Presented by the Senate Ocean’s Caucus: Marine Debris Briefing – Highlighting Alaska’s Growing Challenges

Opening remarks were made by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).


Panelists included the following experts:

  • Nancy Wallace, Marine Debris Program Director, NOAA Office of Response & Restoration Marine Debris Program
  • Chris Pallister, Gulf of Alaska Keeper
  • Victoria O’Connell, Research Director at the Sitka Sound Science Center
  • FredJay Ivanoff, St. Lawrence Island Marine Debris Coordinator
  • Scott Anderson, Alaska Native Village of Port Heiden


Sen. Whitehouse commented that there are two main issues causing excess debris on Alaska shorelines: insufficient upland waste infrastructure in Asian countries where the debris is flowing from, and ocean data monitoring. He suggested trade policies could be used to reach a solution on these matters.


Sen. Murkowski said this briefing was to highlight marine debris from the state perspective of Alaska, which has nearly 34,000 miles of coastline on which debris can arrive from incoming currents.


The currents lead debris from Asian countries across the Pacific to the Alaska coastlines. The multitude of debris arriving on Alaskan coasts is caused by insufficient infrastructure and poor upstream waste management in Asian countries.


But following the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the amount of debris on Alaska’s shores has dramatically increased.


Nancy Wallace highlighted another impact marine debris is causing: fishing equipment that is released into the ocean still catches fish when it is out there. This causes economic loss of species that can no longer be caught to sell.


To address this problem and support policy change, Wallace said NOAA’s Marine Debris Program utilizes research and data in the area of gear assessment and modification.


Wallace said detection is an important aspect when it comes to removing debris from shorelines. This allows for the ability to prioritize the areas of the most importance where there are the highest quantities of waste.


Chris Pallister stated that after the 2011 tsunami, the Japanese government provided $5 million to the U.S. for cleaning up the debris. This is money the U.S. does not have to address marine debris clean up if there was a similar domestic natural disaster like it does for other crises, such as the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF).


Furthermore, Pallister highlighted one of the marine debris items that has come over from the Japan tsunamis are aquaculture buoys that are expensive and still in working condition. There could even be a market to resell these, but right now, there isn’t marketability of these due to high shipping costs.


FredJay Ivanoff also brought up other types of debris that could have market potential: plastic bottles and trawl nets. The cost of shipping is the main barrier to recycling plastic bottles and other commonly recycled items. There are so many ways that trawl nets could be used, but again, the costs to get them to the places where they could be used are just too high, he said.


Remarks were made about the promise of the increase in Arctic shipping in the future. It provides an opportunity for removal of all this debris. Programs could be arranged with ships to get them on board to pick up debris, like better tax credits or carbon emission offsets.