Cleaning Up Marine Debris in Alaska’s National Parks

Hollis BoweNPF Blog
Black rocky beach with snow-covered mountains in the background

Alaska is not only America’s largest state, but it’s also home to more miles of coastline than the rest of the country combined — over 44,000! This coastline is beautiful, but it also exposes the state to a dangerous form of pollution: marine debris.

Marine debris is more than just everyday garbage — it includes toxic chemicals and materials from plastic products, building materials, industrial waste, land-based runoff, shipping and oil spills, and any other non-natural, solid material that ends up in the ocean.

Debris has been a critical and hazardous problem in Alaska for years for several reasons.

Image of Alaskan debris on beach

Accessing Alaska’s rugged and remote coastal areas to conduct cleaning is logistical challenge. The temperamental and brutal weather is only hospitable several months of the year. And debris can harm Alaska’s diverse and unique wildlife through entanglement, strangulation, and digestive blockage.  

Over the past several years, Alaska’s marine debris problem has grown increasingly serious. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc on Japan, destroying communities and lives. The tsunami washed a large amount of debris into the ocean and it has now reached the Alaskan coast and will continue to wash ashore over the next several years.

Image of Alaskan debris on pebbles

Among the worst affected are Kenai Fjords National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, and Katmai National Park & Preserve.

In 2015, a major clean-up initiative took place to remove marine debris and protect the pristine beaches within these parks. This effort was supported by a number of public and private partners, including the National Park Service, the National Park Foundation, and Waste Management, Inc., which coordinated barge transfer of the marine debris super sack caches from Kodiak through British Columbia.

Image of Alaskan debris and collection tools on pebbles

Local volunteers and partners for each park greatly contributed to the clean-up efforts: 

  • Wrangell-St. Elias worked with youths from the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and Youth Conservation Corps, as well as interns from the Student Conservation Association and Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP), who helped pickup and sort the debris. 
  • Kenai Fjords worked with volunteers from Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance to bag and sort the marine debris, as well as Port Graham Corporation who allowed access to their lands within park boundaries for beach clean-ups. 
  • Katmai partnered with boat operators for the M/V Ursus and M/V Waters to help remove marine debris from Ninagiak Island. 

The park beach clean-up project started in late May and finished in August of 2015. In total, more than 21,800 pounds (10.9 tons) of marine debris were removed from a total of 25 coastline miles in these three parks.

Volunteer team helps clean marine debris off Alaskan shore

Marine debris continues to be distributed along Alaska’s shores. However, the success in 2015 highlights the power of public-private partnerships and the role communities can play in the protection and preservation of their greatest resources: their local national parks.

Are you interested in getting involved? Do you volunteer your local park? Tell us about how you give back with the hashtag #FindYourPark and #EncuentraTuParque.

Image of beautiful clear Alaskan lake

*All photos courtesy of the National Park Service

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