This paper was written as part of the 2011 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

The implications of increased marine debris on Unalaska Bay


Kevin Huynh
Alysha McGuire
Ashleigh Radvansky
Tiny Regis
Valerie Sours
Alex Wilson

Team Teal Turtles

Unalaska City High School
PO Box 570
Unalaska, AK 99685


Pollution across the world is increasing at an exponentially rate. Marine debris is a type of pollution that can effect everything in nearshore ecosystems from the smallest copepod to the largest whale. The devastating effect of marine debris can be seen on global scales but can be equally important on very local scales. The community of Unalaska is faced with increased marine debris in the future due to increased transportation, increased population numbers and decreased ability to economically sort out the garbage. In this paper we will review the current state of local ecosystem and the negative impact it is having on our resources. We present an ecosystem approach to managing these resources in view of increased marine debris and make suggestions for future research.


Pollution affects many environmental attributes to include the air, land, water, soil, noise, radioactive, thermal, light, visual, etc. The list of pollution sources seems endless but is often linked to chemical and nuclear plants, industrial factories, oil refineries, human sewage, oil and antifreeze leaking from cars, mining, littering, overcrowded landfills, deforestation, and construction debris (Green Student 2010, Mayntz 2010). Each year, U.S. factories release 3 million tons of toxic chemicals into the environment (Greet Student, 2010). The impact of this hazardous waste is far reaching and leads to respiratory problems, cancer and other health concerns. In some areas, the waste pollution is so bad that fresh water sources, such as, rivers and lakes, are dangerous to drink or even to swim. The diversity and amount of pollution in our environment is alarming and, unfortunately, is a problem that is increasing every year. Regardless of the media coverage and global understanding that pollution is on the rise, this is a problem that we have yet to find a solution.

Of the many types of pollution in our world, marine debris is quickly becoming an important issue because of its effects on wildlife, fisheries, and recreational use. Marine debris is considered any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally. Marine debris has many detrimental effects on the environment. Plastic particles harm many animals and can pollute the water with manufactured chemicals that could potentially harm marine organisms. The small plastic particles resemble zooplankton which confuses many animals into ingesting it. When the plastic is consumed, it is then added to the food chain and passed on from organism to organism. Plastic also comes in larger forms that can be consumed by marine mammals, in turn causing it to be lodged in the animals intestines and other food passages in the animals body. Plastic can also get wrapped around the exterior of many fish, mammals, and birds which can impair their way of life and may even cause them to die (Figure 1). The plastic can also restrict the animals' movement which can lead to the animal starving to death or becoming easy prey for other animals.

The impact of marine debris and pollution in general may have the largest impacts on third world countries because of a lack of restrictions on pollution or companies that are contributing pollution to the marine environment. Many of these countries are in extreme poverty and generally have poor environmental conditions they don't have the ability to clean up. Unfortunately many of these poverty stricken nations are having difficulty feeding themselves so environmental degradation isn't often seen as important.

The United States is considered by many to be a progressive country, though pollution is a problem we share with the rest of the world. In the U.S., pollution problems are increasing along with the increase in population. Within two centuries, the human population of the world has tripled. In 2010 the United States population was estimated to be roughly 310,840,652 people; from there you can only imagine how many people we had here two centuries ago (US and World Population Clocks).

The types of pollution that we face in the United States span every possible environment in our ecosystem. There are many problems that we have to face and find solutions for, though the scope and scale of the problem is quite daunting. The main types of pollution that people focus on are air, water, and land pollution. These three types of pollution effect our environment in different ways and though they are on the minds of many Americans, little is being done to stem the tide.

Air pollution, though it is difficult to directly observe, come from cars, cigarettes, factories, and other things that we use or do on a daily basis (Air, Water, and Land Pollution, 2010). It affects the air, which keeps us alive, and makes it harmful to breathe in certain areas where concentrated air pollution can be visible. Land pollution is also a large concern for all Americans these days. All of the trash that people produce everyday is placed into huge dumps and landfills. The garbage collects and gathers up in large piles where more is piled onto it. It affects the growth of plants, interrupts the food chain, and the many different materials can be harmful to the different environments that it is in. Water pollution impacts the animals that depend on the ocean for their livelihood, but also impacts humans that spend time, money or effort making a living in and around coastal zones.

In the United States, between Hawaii and California in the Pacific there is a pile of garbage called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex. The Vortex is a floating pile of trash that is about 80% land trash and 20% trash from boats. The majority of the trash is plastic, which is not biodegradable. The Vortex is about two times the size of Texas and weighs roughly 3.5 million tons, more than the gross weight of the Titanic (The Trash Vortex, 2010). The Vortex has some serious negative repercussions on the environment including trash washing up and cluttering the beaches, marine mammals and birds eating the debris or getting tangled and many others. Another problem is that the Vortex is that is such a massive floating island of garbage that transports various species to places outside their natural ecosystems. Animals that travel using the plastic are called "Ocean Hitchhikers" and though many believe this wouldn't be a problem, it actually is (Van Hook). The species traveling might die due to being in a new place that is too hard on them and they can't survive the living conditions or they eat food that's supposed to be for the species that are there naturally causing them to die off. In addition to being harmful to the livelihoods of marine mammals or birds, that same debris that affects humans because we hunt the mammals and birds to either sell or eat ourselves. Marine debris also impacts our recreational enjoyment of coastlines and our potential for tourism.

Alaska is considered by many to be a pristine state with comparatively fewer pollution problems then the rest of the country. Unfortunately, Alaska has its own pollution problems to deal with in terms of water, air, and land pollution. One example of land pollution in Alaska is caused by trash being thrown out rather than recycled. Many communities in Alaska are rural which makes things harder and more expensive to recycle. However, there are few places in Alaska that do recycle. Prior to 2001, the Alaska State Fair did not have a recycling program and two organizations, the Valley Community for Recycling Solutions and Green Star, came together to create one. British Petroleum (BP) signed the first year's contract supporting and sponsoring the program. BP's representative said the program is "good for the people to see," because it causes people to think twice about what they are doing with their trash. This program caught the attention of many and in the first year, they collected a total of 14.5 tons of recyclable materials. This impressive number represented roughly 10 percent (measured by weight) of the total waste generated that year. (Alaska State Fair Recycling Program). Another example of pollution in Alaska are the hundreds of toxic waste dumps spread along Alaska's coast and adjacent to lakes, streams and freshwater aquifers. The problem is that the contamination of these facilities is poorly understood. Seventy-nine percent of rural Alaskans get their drinking water from small water systems or private wells, which are not currently monitored for toxic substances (West, 2010).

In many rural Alaska communities, dealing with pollution is often more of an economic issue than it is an aesthetic issue. Because of the distance away from transportation hubs like Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks, small communities have to export much of their trash hundreds of miles, which can be quite expensive. The other option is to use garbage dumps and landfills locally, which are less costly, but difficult to maintain and easy to overuse. Unalaska is one of those communities that deal with their own garbage via an ever-expanding landfill. In addition, Unalaska will actually take garbage from other local communities, such as Akutan, King Cove, Cold Bay, Sandpoint, and Chignik that are too small to have their own waste facilities. The pollution problem in Unalaska, and the region, has been carefully guarded for the last two decades and promises to be a problem for us in the future.

In this paper, we will discuss our local ecosystem, how it is being affected by marine debris, and we will propose an economical approach to managing our pollution in the future.

Our Ecosystem

The "ecosystem approach" to monitoring lies in the protection of the marine environment, the sustainable use of its natural resources, and the conservation of its biodiversity. All of these processes, along with human beings in the equation, create the mosaic in what we currently call the ecosystem. The development and application of the ecosystem approach focuses on the critical ecological processes, the ecosystem interactions and the chemical, physical, and biological environment. The ecosystem approach is comprehensive. It's based on all of the biological resources within an area and it considers the economic health of the communities located within. The ecosystem approach is considered to be fundamental to achieving sustainable use and protection of the marine environment.

Alaska's oceans and coastal areas are unlike any other in the country in terms of their size, productivity, environmental quality, and management. The Bering Sea is the most productive area of the Northern high latitude seas that serve as home to 450 species of fish and invertebrates, 50 species of birds and 25 species of marine mammals (Johnson, 2003). Its waters border the Aleutian Island Chain, comprised of 200 islands spanning a thousand miles from the Alaska mainland to Russia. The Aleutian Islands, most of which are part of Alaska, stretch out 2200 km (1200 nautical miles) west of the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

The community of Unalaska is located 800 miles southwest of Anchorage and is accessible only by boat or plane. A ferry ride from Homer to Unalaska costs roughly $345 and a plane ride from Anchorage to Unalaska costs roughly $900. The cost of living in Unalaska is tremendous as shipping is the key means to getting goods to the island. The increased costs of moving cargo by boat is one of many challenges we have in attempting to alleviate our pollution problem.

The near shore ecosystem of Unalaska Bay is made up of rocky to sandy shorelines, kelp forests, estuaries and shallow reefs. Unalaska Bay is home to hundreds of different types of invertebrates, fish, birds, and marine mammals. We have ESA listed humpback whales, sea otters, and Steller sea lions that frequent our shores as well as whiskered auklets which are found nowhere else in the world. Another very important part of our ecosystem is the more than 4,000 locals that live and survive because of a fisheries-based ecosystem. Unalaska is one of the few places in the world where a culture dating back 6,000 years is still actively practiced and like all of the things mentioned above depend heavily on our local marine ecosystem.

The types of trash that we have in Unalaska is quite different from many of Alaska's other communities because of our heavy reliance on local fisheries, though we have domestic garbage issues like most communities. The primary sources of domestic trash in Unalaska are plastic, metal, glass, and rubber all of which are not biodegradable. The occurrence of these types of materials in our marine debris is ubiquitous. Most of the materials found the beaches of Unalaska are easily found around our harbor. This type of debris often will fall or is blown into the water and is not retrieved. Another type of material that is very known and native to Unalaska is derelict fishing gear (DFG), which refers to nets, lines, crab/shrimp pots, and other recreational or commercial fishing equipment. These items are very common to Unalaska because fishing is what makes up Unalaska's economy.

Though trash in some local bays is heavy, we do not see many of the impacts of this debris on most of these subtidal organisms. Potential threats to local species, include getting tangled in the lost nets underwater, choking after trying to eat the bits of debris, and taking in toxins that are mixed in with the water from certain types of metals or plastics.

Our Approach

We have come up with an ecosystem approach to managing marine debris in Unalaska through a combination of baseline data collection, monitoring marine debris disposition and interactions with local organisms over time, waging large scale public relations campaign, and promoting local reuse and recycling. We will begin with attempting to determine what kinds of marine debris are showing up on our beaches by cataloging type and, if possible, origin of debris. We will use the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program Data Card produced by The Ocean Conservancy (Figures 3 and 4). After we have established the types of debris we are getting, we will then continue to monitor local beaches to determine both the type and potentially the origin of marine debris that is washed ashore and any type of interaction with local wildlife.

Once we know what types of debris are showing up, how often, and where it's coming from, we then hope that we can find a solution to the problem and keep it from continuing. With help from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, we will tell locals and visitors about our problem and propose what they can do to help. We will do this by posting flyers, creating ads to display, and ask local businesses to show that they are supporting our efforts. We will encourage innovative programs to reuse of some of the garbage that is currently in our landfill, in particular fishing line and nets. With minimal economic investment fishing gear could reused for other types of fishing, domestic uses, or even for artistic application. Depending on the type of material, it could be reused to make other items. For example, if it was plastic line that it could be melted down and used for other types of plastic usage. Finally, we will build consensus in establishing a trial recycling program in Unalaska. We hope to present it to the city and find a way to make it work so that way all of Unalaska is aware and knows how to help.

This is an ecosystem approach because we will begin with looking at local beaches for current and future garbage and determine the sources. We will keep an eye out for interaction between garbage and local species which regulate impacts on wildlife. The PR effort will reduce input of garbage into the system with state and federal wildlife managers. Finally we will attempt to reduce the garbage that we have been looking into innovative reuse and recycling methods. In essence we look to reduce, reuse, and recycle. As an end result of our ecosystem approach to managing marine debris in Unalaska, we will also be offering grants to organizations that will work to assist us in our endeavors. Research priorities and funds are listed below:

Baselie data collection ($200,000)

This research priority includes any research that will establish information concerning marine debris on local beaches. These funds can be used to pay for people to walk the beaches and take notes of what kind of debris there is. This may also includes paying for the materials needed which can range from paper and pencils to warm/waterproof clothing for the data collector.

Long-term monitoring of species/debris interaction ($200,000)

This research priority will pay for materials or personnel to monitoring set beaches for aggregations of new debris or degradation of old debris. This may also include materials that help us be able to collect data about water quality, wildlife interactions, or other long-term impacts to the ecosystem.

Small community recycling ($200,000)

This research priority is for finding new ways to reuse or recycle any kind of garbage in Unalaska. This priority will also have an outreach component to encourage locals to get involved.

Recycling or reuse of fishing gear ($200,000)

This research priority will focus primarily on fishing gear and anything related to the fishing industry. Innovative projects that are able to reuse materials for the benefit of the community will be given priority.

Ecosystem modeling ($200,000)

This research priority will look at the large-scale impacts of marine debris on local or regional ecosystems, how ecosystems are changing because of marine debris, and modeling future impacts of increased debris.

Total: $1,000,000


In the future it is likely the international, national, and state-wide pollution will increase. Through our efforts we hope to save our beaches, our local waters, our marine life, and ultimately, ourselves. Possible increases in marine debris maybe increased international traffic, debris from oil exploration traffic, or cargo traffic making use of open waters north of Alaska. It is our hope that our efforts will be a beacon for other small communities to see that marine debris is a large problem that is only going to get worse unless we identify and stop it at the source, educate ourselves, and finally reduce, reuse, and recycle what we already have.


picture of the Pacific Trash Vortex

Figure 1. The Pacific Trash Vortex.
Source: Retrieved from

picture of bird carcass with garbage exposed in its stomach contents

Figure 2. A bird carcass with ingested debris showing.

front page of the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program data card

Figure 3. Page 1 of the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program Data Card.

back page of the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program data card

Figure 4. Page 2 of the National Debris Monitoring Program Data Card