A massive barge is docked in Kodiak this week. The barge is more or less a huge floating trash can. It’s en route to the Lower 48 with hundreds of tons of marine debris on board – debris that will be recycled once the barge arrives in Seattle.
A lot of the marine debris littering Alaska’s shorelines is from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
Janna Stewart is the Tsunami Marine Debris Coordinator for Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, one of the organizers of the event. She says it’s hard to determine how much of the debris is from that tsunami. However, they’ve seen things like fishing gear and dock fragments:
“…Foam that’s used in a lock of construction, tanks, household items,” Stewart says. “As time has gone on, some of the heavier debris been coming in that’s been moving in the currents rather than bouncing up, driven by the wind,” says Stewart. “So, they’ve seen a change in the nature of the debris that’s come in. For example, they weren’t seeing dimensional lumber from Japan until a couple of years after the tsunami and now they’ve starting to see that.”
Stewart says nonprofits and other groups have been collecting marine debris for years and many of those collection sites are remote, like Gore Point and Montague Island.
“At a lot of those sites, the debris can’t be removed even by smaller vessels because the shorelines are rocky, they’re high-energy beaches with a lot of surges. So, the debris once it’s been collected and stored on the shoreline, for many of these locations, the only practical way and the safest way to get the debris of the shorelines is to get it airlifted onto the barge.”
The Japanese government is largely funding the project with $900,000 from the $2.5 million it granted Alaska. Stewart says Japan donated a total of $5 million dollars to coastal states and says she’s met with other funding recipients at conferences. Not only did Alaska get hit harder than other states, she says, but it also faces unique challenges.
“The story I always tell is, when they were doing the presentation on the pickup of this dock that came in, I think it was in Oregon, they talked about they had to drive a quarter of a mile on a logging road to get to the beach. And I said ‘You have a road?’”
It’s an issue that the Kodiak Archipelago can relate to.
Tom Pogson is Director of Education, Outreach, and Marine Programs of Island Trails Network, a nonprofit that has been working to remove marine debris from Kodiak shorelines since 2013.
Pogson says ITN has accumulated 180,000 pounds of marine debris in its storage yard and volunteers spent the weekend preparing it for transport. He says ITN started to make plans with other organizations for the debris removal in February and those plans fell into place over the last couple of weeks.
“We’ve been talking about this for a couple of years, but the specifics of getting the contracts finalized and getting a plan and finding appropriate vessels and getting all the mechanics of this particular large-scale removal from this large stretch of coastline set-up has been very complicated,” says Pogson.
And he says that’s the nature of the beast.
“It’s a bit like riding your bike in the dark on a road without any lights. You basically know you’re on the road, you can sorta get a feel for where you’re going, and you know there’s lots of other people that are going there with you. And you kinda just close your eyes and go.”
A kick-off event will take place Thursday in Kodiak to celebrate the barge launch and the month-long debris removal along the coast. The public is invited to hear speakers including DEC Commissioner, NOAA Marine Debris Program Regional Coordinator, and the Director of Alaska Keeper, a major nonprofit involved in organizing the event. The kick-off will be at 2pm at Koniag on Near Island.