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Managing marine debris on Alaska’s Montague Island

By Heather Hintze 7:13 PM June 1, 2016

The secluded shores of Montague Island may be scenic, but they’re anything but pristine.

Clumps of Styrofoam, brightly colored fishing buoys and millions of plastic water bottles are tucked in between driftwood.

“Most people are completely unaware you can pull up on a remote Alaska beach and it will be completely trashed,” said Eric Pallister, a marine debris specialist with the nonprofit organization Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK).

He and his crew of nine other men have been working on Montague Island for the past three summers.

Montague is the largest uninhabited island in the United States. On the edge of Prince William Sound, about 60 miles from Cordova, its coastline catches tons of marine debris.

“It’s pretty mind blowing,” said Scott Groves. “I wasn’t prepared to see this and I wasn’t expecting to see it as much as I am.”

The garbage really piles up at Patton Bay, a few miles down the beach from where the men are currently working.

“Big tires, tons of huge fishing buoys, nets,” Pallister listed off. “Tons of Styrofoam, everywhere.”

GoAK estimates about half of the debris washed up is from the 2011 Japan tsunami; garbage also comes from container spills and ship wrecks. About 80 percent of the plastic bottles found come from overseas.

At the rate the crew is cleaning– less than a quarter mile per day– it will take them about eight years to clean the 74 miles of the outer coast of Montague Island.

“It kind of makes me sad,” Pallister sighed. “It’s a huge problem. Plastics haven’t been around that long. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in another 50, 100 years from now.”

The men spend 30 days camped on a boat near the island and have a helicopter shuttle them to the cleanup sites every morning. All of the trash gets stuffed into “super sacks” that will be airlifted out in July. A helicopter will bring the garbage back to Anchorage where the team will sift through to find the recyclables.

The work isn’t just demanding, it’s expensive. Each mile of coastal cleanup costs the group about $100,000. A lot of the money comes from grants. Japan gave the U.S. $5 million for tsunami debris cleanup. That’s used on an “as needed” basis. GoAK said, so far, Alaska’s burned through about $3.5 million.

“It never ends. It goes on forever,” Pallister said, looking over the debris at Patton Bay. He’s been a part of GoAK for 12 years and said all of the long days are worth it. “You do what you can to make the world a better place. It’s not much, but it’s something.”

He said everyone needs to do their part– whether it’s cleaning up the trash or recycling to prevent debris in the first place– to keep Alaska’s beaches from becoming an ocean landfill.

KTVA 11’s Heather Hintze can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.

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