An 80-foot ship called the Island C, a great captain with a vision, an exceptional young cook, a competent and upbeat skiff operator, and an engineer with a wealth of experiences and stories to complement, two crew leaders, and a group of volunteers who work hard pulling together every day, all day, and in all weather.
That sums up the marine debris cleanup crew, but it describes nothing of the undertaking, the motivation of the people involved, or the bigger picture of the problem we are tackling.
Grant-funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and NOAA, the project is under the umbrella of the local non-profit organization Island Trails Network (ITN).
This year marked more than 10 years of beach cleanups around the Kodiak Archipelago. Andy Schroeder, captain and mastermind behind the efforts, proudly points out that the chart where he puts a marker in the place of every beach that has been cleaned is beginning to take the shape of the island, meaning that most beaches have at least once been freed of the accumulated garbage.
In general, there are two categories of debris: light plastics and entangling debris. The former includes buckets and totes, buoys, plastic bottles of all kinds, plastic wrappers, tarps, bottle caps,and food containers of all shapes and sizes.
The latter is lost or discarded fishing gear and includes everything from a tiny end of line carelessly cut off and tossed overboard to entire drag nets.
The nets are not simply picked up; they were designed to catch things and they are really good at it. To get them off the beaches, it takes a great effort of untangling trees and sticks, digging out sand and rocks, removing vegetation that has grown through the meshes and untangling lines and netting.
These projects are never easy and always a group effort. Not surprisingly, after a full day spent digging and pulling, moving logs and bending over to pick up buckets and bottles, crawling under trees to pull out empty motor oil bottles or yet another shampoo bottle, the volunteers are tired and sore.
Everyone feels the pain in muscles they didn’t realize their body had, and backaches and stiffness become an integral part of the experience.
The first few days were dry, sunny and warm — and the bugs were out. Often, we wondered why the bugs were trying to fight our efforts to clean up their environment, but I don’t think the bugs understood the sentiment.
In the second week, we worked through a storm, getting soaked by rain, though only the short skiff rides were cold; once on the beach, the work warmed us up nicely.
At times, otters had taken possession of the plastic debris or peed all over the net we were dislodging from the banks, adding a naturally musky perfume.
However, with smiles and frowns competing on their faces, the volunteers agreed that the worst part were the plastic bottles with the “smelly goop” in them. Those, and the styrofoam: “We should outlaw styrofoam!”
Let me explain: Any plastic container with an opening can become a trap for small animals like the amphipods living in the washed-up kelp on the beach, insects and slugs. They jump or crawl in and then slide down the slick plastic walls, unable to get out.
The next rain fills the trap with water and the bodies of the accumulated bugs, spruce needles and leaves begin to rot and ferment.
I suspect that the horrible-smelling goop that results from this process is good fertilizer; it smells like a mixture of fish fertilizer and vomit. Needless to say, it hampers one’s appetite when it gets on work gloves or clothes.
As for the styrofoam, it is light and floats high and far on the water, then it blows far into the trees and gets lodged in the most difficult-to-access places, where it breaks apart into its small nurdles, which are impossible to clean up.
What motivates people to volunteer their time and work so hard under these harsh conditions, and who are they?
I interviewed some of the volunteers to find out. The diverse group included men and women from 24 to three times that age. Their backgrounds included fishing, teaching, banking, the medical field (nursing), library science, biology, English literature and some other fields.
Their motivation was driven by a sense of adventure to explore the remote beaches of Kodiak, travelling in a ship, going on frequent skiff rides, seeing whales and other wildlife along the way, and using their bodies outdoors all day, then coming back into a warm place and getting served a good meal.
These are the perks, but as I found out, it is not why everyone in the group worked as hard as they did. One volunteer said: “I worry a lot about climate change; I want to make the world a better place, want to be out in the wilderness and also give others a chance to see the wilderness without trash.”
Another said: “It is hard not to become pessimistic (when seeing the extent of the marine debris problem). When we were cutting out that net today, I thought: can you imagine cutting something like this off a whale, with how hard it is to get off a log that is not even moving?”
Our youngest volunteer said: “I feel like I helped produce some of this waste. I have no degree in anything related to the environment, but my heart and hands can help. You know how they say, you should know where your food comes from? I think you should also ask where your trash goes.”
The ship’s crew loves working with these volunteers because they, too, do this work out of a motivation that wants to nudge our world in a better direction.
In the words of the young woman operating the skiff: “I want single-use plastic consumption to go down. After working on the ocean for so long, I have seen plastic wrapped around a sea lion’s neck, I caught a salmon with a hairband around its middle section and I see the plastic trash in the woods that the bears have dragged around and bitten into. It’s not even an option to do this; it’s a must do.”
The wisdom in the next generation gives me so much hope for the future; they know we need to change the way we do things and they know that a continuous stream of single-use and one-way production suffocates our environment and society for the enrichment of a few. They are passionate, they are smart, they have technology we never had before, and they are angry.
Evenings and travel times were spent in discussions about the end destination for the marine debris we now had in the super sacks on board the Island C.
Where does it go? What do we do with it? What is the state of recycling of plastics in our country? How can we fight the problem at its source and reduce the use of plastics and the loss of fishing gear?
Andy Schroeder has partnered with three universities to research solutions and launched the Ocean Plastics Recovery Project. You can learn more about it at https://oceanplasticsrecovery.com/.
I am grateful to have had the privilege to work alongside these amazing people for 11 days. During this time, the teams moved 15,550 pounds of marine debris off the beaches, roughly half of it nets and lines.
I had to return to my other job, but the crew and a new group of volunteers are still out there for another four days doing the good work.
In the words of the captain: “There is a cognitive dissonance — something out of whack when being in a natural place and there is all this man-made material. When we leave a beach after cleaning it up, there is this good feeling of making things right. I am afraid it does not stay that way unless we change the way we do things.
“There is now a broad recognition that we have changed every aspect of this ecosystem and that even the furthest reaches of the ocean can be changed, and we have done it. A lot of what we are cleaning up are mistakes of the past. It is not that humans are bad or cruel or careless. No one likes to (expletive) in their own nest.”