Bering Sea – Plastic waste in the Arctic | Polarjournal
Garbage collected on the beaches of the Bering Sea in Alaska. (Austin Ahmasuk)

Garbage drifting from Asia to Alaska’s beaches is nothing new. But this year, there is a mysterious and disturbing tide that is piling up along the coasts of the Bering Strait communities in Alaska. Communities were inundated with large amounts of plastic waste, beverage crates, cans and other debris.

The beaches are littered with washed-up rubbish and are collected and disposed of by the villagers in painstaking work. (Photo: Department of Environmental Conservation)

Most of the debris appears to be of foreign origin, with bottles and packaging bearing Russian and Korean characters. The rubbish first appeared on St. Laurence Island at the end of July 2020 and has since spread to other areas.

Communities such as Unalakleet, Gambell, Savoonga and Nome have reported and documented an increase in the flooding of this debris. ‘It’s horrible. It’s really horrible,” said Austin Ahmasuk, an advocate for the marine environment of the Native- organization Kawerak Inc. “It comes and comes and comes.”

Residents at the scene catalog what they found and report it to NOAA,Ahmasuk said. “I estimate that about 15 to 20 percent are made up of containers that are made of some kind of petroleumproduct,”he said.

Community members across the region have mobilized to clean up the rubbish, but the exact source of the waste is still unknown.

Unlike the usual beach debris that has been washed up for years, these items appear to be more recent, said Ahmasuk and Peter Murphy, coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine litter program in Alaska. Some of the items even have stamps with the 2020 date, they said.

In a press release, Kawerak documented a number of specific reports, including one from August 3, in which two residents of the municipality of Gambell filled 19 garbage bags with plastic over a five-kilometre stretch of beach, with each bag weighing about 25 kilograms.

Threatening strangulation by a fishing net made of plastic around the neck. Plastic waste kills thousands of marine organisms every year. (Photo: Wildlife)

The flooding of the garbage comes at a particularly bad time. Many of the organized beach cleanups in the Bering Strait region and elsewhere along the Alaskan coast have been reduced or stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On the island of St. Paul in the Bering Sea, the annual summer beach clean-up was cancelled this year. The event, which has been held annually since 1998, collected nearly 10,000 kilograms of washed-up rubbish last year. Travel restrictions make it difficult to bring equipment and additional manpower to support clean-up. The collection and disposal of debris is thus left to individuals.

As the Arctic ice becomes thinner and melts, more and more rubbish will be washed up in the future, making pollution almost unavoidable.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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