Gyre Project to Study Marine Debris Through Science and Art

An ambitious expedition to study ocean trash launched from Seward on June 7. The Gyre project is a collaboration between the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska SeaLife Center, among other organizations, to document the impact of marine debris along Alaska’s shoreline – and across the globe.

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marine debris Resurrection Bay
Marine debris in Bulldog Cove on the western shore of Resurrection Bay in 2011. Photo credit: Kip Evans/courtesy of Anchorage Museum

The project began when a team of sixteen marine biologists, educators, and artists boarded a research vessel to collect data and materials along the Kenai Peninsula. What they find will become part of an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum this winter.

Alaskans have been thinking about marine debris lately, thanks to all the trash washing up on the state’s coastline after the 2011 tsunami in Japan. The Anchorage Museum’s Julie Decker will get a first hand look at that trash this week, although it’s not the kind the kind of thing she usually does for her job as the museum’s chief curator.

“This has been fascinating,” she said. “This has been an education for me, for the artists, for the scientists to talk to the artists.”

The idea for the project came from Howard Ferren, Director of Conservation at the Alaska SeaLife Center. He says trash – and especially plastic – has been a huge issue in our oceans over the past few decades. “It’s a very recent phenomenon and yet we already have maybe a hundred million tons of plastics in the oceans,” he said. “There’s no easy way to define that. But what we can tell you is that there are impacts. Significant and growing.”

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That’s why Ferren approached the Anchorage Museum about three and a half years ago to propose a collaboration that would link science with art. Although the project now involves dozens of people and as many moving parts, the Anchorage Museum’s Julie Decker said the integration of all the elements will be pretty seamless.

“We’re organizing it as an art exhibition, but I don’t think you can separate art and science in this case,” Decker said. “The artists serve as researchers into the issue. They’re passionate investigators of how this affects our planet and most of the artists come to their work because they live along the ocean – see it, lived it, started to collect it, and it made its way into their work.”

Decker said the exhibit will feature a wide range of artwork, both from artists on the expedition this week and from others from around the world. For instance, “There’s a woman who collects trash from the beach in California and repackages them as souvenirs,” she said. “Artists from Finland collecting trash on their beaches and creating false aquariums. Somebody creating snow globes with beach trash along the Yukon River.”

The exhibit will also include the scientific results of this week’s research as well as a series of videos by National Geographic filmmakers. When it all comes together, what Decker really hopes the project will spark is discussion.

“We’re not advocates for a point of view,” she said. “What we’re interested in is talking about our oceans, talking about plastic, talking about human consumption and human action and I think it’s a fascinating story and one that really can impact everyone and I think everyone can understand how it’s tangible to us.”

Decker herself is joining the expedition for one day this week to participate in a beach cleanup at Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park.

The exhibit will run at the Anchorage Museum from February through August 2014. After that, it’ll be re-packaged by the Smithsonian Institution to tour the Lower 48.