15-17 May ’23

Haines, Alaska

Tracking Marine Debris in Alaska

Weaving through the waters of the Chilkat fjords, marvelling at the pristine landscapes. (Image: P. Catapano/Polarquest)

View of the beautiful beaches along the Chilkat inlet (Image: P. Catapano/Polarquest)

Polarquest’s Paola Catapano shares her experience using citizen science technology to track marine debris in the remote Chilkat inlet of Alaska. 

Ninety miles north of Juneau, the Alaskan capital city, and accessible mainly by water or air – only when the weather is good – this tiny offbeat town is our last access to the sea before we head further North through the mountains and glaciers along the Alaska highway. 

We are “glamping” (yes, with a G not a C), which means sleeping in a yurt on a beautiful beach along the Chilkat inlet, one of the thousand deep fjords embroidering the 2000 miles of the Alaska Marine Highway along the country’s southeast coast. Beth, our host, bought this land on the beach, a mere 3 miles outside the village, in the seventies, starting off living in a cabin. Her beautiful wooden house facing the inlet is now surrounded by yurts and tents hidden in the rainforest on the beach, fully equipped with comfortable beds made of recycled wood and beautifully decorated with whatever comes from the sea. A range of glacier-studded mountains frame the waterline on the opposite side of the inlet, making it look like an alpine lake rather than a branch of the Pacific Ocean, especially during these exceptionally sunny and windless days of May.  

As we weave on the water surface along the coast in Beth’s brand new kayak (she bought it for her 75th birthday and trusted us to launch it!), the grey round head of a seal reminds us this is actually the ocean. Further away, a jet of water spraying high in the sky signals the passage of a whale and above our heads a bald eagle with its characteristic white head elegantly crosses the sky. Moose (we saw one on the beach a day earlier), sea lions and bears complete the local fauna.

Beth shares this wild, sometimes dangerous and breathtakingly beautiful land with this colourful assortment of neighbours and a few other like minded inhabitants of beautiful wooden cottages hidden in the rainforest along the coast. I am still thinking of the teenage boys and the fishermen she saw drowning in the inlet and of the seaplane crashing right in front of her house as I paddle slowly along the coast. My job today is to track marine debris, i.e. waste left by us humans on beaches and along the coast, using the citizen science Marine Debris Tracker, an app freely available on any smartphone, developed by NOAA and National Geographic.

Paola Catapano uses the Marine Debris Tracker application to report debris on the Alaskan coastline. (Image: P. Catapano/Polarquest)

Knowing more about the different types and amounts of debris found on a beach is the first step towards preventing it. In order to learn more about plastic  pollution and understand the types and amount of marine debris in our environment, scientists need to collect data – and citizens can help easily by using apps like the Marine Debris Tracker, that are designed to record counts of debris items on your phone. You start the app on the phone when you start your walk on a beach hunting for garbage. The first thing you do is to stop at each non-natural object you find on the beach, examine it and choose from a pop-up list on the app what type of litter it is: plastic, metal, cloth, fishing gear or other and  per category you can choose from a variety of different objects: bottles, cans, straws, nets, floaters.

Once you’ve added the object on your list, you are asked to take a picture; then you can put the object in a garbage bag you have with you, to properly dispose of it at the end of your hunt. Once you’ve finished your walk you press upload on the app and your data are automatically uploaded on an open science database. The app also keeps record of the duration of your garbage hunting walk.

I was astonished at the simplicity and efficiency of the data taking but most of all at what I found on Chilkat beach here in Alaska during my 2 hour walk on the beach. Just 6 pieces of garbage: 2 beer cans, 2 fragments of polystyrene, 2 pieces of cloth. On any of our European beaches we would have collected the same amount in less than a minute! And this beach is much cleaner than the remotest beaches we visited in Svalbard during Polarquest 2018 and Polarquest 2021

I briefly discussed the reasons for this with the marine biologists and they explained that there is one big difference between the Pacific coast at these latitudes and European coasts: population density. Southeast Alaska has a population of just 71,000 people – approximately 1.26 per square kilometre. Compare that to the Italian coast, which is a similar length, with over 200 people per square kilometre. The more people, the more garbage. The North and east causes of Svalbard are not inhabited and yet they are the most polluted by native debris. It comes from rivers coming from Russia and from cities in our hemisphere, transported by marine currents.

Community awareness contributes significantly to keeping local Alaskan waters clean. (Image: P. Catapano/Polarquest)

 Another big difference I noticed (and the experts confirmed) is the sense of responsibility of locals on the coast of Alaska and in general in America. People here take very good care of their beaches and keep them clean; local fishermen have become much more aware of #plasticpollution, and have reduced  their waste, recycling their fishing gear. No wonder since here in the US citizen science is quite more advanced and widespread than in Europe. 

There is however a big contradiction that somehow neutralises all these efforts and that is the widespread use of single use plastic products in restaurants and food distribution in general. In the last 3 weeks I spent here I could not notice how overwhelmingly spread are plastic cutlery, cups and unnecessary food packaging in every shop, bar restaurant and even on board the Ferry for Science on the Alaska Marine Highway.

Cleaning is not enough, and ultimately is not the solution to plastic pollution. 

The most effective solution is to prevent plastic from getting into the ocean in the first place by reducing our reliance on it. Single-use plastic is the low-hanging fruit that should be the first to go, Rebecca Helm, a biologist at Georgetown University.

And we can only agree with this! #stopsingleuseplastic

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