KODIAK -- Marine debris cleanup efforts in Alaska reached a milestone this year.
The Juneau-based MCA Foundation has removed more than 1 million pounds of debris from Alaska's 34,000 miles of shoreline since its program began in 2003.
"People ask how much is a million pounds? Think of it as getting four 747 cargo planes worth of trash off of the beach. It's a lot of junk and a real accomplishment," said program coordinator Bob King, adding that the group picked up almost 150 metric tons of trash just this year.
The foundation has partnered with more than a dozen groups and communities to pick up debris from the Panhandle to points far west.
"We had cleanups this year in Juneau, Prince William Sound, Sitka, Kodiak, the Pribilof Islands, Aleutian Islands, Bristol Bay, Shelikof Strait, Yakutat and Port Heiden," King said.
"We had one of our biggest projects in Norton Sound. We pulled almost 100,000 pounds of trash off of St. Lawrence Island with crews from Gambell and Savoonga hired by the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. And on top of that, they picked up another 20,000 pounds off of Golovin."
One innovative partner is the Alaska Brewing Co. of Juneau, which provides "brew crews" and donates 1 percent of its Alaskan IPA sales to a program called the Coastal CODE (Clean Oceans Depend on Everyone).
King said the marine debris in Alaska differs from debris found on other U.S. shores where 60 percent comes from land-based sources, such as beach litter or urban storm drains. A whopping 30 percent is cigarette butts and other smoking-related trash. In Alaska, it is mostly fishing-related -- but not necessarily from Alaska fishing operations.
"There has been intensive fishing going on in the Bering Sea for over 50 years, and there also are currents that bring over a lot of debris from Asia," King said. "So many of the nets picked up are scraps from old high-seas drift nets, and trawl nets that are not a type used by our domestic industry."
Disposal varies depending on the location, King said. Some Alaska communities have landfill capacity but many others do not.
"We are working with some recyclers in the Seattle area, and the Port of Seattle has been very helpful in putting together a program where fishermen can drop off their old nets and have them disposed of for free or at a low cost," King said.
The MCA Foundation has invested about $1 million -- most from federal funds -- in Alaska cleanup projects.
"It's hard work, but it is so gratifying to see the improvements to the shoreline, and also to reduce the threats to marine mammals, sea birds and fish," King said.
Despite the accomplishment of removing 1 million pounds from Alaska's shoreline beach, "there is still a lot more out there and it continues to come in, which is very troubling," King said.
Amid the growing chant of "drill, baby, drill," one of the first areas that could be affected in 2011 is the nation's "fish basket" -- the nearly 6 million acres of the North Aleutian Basin, including the Southeast Bering Sea and Bristol Bay. The region yields 40 percent of the nation's wild seafood harvests, worth more than a half-billion dollars to Alaska fishermen.
"The red crab fishery happens there, it's the catcher-vessel operations area, it's the halibut nursery grounds for the area and the major migratory salmon area," said Joe Childers, president of United Fishermen of Alaska, which represents 37 fishing groups.
UFA is not opposed to oil and gas development but worries that it poses big threats to Alaska's fishing industry. The group's position is that Alaska's seafood production is an integral part of our national food supply and needs to be protected.
UFA calls for, among other things, creation of a disaster fund to provide compensation to the fishing industry and coastal communities if fisheries are disrupted; research on the potential impacts of oil and gas development on seafood markets; and long-term scientific monitoring to assess impacts to fisheries and the marine environment.
National chairman Arni Thomson, director of the Alaska Crab Coalition, said he believes UFA's position paper "has significant implications for all other U.S. states facing offshore oil development."
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Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. Her information column appears every other Sunday. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting or placing on your Web site or newsletter, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.