tens of thousands of tons of debris, much of which originates far from the communities themselves. Because of the multitude of threats resulting from marine debris pollution that constantly accumulates on the coastlines of St. George and St. Paul, these communities have developed and expanded locally-driven marine debris prevention and removal efforts. Since 1998, the tribal governments of St. George and St. Paul have conducted regular marine debris cleanups to prevent negative impacts to important wildlife used for subsistence and to better understand debris accumulation dynamics in the region. Since 2009, the communities have collectively removed almost 200,000 pounds of marine debris, which overwhelmingly consists of fishing-related gear, such as nets, rope, and line. 

Cleanup volunteers on a beach.
Youth participate in a beach cleanup on Gorbatch, adjacent to the town of St. Paul where seals occupy the shorelines during the summer months (Photo: Veronica Padula).

Cleanup events on both islands require a significant amount of planning and logistics, where local entities, including the tribal governments, municipal governments, local fishing associations, and local village corporations, partner together to accumulate the necessary resources and staff capacity to remove, sort, weigh, and consolidate marine litter for backhaul. Over time, the communities have expanded partnerships to include Trident Seafoods, Inc. and Ocean Conservancy. Currently, as part of a NOAA Marine Debris Program supported project, community members from St. Paul are using Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) aerial surveys to identify and target removal efforts and evaluate accumulation rates along shorelines. The community of St. Paul is planning to complete the first marine debris removal effort on Otter Island, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and the first effort to transport debris off St. George Island. An additional component to this project includes a new on-island initiative that will encourage local fishing fleets to reuse derelict buoys found during cleanups. These activities are currently on hold, however, we hope to resume them as soon as safety measures allow.

In addition to removing marine debris, communities have expanded local efforts focused on raising awareness and prevention by hosting cleanup events with youth in conjunction with annual cultural “Pribilof Days”, creating a marine debris curriculum, and forming a youth “Trash Club”, where students gather on a regular basis to clean up debris in their community. The Bering Sea Campus and Research Center located on St. Paul Island is currently initiating a NOAA Marine Debris Program supported project to raise awareness of the threats of packing bands on local wildlife. The project aims to encourage behavior change through social-based marketing and a forum targeted at engaging open communication with stakeholders to encourage collective work towards solutions to marine debris issues.

The success and high efficacy of these activities is possible because they are generated from the local communities, thus are initiated with the full support of the communities. Pribilovian Unangax̂ are resilient and will continue to strengthen marine debris prevention and removal efforts on their irreplaceable islands through strong partnerships and continued support.