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Ocean Currents

Finding Innovative Solutions to Marine Debris on St. Paul Island

Keeping the shorelines of St. Paul Island clean is important to both community and wildlife.

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© Patricia Chambers

Today’s guest blog comes from Lauren Divine, Director of the Ecosystem Conservation Office at the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. She also represents the Tribal Government of St. Paul Island through the Aleut International Association on the Arctic Council Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Marine Litter Expert Group.

Historically, members of the tribal community of St. Paul Island, Alaska, would walk the shorelines of our island to remove debris such as driftwood and bones from the beaches, ensuring that the summer homes of laaqudan (Unangan), or northern fur seals, were clean and accessible. More than half of the world’s population of northern fur seals gathers on our shorelines to breed during the summer, and these cleanup efforts were part of how the community of St. Paul served as stewards and protectors of the seals. More recently, rocky and sandy shorelines alike have become the constant end points for man-made debris such as plastic fishing nets and lines, and cleanups have become more difficult. But the community has continued to find innovative solutions to the marine debris issue, thus conserving the habitat of our cherished wildlife.

Since 1998, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island (ACSPI) Ecosystem Conservation Office (ECO) has organized and conducted shoreline marine debris cleanups to mitigate negative impacts to wildlife, such as laaqudan (Callorhinus ursinus), endangered qawan or Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), isuĝin or harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) and millions of san or seabirds. Over the past two decades, cleanups have been possible due to strong partnerships and support from federal government (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program), Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association (CBSFA), Ocean Conservancy, the city of St. Paul, Sitka Sound Science Center and Trident Seafoods, Inc.

Now in our 21st year of cleanup efforts, we continue to look for new ways to approach the problem, expand awareness and build support. This year, in addition to Ocean Conservancy and other traditional partners, we worked with the Ocean Media Institute (OMI) to combine marine debris removal with a hands-on, storytelling and film production camp for St. Paul Island’s youth. The students were taught storytelling techniques and how to use video equipment. They then documented student-led cleanup efforts on one day of the larger cleanup. In addition to working with students, OMI shot video and did interviews with community members, staff and others to document the larger cleanup.

The cleanup crew included 11 members of the St. Paul community in addition to staff from ECO and Ocean Conservancy. Together, we tackled the rocky shorelines and sandy beaches that comprise northern fur seal critical breeding and resting habitat in areas that are most vulnerable to accumulated debris. All told, we removed nearly 20,000 pounds of debris from four separate locations around our island. This volume may seem staggering, but it is typical of the amount of debris our crew is able to pick up in a week’s time. After the cleanup was complete, we flew surveys over some of the beaches so that there is a visual record of the cleaned areas. We hope to continue to monitor the rates of accumulation on our beaches using drones and simply walking our shorelines.

In 2020, we hope to expand our efforts to a Pribilof Islands-wide, coordinated cleanup in partnership with the St. George Island Traditional Council, the city governments of St. George and St. Paul, the local fishing associations for the Islands (Aleutian Pribilof Islands Community Development Association and Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association), Trident Seafoods, Ocean Conservancy, Net Your Problem and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The cleanup will include St. Paul, St. George and, for the first time ever, Otter Island, a small uninhabited island six miles southwest of St. Paul where abundant marine mammals and seabirds breed and rest.

You can see the shore from any place on St. Paul. Keeping the shorelines clean is important to the community and for the wildlife on which we depend. We look forward to continuing partnerships for cleanups and to looking for policy solutions that stop debris from getting to our islands.

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