Building a Partnership to Remove Marine Debris on Alaska’s St. Paul Island

A place of hospitality, beauty and challenges

In May, my co-worker Patty Chambers and I were fortunate to be able to travel to St. Paul Island in Alaska’s remote Pribilof Islands to participate in a marine debris cleanup. We worked with students from the school to remove approximately 300 pounds of debris from a fur seal rookery near town.

As part of that effort, I spent nearly an hour working with several students from the high school and middle school, as well as a visiting teacher, to remove a huge piece of fishing net wedged under two boulders on the rookery. We were all on our hands and knees, digging, pulling and cutting with two pocket knives. We laughed, joked, and, ultimately, removed most of the net. Working as a team on something tangible and important stands out as one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences I’ve had in a long time.

In addition to participating in the cleanup, Patty and I spent time exploring the island. Everywhere we went, the community of 400 people was warm and welcoming.

We were shown incredible hospitality. Within an hour of arriving in St. Paul, we’d bumped into Patty’s seatmate during the flight. He took us on a driving tour to some of the beaches, showed us the wind turbines that generate about half of the power for the island, and pointed out the military presence on the island. We were given an impromptu introduction to the island’s museum that included a first-hand history of Russian and American fur seal harvests, glimpses of traditional art, and background about the unusual importance of baseball on St. Paul.

The people of St. Paul were generous hosts. We were treated to reindeer backstrap for dinner, fried halibut made by the students and a barbecue on the last day of school.

We also got to see some of the amazing beauty of the island. We hiked to the top of a volcanic hill and wandered into lava tube caves along the way. We walked long stretches of rocky and sandy beaches and were lucky to see the first of the tens of thousands of fur seals that will come later in the spring. We scoured cliffs for puffins, murres, kittiwakes and auklets. We looked out over the beautiful and seemingly endless ocean.

Patty and I planned for our next visit by scouting other “collector” beaches where marine debris washes up. I was saddened to see the shore covered in fishing line, net, buoys and plastic trash. Many of these beaches are the ones to which fur seals return, year after year.

We hope that this year’s cleanup is the start of a long-term, growing partnership to remove the debris from the beaches of St. Paul next year, and the year after that—until we can find a way to stem the tide of trash in our ocean.

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