Multi-scale Solutions Critical to Solving St. Paul’s Marine Debris Problem

Dr. Veronica Padula’s perspective on the daunting problem of marine debris on St. Paul Island

It’s May on St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, and more than half of the world’s breeding population of Laaqudan, or northern fur seals, are returning to the Pribilof Islands. After a winter foraging in the open ocean, these massive whiskered seals are making their way back to the island’s rookeries to breed. Life on the beach is noisy, filled with roaring male bulls called “beach masters,” defending their territories, boisterous juvenile seals play-fighting and squawking seabirds that are also migrating back to the island for the summer. The scene is wild and beautiful, but unfortunately, it’s not unspoiled or as healthy as it once was or needs to be in order to fully thrive.

Widespread marine debris litters the beach—webbing, line, nets, packing bands, buoys and plastics of all shapes and sizes and displaying brands that reveal the debris has washed in from faraway places around the Pacific Ocean. As fur seal and some seabird populations decline in the region, wildlife entangled in the debris are a growing concern.

Recognizing that beach cleanups are one part of the solution needed to tackle this global problem, Ocean Conservancy and the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government’s Ecosystem Conservation Office (ECO) are joining forces for a two-week marine debris cleanup in May 2022. This is a welcome opportunity for Ocean Conservancy to work alongside our Tribal partners on their home beaches.

We asked Dr. Veronica Padula, assistant director of ECO, for her perspective on the daunting problem of marine debris on St. Paul Island and what it will take to change it.

Here is what she had to say:

When I began working for ECO in May 2017, my first assignment was to write a blog post about the marine debris cleanup that had occurred on St. Paul Island that year. It was in writing about the cleanup crew’s huge effort to remove literally tons of debris from their island’s shorelines that I recognized marine debris is not only a pollution issue; but also an environmental justice issue.

What at first seemed like a simple assignment resulted in changing the course of my graduate research. I had been involved in marine debris research and outreach for a number of years before joining ECO, and while the stories of marine debris impacting Alaska’s coastal communities were told often, it seemed like the voices, observations and concerns of those communities were rarely included in conversations about solutions.

As concern grew over the impacts of marine debris, we wanted to ensure that the coastal communities most heavily impacted by marine debris were included in the development of solutions to this issue.

Through a series of interviews with community members I learned that on St. Paul Island, marine debris is diverse—plastics and fishing gear are prominent—and that debris has often travelled long distances to arrive here. Debris, such as abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded commercial fishing gear is not generated on St. Paul Island.

As one community member put it: “It’s pretty obvious, fishing vessels, vessels in general, that would be the number one … when I see marine debris on the beaches today or trash or items on the beach I almost look at all of it as marine debris not so much as island trash.”

Importantly, St. Paul is a community of approximately 350 people, and crews have removed upwards of 20,000 pounds of debris from only a fraction of the island’s shorelines in a single cleanup effort.

While community members realize that major marine debris cleanups are helpful in addressing the issue of ocean plastic pollution, they know that cleanups are not the only solution. It can be frustrating to see fellow community members work tirelessly to remove so many thousands of pounds of debris from the shoreline, only to see their efforts washed away merely months later when new debris litters it again. Removal also does not answer the broader questions of the long-term impacts of marine debris to the environment, especially on wildlife.

Ultimately, we must include the concerns, knowledge and suggestions from the communities that are most vulnerable and most highly impacted by marine debris in the development of solutions. The insights from the St. Paul Island community make it clear that marine debris solutions must include a combination of removal, research and prevention measures, and efforts must continue to be made to include the voices and concerns of the communities most heavily impacted by marine debris. Multiscale solutions are critical and they’re happening at the international, regional, national, state and local levels. Some examples include the following:

  • The United Nations negotiating an international instrument to “end plastic pollution
  • The United States passing the Save Our Seas Act
  • Beginning development of a Marine Debris Action Plan for Alaska
  • Local prevention efforts, such as the Ocean Guardians Schools in Juneau that have removed single use plastic utensils from their cafeterias

Communities like St. Paul Island will continue marine debris cleanups because they are one important way to tackle the marine debris crisis. However, as many community members have expressed repeatedly, cleanups are not the only solution. On St. Paul, we are working to craft new approaches with partners like Ocean Conservancy. We hope these new ideas will help reduce plastic pollution at its source and help prevent it from accumulating on our beaches.

Follow along with the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Ecosystem Conservation Office on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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