Mysterious waves of marine trash, much of it Russian, wash ashore on Alaska’s Bering Strait beaches

“It just keeps coming and keeps coming.”

By Yereth Rosen - September 3, 2020
Trash collected from Alaska’s Bering Sea beaches. (Austin Ahmasuk)

Marine trash drifting from Asia to Alaska beaches is nothing new. But this year, there is a mysterious and disturbing deluge, and it is piling up on shorelines in Alaska’s Bering Strait communities.

Communities from have been swamped with large loads of plastic bottles, drink boxes, cans with remnants of solvents and petroleum products and other debris, much of it printed with Russian language labels. The trash first showed up on St. Lawrence Island at the end of July and has since spread in pulses to other areas.

“It’s terrible. It’s really terrible,” said Austin Ahmasuk, marine advocate for the Nome-based tribal organization Kawerak Inc. “It just keeps coming and keeps coming.”

Unlike the usual beach trash, which can drift around for years before washing ashore, these items appear fresh, said Ahmasuk and Peter Murphy, Alaska coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program. There are even 2020 date stamps on some of the items, they said.

The freshness and the pattern of emergence, with large clumps showing up sequentially, are signs that this is something much different than the usual marine debris, Murphy said.

“It’s consistent with a point-source release, a bunch of stuff going into the ocean at one time,” he said.

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The waves of trash come at a particularly bad time. Many of the organized beach cleanups in the Bering Strait region and elsewhere in coastal Alaska have been reduced in scope or put on hold entirely because of the coronavirus pandemic. On St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, for example, the annual summer beach cleanup — an annual event that has been conducted since 1998 and that collected nearly 20,000 pounds of debris last year — was called off this year. Travel restrictions make it difficult to bring in equipment and extra workers to support cleanups. That leaves debris collection and disposal work to individuals.

“We’re continuing to go out to camp, we’re continuing to go out to fish, and then we end up being first responders,” Ahmasuk said.  “It just keeps rolling in. Every time I go to camp there is something new.”

It can be a heavy load — literally. One mother-daughter duo on St. Lawrence Island collected nearly 19 bags, each with about 50 pounds of trash, over a three-mile span, Kawerak reported.

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The waves of beach trash are rolling in at a time when vessel traffic on the Russian side of the Bering Strait is high.

Russia has been staging its biggest post-Soviet navy exercise in the Bering Sea, with more than 50 warships and dozens of aircraft. Amid the operation was a clash with U.S. fishermen harvesting pollock in the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

There are also many fishing vessels currently operating in Russia’s Gulf of Anadyr, and there has been some pollock fishing conducted in the Russian portion of the Chukchi Sea.

But no relationship between the military exercises or Russian fishing has been evident, Murphy said. “There’s nothing in the debris at present that would indicate any linkage there,” he said.

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NOAA, which Kawerak enlisted to help in the case, is using some oil-spill analysis to try to track the flow and possibly pinpoint the source, he said.

Local people are cataloging what they have found and reporting that to NOAA, Ahmasuk said. He estimates that about 15 percent to 20 percent consists of containers that held some kind of petroleum product, which raises concerns about hazardous wastes in the environment. “And the scary thing is that’s just what’s floating,” he said.

Kawerak has also sought help from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Ahmasuk said the communities are looking for solutions. “We need someone to stop it. We need to find someone who is culpable,” he said. “We need action.”