Inadvertent though Pebble’s role might be, the hugely controversial, proposed, copper mine near Lake Iliamna clearly deserves some credit for inspiring at least a small effort to pick up some of the most common litter in Bristol Bay.
Nakek fishermen Nels Ure last week told Alaska Public Media he has collected dozens of styrofoam gillnet floats, or what the story called “corks” in deference to what kept the nets afloat, since seeing a social media post about how other fishermen are using the floats to send anti-Pebble messages to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in Washington, D.C.
A decade ago, a University of Alaska Fairbanks report on “Marine Debris in Alaska” made two key observations about where the flotsam and jetsam comes from and what needs to be done.
- ‘The bulk in weight and volume of marine debris collected on shore
is derelict fishing gear.”
- “Incentives for fishermen to collect marine debris at sea and dispose of it on land must be developed.”
Pebble appears to have offered up an incentive to at least pick up the litter the U.S. Postal Service will accept as mail. What to do with the rest of it remains a problem.
Old fishing gear almost daily accumulates on beaches from Bristol Bay south around the Alaska Peninsula into the Gulf of Alaska and east and south along the Gulf Coast.
“Commercial fishing debris from all over the North Pacific is the greatest contributor by both weight and volume to Alaska’s plastic marine-debris problem,” Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a non-profit engaged in a beach clean up, says in its latest report.
“Derelict commercial fishing lines, nets, and packing bands are deadly to marine life and are the most difficult and expensive to remove of all the
plastic marine debris. They become entangled in logs and rock and
buried in the beach substrate making extraction extremely challenging.”
Alaska is not alone with this problem.
“Abandoned, lost or disposed of fishing gear accounts for about a third of marine litter found in European seas, or over 11.000 tons per year,” according to the European Commission. “Almost half of the ‘great garbage patch’ in the Pacific Ocean consists of such fishing gear. We estimate that in the EU, 20 percent of gear is lost at sea. The reasons for this loss vary, ranging from accidents, storms and entanglement to intentional abandonment.”
The European Parliament earlier this year set in motion an “extended producer responsibility scheme” to force manufacturers of commercial fishing gear cover some of the costs of clean up “in line with the polluter-pays principle,” according to a May directive.
Fishing waste reduction efforts in the U.S. have largely focused on sport fishermen. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, various state governments, and the BoatUS Foundation along with other non-government organizations have been heavily involved in trying to get anglers to recycle used monofilament line instead of just toss it.
The bins have cut down on litter, but anglers still find discarded monofilament along the Russian and almost everywhere else people fish in Alaska.
And it’s not just anglers tossing fishing litter.
Almost anywhere along the Copper River from the McCarthy Road bridge downstream for about 20 miles to Haley Creek – the lower boundary of the river’s popular, personal-use dipnet fishery – broken and discarded aluminum dipnet poles, hoops and nets.
There is more, too, from empty soda and beer cans to worn-out tents to folding camp chairs someone decided were just too much trouble to pack out.
Environmental ethics generally seem to be evolving for the better in Alaska, according to most of those who spend a lot of time outdoors, but it’s a slow process.
Americans have for decades been conditioned to life in a throwaway society. It is always easier to throw out the broken old and buy the new, and it is often cheaper as measured by time, money or both.
If you’re a fisherman, you could spend hours mending a badly torn net, or you could toss it and go buy a new one.
“A friend of mine from India tells a story about driving an old Volkswagen beetle from California to Virginia during his first year in the United States. In a freak ice storm in Texas he skidded off the road, leaving his car with a cracked windshield and badly dented doors and fenders.
“When he reached Virginia he took the car to a body shop for a repair estimate. The proprietor took one look at it and said, ‘It’s totaled.’ My Indian friend was bewildered: ‘How can it be totaled? I just drove it from Texas!’
“My friend’s confusion was understandable. While ‘totaled’ sounds like a mechanical term, it’s actually an economic one: if the cost of repairs is more than the car will be worth afterwards, the only economically ‘rational’ choice is to drive it to the junkyard and buy another one.”
Plenty of Alaska litter is spawned by perfectly rational decisions. If the sockeye salmon are running thick on the Russian River today, as they have been all week, someone who doesn’t know how to properly operate a spinning reel (see proper operation here) will twist up her monofilament, and it will lead to a nasty bird’s nest.
About the only thing to do then is cut the twisted line off the reel. At that point, you can run to find one of those line recycling bins. But if the fish are on the move, as they usually are in the Russian, the rational thing to do is keep fishing and deal with the discarded line later.
Thus it gets tossed on the bank or a gravel bar to be picked on the way back to the car. Only later you’re half a mile downstream with a limit of sockeye to haul back, and it just isn’t worth your time and effort (or so you believe) to divert back to pick up the discarded line and haul it out.
You need an incentive as Pebble has given the commercial fishermen of the Bay.
Now, if only there could be found a political way to incentivize everyone to pick up not only their own litter but that of others.