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Alaska: Marine Debris in the Wilderness

Making Waves: Episode 134

Alaska, the largest and most remote state in the United States, is filled with wilderness and beauty—and unfortunately with marine debris. With a longer coastline than all the other U.S. states combined, Alaska finds itself with the greatest concentration of marine debris in our country. In this episode, we learn just how challenging the issue of marine debris can be in the vast wilderness of this state, how the NOAA Marine Debris program is working to solve this problem, and how the key to beating this issue is in the innovation and ingenuity of the community working to address it.

Marine debris comes in all shapes and sizes. This vessel, the F/V Ocean Clipper went aground on Alaska's St. Paul Island in the late 1980s. In 2010, the ship was removed during the brief window of time after the sea-ice had retreated, but before the return of the protected fur seals that call this beach home.

Listen to the Episode:


HOST: Welcome to Making Waves, a podcast from the NOAA National Ocean Service. I'm Megan Forbes. We're focusing today on the subject of marine debris; an issue that I think is pretty easy to understand—as it comes directly from human use and remains prevalent all over the world. NOAA has a dedicated program aimed at prevention and reduction of this problem. I'm joined today by Peter Murphy, the Alaska Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program. Thank you for joining me.

Peter Murphy began working in Alaska in 2009 to coordinate marine debris removal and mitigation efforts in this vast region.

Peter Murphy: "Absolutely."

HOST: You came to NOAA over 8 years ago during a time when the Gulf Coast was recovering from two hurricanes. Since then you've had experience with oil spills and emergency response, as well as marine debris. How did all of those experiences shape your work today?

Peter Murphy: "I started working on the issue of marine debris in the Gulf of Mexico, specifically on the debris that came from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. There was a large project that was working on mapping this debris near-shore and working with the stakeholders in the region on ways to address it. So, basically, mapping it and working to clean it up—which is a lot of what we do. Really, after that, I transitioned to working in the state of Alaska in 2009, but many issues or elements carried through to today to the work I'm doing now. Working with partners across Federal, state, and local agencies, and NGOs [non-governmental organizations], really understanding the issue holistically from the different perspectives—that's a big part of what we do. Also, on the technical side, working with data and data management—understanding all these different pieces of information that are out there about the debris problem—how to we pull that together into a holistic picture that tells us something about what the issue is and what we can do about it. Those are things that have carried through to today."

Peter Murphy: "The issue of marine debris is a diverse and challenging problem, but it's also an intuitive one. It's diverse and challenging in the sense that it's everything from these very large pieces of debris, like vessels or huge fishing nets floating out in the ocean, all the way down to things like microplastics—whether those are pre-production pellets, or the little bits of plastic in face wash—these tiny bits of plastic. At root, even though marine debris is all these different things, it is an intuitive problem. People understand it. There's garbage in the ocean, and that's bad. That also means it's a solvable problem! People can understand it and can see that there are ways that they can change behaviors to prevent it and there are things they can do to address it, by going out and removing debris based on their activities."

HOST: As a Seattle native, you grew up with a love for the West Coast and an interest in Alaska, learning about its culture and its beauty from your father. Tell us a bit about what draws you to work in the Alaska Region.

Peter Murphy: "So my dad was actually a NOAA Corps officer and did survey work in Alaska, that was quite a bit of the work he did. I grew up hearing a lot about Alaska, the landscape, his experiences there and the culture—and so I had wanted to work in Alaska and get to experience that. When the Alaska position came open, it just couldn't have been much better. I've really enjoyed my time getting the chance to work in these areas, getting to meet with folks to better understand the issue of marine debris in Alaska, and how people are working to address it there."

HOST: There's much more to the issue of marine debris than just the "3 R's"—reduce, reuse, recycle. Those are good steps, but…it's a multi-layer approach that can vary by region. What do you find to be the greatest challenge in working in this region?

Peter Murphy: "That's a really good question. I think it's hard to identify just one challenge. A few big things that are part of working with the issue: first, the state of Alaska is a big place, it's vast. It has more shorelines than the rest of the United States combined, and even on a mile for mile basis, Alaska has some of the heaviest debris concentrations or densities we see in the United States. So that's a big part of the issue—you have a lot of shoreline, but also it can be very dirty shoreline. Alaska is also remote—people think of Alaska they think of a place that is wilderness, it's rugged; that's true and additionally that means that some of these places where debris tends to pile up or aggregate, we call them "catcher beaches", these can be really far from roads, landfills, the logistics or the infrastructure that you normally need to actually get people there and to remove that debris."

Peter Murphy: "One of the most notable "catcher beaches" in Alaska is a place called Gore Point. It sticks out almost like a hook into the Gulf of Alaska current. Every year a lot of debris piles up there. As a matter of fact, in 2007-2008 there was a cleanup effort that removed over 20 tons from less than a mile of shoreline. That's a lot of debris in a very small area. This location, Gore Point, is a pretty significant distance…at least a day of travel from the nearest landfill, and sometimes those landfills aren't even open to marine debris. So this gives you an idea that you have to travel a long ways to get to where the debris piles up in many cases, and also you have to go a long ways to get rid of that debris. Part of the reason that a lot of the debris shows up there is that they are high energy beaches—they have big waves, big storms, big winds, so you also have the challenge of getting safely on to the beach and getting safely off as well. Those are the types of things that make it more complicated to work in Alaska."

HOST: Many of us remember the tsunami that rocked Japan back in 2011 and eventually resulted in marine debris migrating to the United States. NOAA has since then been involved in addressing that issue along the west coast. How has that event impacted your work today?

Peter Murphy: "The tsunami and the debris it generated were certainly a huge event in the Pacific Rim, not just for the marine debris community, but for all the residents of the Pacific Rim in general. As far as the debris itself, it created both a significant increase in marine debris in the world's oceans…the government of Japan estimates that 1.5 million tons of debris was left floating after the tsunami event out of a total of about 5 million tons that was washed into the ocean spreading out over the pacific … but I think one of the other things that changed was that there was a significant increase in awareness too. This awareness led to a lot of scientific and community learning around the issue. The topics of invasive species—that's something that hadn't been explored to the level it is now based on the tsunami. We also have advances in detection, our ability to look for and find the marine debris, and also modeling—looking at the forces that move marine debris and how they interact with all these different kinds of marine debris—there was a big advancement that came through tsunami debris. Also too, the connections between agencies, organizations and location…between provinces and states, the federal government and NGO's…those were strengthened significantly by the tsunami. It was certainly a tragic even that we'd wish for but also a lot of learning came from it."

HOST: The NOAA Marine Debris Program funds projects all over the United States and in its territories to research, reduce and prevent marine debris. You recently partnered with the Gulf of Alaska Keeper on a rather large project involving a barge that traveled from Seattle to Alaska, and dealt partially with debris from the Japan tsunami, as well as Pacific marine debris. This project required multiple partners, multiple jurisdictions and huge planning efforts to implement. Can you give us a look at your experience in being involved in this type of project?

Peter Murphy: "The barge airlift was an innovative and ambitious project that had never really been done before at this scale. For those listeners who aren't familiar with it—the idea was to take helicopters to lift debris that had already been collected from these beaches in the Gulf of Alaska to a football field-sized barge that was waiting offshore. The debris had already been collected into these things called "super sacks", which, as the name suggests is just a very big plastic bag, and a very strong one, that can hold a lot of weight. These supersacks would be rigged up with a line up to a helicopter and then lifted offshore. Over the course of the project we made over 1,100 helicopter trips at different locations, over 12 in all, from the shoreline out to this barge. The barge functioned almost like a garbage truck stopping at these different locations where debris had been aggregated, or collected, and picking it up as it went. In total, they removed over 3,400 supersacks, which is enough debris to fill 40 rail cars to the brim. A huge amount of debris was collected in this unprecedented effort."

Peter Murphy: "This barge airlift effort required a lot of coordination in terms of logistics, but also in terms of resource management. As a marine debris community in Alaska, and in the world, we're working to remove debris to help protect the environment, but at the same time you have to make sure that the methods you're using aren't causing damage to the environment. In this case we were flying helicopters in Alaska and there's a lot of very sensitive species that are very important so you have to make sure you are keeping a safe distance from those…you gotta make sure when you're accessing those locations that you are using the best practices to avoid impact to the animals that are already in the water or in the air, and on the beaches. That required a lot of good coordination from a lot of agencies. You also have the element of weather—Alaska isn't always the most friendly place for weather, so planning for that and figuring out the contingencies…we got incredibly lucky, we only had one weather day out of over a two-week project, which, anyone will tell you is pretty crazy…so we were very lucky that way."

HOST: You have had quite a few adventures in your time working for NOAA. What's the most memorable experience you've had as a Regional Coordinator so far?

Peter Murphy: "It's really hard to pick one memorable experience. I think one that does stick out a little bit is a microcosm of working in Alaska…the Ocean Clipper project. Ocean Clipper was a fishing vessel that ran aground in a seal rookery. A rookery is an area where there is pupping, so it is important habitat for seals. That was in the Pribolof Islands in the Bering Sea. The Pribolof Islands actually get iced in—they get surrounded by ice for months out of the year. So this project, we were actually trying to go in and get this boat off of the beach. To do that we had to wait for the ice to clear, but then get in there and get the boat off before the seals returned so we weren't disrupting their pupping season, an important time. It was a great example of the logistics that go into working in Alaska and also the ingenuity of the people that were doing it. Seeing waves in sea ice, and the boat being broken down into pieces…the ice came in and also retreated all the while on this remote island…I think was just a really memorable project and a great opportunity to work with some fascinating folks."

HOST: Although the idea of marine debris is simple in and of itself, there are very complex ways to approach it from research, to finding it, figuring out where it's coming from, and ultimately to preventing it. NOAA, along with many partner organizations, has been working on developing many types of technology on land, in air and in sea to address marine debris. What do you think is the most interesting technology that you've encountered during your projects at NOAA?

Peter Murphy: "So I hate to do this again, but it really is hard to just pick one. One of the interesting things about marine debris is just how many different technologies people have gotten the opportunity, or found ways to use, to address or to explore the issue. A couple I'd highlight: UAS or Unmanned Aerial Systems or underwater—that's an emerging technology and something we're trying to work with and we're trying to explore ways to fit it in to the toolkit of how we can find debris and evaluate it. In the future that could allow us to get data in sensitive or dangerous locations where it would be really trick to send a person or a manned system, that's something that I think is really potentially exciting. We've a long ways to go, but it's an interesting technology. More in the here and now, I've always been interested and fascinated by sonar. The ability to see what's on the bottom in amazing detail—you can see nets, crab pots, boats and coral—it brings what's unseen and makes it seen. Often times you can look at a body of water and it looks very clean from the surface, but you don't know what's on the bottom there and sonar allows you to see all of that."

HOST: So how much marine debris would you say that NOAA projects have removed in the Alaska region so far?

Peter Murphy: "The Marine Debris Program started in 2005-2006 and since then we've removed just about 575 tons or about 1.3 million pounds of debris in Alaska…but that's just the Marine Debris Program. It's important to note that we're a member of the community that's working on the issue of marine debris both in Alaska and nationwide. There are a lot of people that have moved a lot of debris that wouldn't be in that figure. They've done that through community—based removal just locally on the beach, or from people who have organized removal using boats from a remote beach on a weekend, that's one number. Really, there is a lot of good work being done by a lot of great groups."

HOST: What other types of projects does NOAA support addressing marine debris in Alaska?

Peter Murphy: "Overall in the NOAA Marine Debris Program we focus on projects to research, remove and prevent debris. Those are kind of our pillars: research, removal and prevention. That can be projects like sonar surveys for derelict crab pots to identify how many there are and what impact they're having; then we also partner with communities to do shoreline cleanups, either locally or sometimes at remote catcher beaches that are a significant journey away from communities. We then work to raise awareness and change behaviors, stopping the introduction of debris before it gets into the ocean. Overall it is really important to have this mix, because it takes people recognizing the impacts and seeing what's going on in order to change behaviors and address the issue."

HOST: What is your goal for the Alaska region in terms of marine debris, and do you think it is attainable?

Peter Murphy: "The big goal for Alaska, and for marine debris as an issue in general, is really to understand and address the impacts. So for Regional Coordinators like me, that means supporting the community in Alaska, in the region, and finding ways to leverage the resources that exist to use what we have to better understand how much debris there is, what impacts it's having and finding the best ways to stop those impacts. That can be removal—going out and picking stuff up, but often the best place to stop marine debris from happening is on land. Changing behaviors to stop the flow of debris into the oceans, where it can be difficult and expensive to remove—especially in places like Alaska where things are so remote. I'm part of an active and innovative marine debris community in Alaska and nationwide, and that's something that NOAA is proud to be a part of and supporting."

HOST: Thanks to Peter Murphy from the NOAA Marine Debris Program for joining us in our podcast today. As you've learned, marine debris is a global problem—it is an everyday problem. There is no part of the world left untouched by debris and its impacts. To learn more about this issue, check out the Program's website at marinedebris.noaa.gov. Thanks for listening.

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