Plastic was everywhere: nets, packing bands, ropes, bottles, floats a myriad jetsam from fishing and shipping fleets, and maybe some runoff from Pacific Rim urban centers, all of it snagged on the volcanic shores of St. Paul Island in the middle of the Bering Sea.
With sponsorship from the industry group Marine Conservation Alliance and help from St. Paul middle and high school students, a crew of volunteers and tribal workers has been wrestling this marine garbage since Thursday.
They've attacked it with pry bars, shovels, knives, bare hands and sweat. Their mission? Gather up as much as possible to keep northern fur seals and other wildlife from getting strangled or hurt.
So far, the crews have wrenched out about 10 tons of marine debris in four days, said Phillip Zavadil, co-director of the Ecosystem Conservation Office for the Tribal Government of St. Paul. They're going after more today. The annual cleanup, nestled between the end of winter and the spring return of seals, is at once exhausting, frustrating and infuriating.
''It's really labor-intensive, because that's the only way it can be done,'' Zavadil said in a phone interview. ''It's mainly by hand you dig it out, roll back rocks, pull it out or cut it away with a knife if need be.''
''It's really interesting because you go through a whole bunch of feelings, not just one feeling,'' added Aquilina Lestenkof, also co-director of the ecosystem conservation office and lifelong St. Paul resident.
In a sense, the influx of garbage to St. Paul is a local example of a growing worldwide problem caused by junk that rides the waves in curtains of death or washes up as intertidal traps.
Ocean junk is thought to be responsible for the deaths of uncounted thousands of fish, mammals and birds every year in the Pacific Ocean. It strangles limbs and necks, clogs digestion, fouls habitat with poisons or garbage.
''The most appalling thing to me is when we come across oil containers, either in the quart size or the five-gallon buckets,'' Zavadil said. ''Usually, there is nothing in them, but you know that when they went over, they had oil in them.''
Pribilof Island's beaches serve as haulouts and rookeries for hundreds of thousands of northern fur seals. While the animals live most of their lives on the open sea, they come ashore each spring and summer to breed and produce young. Seabirds nest in the cliffs and volcanic rock, and the nearshore areas serve as a nursery for important marine species.
For the seals an essential subsistence and cultural species co-managed by Natives and the National Marine Fisheries Service marine garbage poses a direct threat. With pup counts down in the past few years and overall numbers well below historic population levels, people feel a sense of mission to clear their terrestrial habitat.
''It doesn't have to catch them and drown them,'' said Ron Clarke, executive director of the alliance and a cleanup volunteer. ''Just have a shred of material round their neck, it's an energy drain. ... Every scrap of plastic debris we pick up is no longer an entanglement hazard for these animals.''
In 2002, about 200 seals were found entangled with debris, and a tribal crew funded with a federal grant was able to remove ropes or nets from 80 animals, Zavadil said. Last season, the numbers were somewhat lower.
''If the debris doesn't come off, they will eventually die,'' he said.
Part of the reason has been a decade of cleanup. Last year, 17 tons of debris was shipped in a container from St. Paul to a landfill in Unalaska, and another 80 tons has been stored in a rock quarry owned by the St. Paul Native Tanadgusiz Corp.
The original cleanup was small. Lestenkof said she was struck by how much garbage was snarled on a beach where she collected driftwood to heat her home. In May 1993, she went out alone and gathered about 400 pounds of junk. Call it an education.
''It was kind of payback for all the wood I had gotten,'' she said. ''I think it also gave me a little bit of perspective, and a good time to think about how we could be doing this.''
The next year, Lestenkof directed youth campers with the Pribilof Islands Stewardship Program to spend some of their time cleaning community beaches. Federal employees or contractors have pitched in some years. Workers at opilio crab processing also volunteered occasionally during down time.
''It's gone over every year since then,'' Lesten-kof said. The sheer amount of flotsam and junk can be amazing, Clarke said. ''We hit a beach yesterday that I had not been to before on the north side of the island with just an unbelievable amount of stuff.''
Packing bands, fishing nets, ropes, Korean water bottles, Japanese soup canisters. Clarke said he kept thinking of the famous ''Plastics'' line in the 1967 movie ''The Graduate'' ''it's just everywhere,'' he said of St. Paul.
Another thought that arose during long days of rooting through beach rock and tugging on nets: Where does it come from?
''There's no way to know,'' Clarke said. ''That's one of the big challenges of this. If we could figure that out, maybe we figure out how to shut this off.''
Doug O'Harra is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.
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