Alaska News

Tugidak Island: Home to thousands of harbor seals and 43 tons of trash

No human lives on Tugidak Island. Located 10 miles south of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, Tugidak has historically been home to one of the world's largest haulouts of harbor seals, faced with severe population declines in recent decades.

But despite the human race's rare appearances on the island, its footprints have been quite large. Over two years, volunteers collected 83,000 pounds of trash, which mostly consisted of marine debris lost or tossed at sea.

Tom Pogson is the director of education, outreach and marine programs at the Island Trails Network, a Kodiak-based nonprofit in charge of the cleanup effort.

"There isn't a lot of emphasis on marine debris in the U.S.," Pogson said. "In big cities, where people go to the beach, there is all of this junk that's origin is from the improper disposal of normal household items. But I think all of this debris acts as a commentary on what is really floating in the ocean and as a window to what is at sea."

A dirty job

Pogson spoke for at least five minutes as he attempted to list everything volunteers collected in 255 heavy, white, plasticized fabric "super sacks," as well as all of the items too large to fit inside.

"There were strange inflatable rubber toys, laced tote lids, barrels, plastic and metal gas tanks, propane tanks, tires and basically anything that could float," Pogson said, occasionally pausing to catch his breath.

Detergent bottles, barrels of waste oil, acid jugs used to clean boats, glass balls, Barbie doll torsos, doll heads, a box nailed shut with a dead bird and a letter written in a foreign language inside, Bic lighters, Japanese oyster floats that he said could be remnants of the 2011 Japanese tsunami -- Pogson's list just kept going.

"There were phosphorus toxins containers used to poison and kill rats, in pellet form. Grain ships that transport soy beans, wheat, barley and rice use it. There are rats on the ships. (The crews) uncap these canisters and pour the pellets into holes to control and kill the rats," said Pogson. "That (poison) was famously used in World War I."

Pogson said he can't be 100 percent sure as to how, or why, the rat poison containers ended up in the water but assumes it is because crews don't want to deal with the hazardous waste when they pull into a port; the cost can be high.

"I definitely don't think these are all from sinking ships," Pogson said, adding that a sniff of the pellets could kill a person. Cleanup volunteers had to receive special training to learn how to deal with the hazardous waste, he said.

But Pogson said most of the items collected were fishing and crabbing gear -- trawling nets, crab pots, buoys, floats and ropes.

The cleanup began in 2012 with a grant from NOAA. But by the time the nonprofit actually received the funds it was too late in the season to start work.

In 2013 and 2014 a dozen paid professionals and about 30 volunteers spent 1,664 hours, about two and a half months spread over two years, cleaning Tugidak's beaches.

Although Pogson said they would have liked to have had more time on the island, they had to be careful when they arrived so they didn't disrupt the harbor seals. The program ended in August.

A declining population

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Sue Goodglick studied the Tugidak harbor seals and collected pupping and molting data on harbor seals for seven seasons. A season, she said, was May through October, with a break in July.

Goodglick said pupping season on Tugidak lasts from May 10 until July 5, a timeframe that includes the lactation period. Molting season, when the harbor seals lose their coat, lasts from May 1 until Oct. 1. She noted that different age classes molt at different times.

She said a quiet and peaceful location is a key factor in both practices, and Tugidak, for the most part, offers that.

"It is a very quiet island," said Goodglick. "(We) would watch them from the bluff. But they are very sensitive to movement; we'd have to crawl on our bellies to take photos."

Goodglick couldn't say how or if the massive amount of marine debris has affected the harbor seal population, but she has seen even the smallest bits of trash affect their routines.

"They are so vulnerable lying on the beach. They don't move very fast, and I have seen a plastic water bottle hit one and affect all of them and (startle) them into the water." She said this is particularly harmful if a "mom and pup are separated."

Tugidak Island was established as a critical habitat area in 1988, after the harbor seal population declined by approximately 80 percent in the 1970s and '80s. According to Fish and Game, in the middle of the 20th century, the island harbor seal population was upward of 20,000.

"Despite the decline, Tugidak is still a very large and important harbor seal haulout that produces a lot of pups. We don't know where it ranks in the world, but we estimate the number of sub-adults and adults using the two main haulout beaches ranged from 844 to 3,222 seals during 2000-2009," Pogson wrote in an email.

"People say 'there are a lot of other beaches,' but they can't just go to any beach," Goodglick said. "They need a certain type of shelter."

Goodglick noted the island is not used by the seals only in certain seasons. Biologists believe the animals occupy the island year-round. Aerial photos have captured 750 to 2,000 harbor seals on the island during winter.

Megan Edge

Megan Edge is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.