At first, they tried to pick up every fish head or gut they found, but that soon grew overwhelming so they settled for just collecting trash.
Just after 1 p.m. Wednesday a team of teens in bright-orange shirts bearing “ROC the Kenai” logos descended on the North Beach of the Kenai River dipnet fishery intent on picking up trash and educating beach-goers about the proper disposal of fish waste.
It’s not always easy to talk to strangers about where their trash and fish waste should go as Kiera Stroh, 12, found out when she tried to step in and talk to August Asay, of Anchorage, while he demonstrated the proper way to fillet a fish.
Asay wielded a fillet knife for a group of kids from the Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula who came to the beach to help out with the cleanup efforts but found themselves drawn to Asay’s table.
Stroh stood with her self-described best friend Rylie Fields as the two wrinkled their noses at the group clustered around Asay’s table.
“Um, excuse me, what are you going to do with the rest of the fish?” Fields asked.
Asay said he would take the waste out into the water where it would be eaten by other fish.
After a short discussion Fields and Stroh dragged their bags away and continued looking for trash, Stroh looked downcast.
“We’ve been telling them that the fish just washes back in, that’s why there are so many on the tide line,” she said. “I’m not frustrated yet, just trying to come up with crazy ways to get rid of all of this fish.”
Stroh said she wasn’t sure what to tell people about how to dispose of their waste as there were no fish totes on the beach and no easy way to get the waste out far enough in the water.
Maybe, she said, they could take it home and throw it away.
She gestured at the beach, which was so full of piles of fresh waste that it was difficult to walk anywhere without treading on a head, tail, or bit of sand spattered with blood.
“We’d like to load it into a barge, take it out like three miles and then dump it, so it really goes away,” she said. “But we don’t have that kind of money.”
Stroh’s older sister Courtney Stroh, 16, came up with the ROC the Kenai project as her “Caring for the Kenai” project her freshman year of high school.
Courtney and her beach companion Jessica Paxton, 16, both juniors, were on hand to tell the other teens where to leave their trash.
They both said it could be a little demoralizing to spend a few hours cleaning up the beach only to find it trashed again when they returned 24 hours later.
They’ve been coming to the beach every afternoon since the dipnet fishery opened.
“We’ll just come out here and be like, really?” Jessica said.
Courtney pointed at a fire pit about 30 feet from the high tide line.
“We found a huge pile of trash there the other day and I’m wondering why people think its OK to trash our beach,” she said.
As the two talked, Eldon Wilson, 12, another volunteer with the Boys and Girls club walked by with a handful of fish eggs he got from Asay. He put his face in close to the pink meat and took a deep breath prompting both girls to react in disgust. Wilson giggled as he walked away.
Courtney said the afternoon weather was nice and that seemed to help when it came to talking to people about how to dispose of their trash.
“Sometimes the response isn’t as supportive but usually when there’s good weather and people are in a good mood it’s fun to talk to them,” she said.
Still, sometimes she’s a little confused by their responses. Courtney grinned as she recounted some of the things people have said to her.
“I’ve been accused of starving the halibut, accused of starving the seagulls,” she said.
Jessica interrupted. “Yeah, people will say it’s natural, but it’s causing a problem. People don’t understand that it’s the volume that’s causing the problem.”
Courtney finished Jessica’s thought, “Yeah, it’s the numbers that aren’t natural.”
Other times, Courtney is praised for her efforts.
“Someone told me I was an angel in the flesh the other day,” she said.
The two call their educational spiel their “beach speech.”
But, that speech isn’t always effective.
“There’s a whole diversity of people here who speak Russian or Native languages so we really need signs with pictures instead of words,” Courtney said.
The teen is quick to point out that people who dispose of their fish parts in the water are just doing what the signs posted at the entrance of the beach direct them to do, however others who leave waste above the tide lines are clearly breaking the law.
She dug a flier from the City of Kenai out of her pocket.
“This says fish waste falls under the litter laws, but I don’t see anyone enforcing it,” she said.
Kenai City Council Member Bob Molloy joined the crew on the beach wearing his own bright orange shirt and lugging around a trash bag that filled up rather quickly.
“I thought it was really important to support what they’re doing,” he said. “I wanted to come out and see what they do and help them.”
Molloy said the group acted as ambassadors to people who come to Kenai for the dipnet fishery but aren’t familiar with the area.
He peered into his trash bag.
“I have plastic cans, bottles, paper, underwear, hats, gloves, all kinds of things,” he said. “I’ve been here for 15 minutes. It’s overwhelming.”
He said given the warm weather he was surprised at how many volunteers were willing to give up portions of their afternoons to clean the beaches.
“We get so few summer days,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible what they’re doing.”