Penned by Becca Robbins Gisclair, Nicholas J. Mallos, Michael LeVine and Henry P. Huntington, this blog is sourced from a featured column in the journal Environment on the threat plastic pollution poses in the Arctic Ocean.
From our ocean’s surface to its darkest depths, plastic pollution is ever-present. No part of our blue planet is immune to the growing threat of plastic pollution and marine debris, and the Arctic is no exception.
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To date, plastics have been found from the equator to the Arctic, on both densely populated beaches and remote coastlines alike. These plastics come from sources both on land and at sea; locally derived or from coasts thousands of miles across the Pacific. In the Arctic, sea-based sources like commercial fishing, shipping, aquaculture and the oil and gas sector are responsible for the majority of this marine and coastal pollution
The problem is especially clear when it comes to microplastics. These bits of plastic pollution are incredibly small, typically measuring less than five millimeters in length. Microplastics form when larger plastics break into smaller pieces, or when pre-production plastic pellets, microbeads or synthetic fibers, are lost into the sea. Due to their size, these tiny plastic pieces are easily ingested by marine wildlife big and small, and unfortunately, microplastics are now known to contaminate the entire marine food chain. Affected wildlife include species like Arctic cod, which live solely in far northern waters.
Microplastics aren’t the only problem when it comes to marine debris in the Arctic, however. Lost, abandoned or derelict fishing gear, known as “ghost gear,” is not only one of the most prominent sources of marine debris in this region, but also the deadliest. Seals, sea lions and bowhead whales have been found entangled in synthetic ropes and nets. While scars on some whale species show that wildlife may be able to escape being entrapped in this debris, scientists anticipate that the problem will worsen as more nets and lines are deployed into the ocean, and as fishing efforts move further north in response to climate change.
A highly illustrative case study of these marine debris threats to the Arctic region can be seen in the Pribilof Islands, which are far from the Alaskan shore in the southeastern Bering Sea. The islands and surrounding waters provide vital breeding and feeding areas for more than half of the world’s population of northern fur seals as well as endangered Steller sea lions, harbor seals and millions of seabirds. These islands also sit at the very center of one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, supporting fisheries for walleye pollock, king crab, salmon, Pacific cod and more. These fisheries are responsible for some $2 billion in the United States per year, and make up about half of the United States’ entire annual fish catch.
The two primarily Unangan Indigenous communities on the islands, St. Paul and St. George, depend on a healthy marine ecosystem for both their cultural and economic well-being. Yet the islands present a clear example of the magnitude of the threat the Arctic is facing when it comes to marine debris. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of debris have been removed from the islands’ beaches, most of which is ghost gear that’s traveled there from faraway places. The cleanup, organized by the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island in May of 2019, removed nearly 20,000 pounds of debris from a little more than five miles of shoreline. The vast majority of the debris included ropes, nets and other fishing-related items. In addition to what was cleaned up onshore, a large trawl net pulled up from underwater was removed by the U.S. Coast Guard was estimated to weigh more than 8,000 pounds.
But the news is not all bleak. Around the world and all across the Arctic, people are coming together to tackle ocean plastics through both cleanups and prevention. Cleaning up shorelines in remote areas like the Pribilof Islands is hard work, but these cleanups make a visible and measurable difference to local communities and ecosystems.
Every fall, Ocean Conservancy hosts the International Coastal Cleanup. For thirty-five years, nearly 17 million people around the world have rallied in their local communities to clean up beaches and waterways, Arctic regions included. In 2019, nearly one million volunteers across the globe removed more than 20 million pounds (9.4 million kilograms) of trash from beaches and waterways. Ocean Conservancy will continue to organize cleanups throughout the world and in the Arctic to help focus attention on this issue and get plastics off the beaches and out of the water.
Of course, the best way to address the problem of plastics in the ocean and in the Arctic starts at the source. The goal is to stop them from getting there in the first place.
For the Arctic, addressing the issue of ghost gear is an important part of this work, and here, too, there is hope. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative® is a cross-stakeholder alliance of the fishing and seafood industries, corporations, conservation organizations, academia and governments focused on solving the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear worldwide. The initiative works both on the ground and at the policy level to reduce the amount of gear that is lost in the ocean, to remove the gear that is already there and recycle gear that is recovered or at the end of its useful life.
Marine plastics and other debris are a global concern. The fact that Arctic animals are harmed and killed, remote beaches are fouled and economies are compromised is a symptom of things gone badly wrong at the global level. None of us should accept the status quo. We should instead consider our own contributions to the problem, push corporations for greater product responsibility and advocate for policies and actions that phase-out unnecessary single-use plastics. Doing so will help us all change course, for our own sake as well as the sake of the Arctic ecosystem and our ocean.