Hundreds of tons of marine debris have been collected from the shores of Alaska and British Columbia as part of an unprecedented cleanup effort that an organizer says barely made a dent in the rubbish that remains on beaches.
A barge heaped with white, heavy-duty bags and loose piles of Styrofoam, bottles, commercial fishing gear, thousands of large buoys and floats and other debris arrived in Seattle on Thursday, three weeks after picking up its first load in Kodiak, Alaska.
Some of the debris collected likely was swept to sea by the 2011 tsunami in Japan, which killed thousands of people. But marine debris in general, including rubbish such as plastics and fishing nets, is an ongoing environmental problem.
In Seattle, volunteers will have to pick through the piles, sorting what can be recycled or returned and what must be taken by train to a disposal site in Oregon. Sorting isn't expected to begin until next month and could take a couple weeks to complete, said Janna Stewart, tsunami marine debris coordinator with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Still, project organizers were relieved when the barge docked in Seattle after a largely uneventful journey. There were no major weather delays along the way that would have racked up costs, and the bags held up as they were hoisted by helicopter to the barge from often remote, rocky beaches.
Officials say the project, unprecedented in scale in Alaska, was spurred by the amount of material that has washed ashore; the high cost of shuttling small boatloads of debris from remote sites to port; and a demand by the Anchorage landfill that fishing nets and lines — common debris items — be chopped up, a task that Stewart called impossible.
The mass of debris collected and loaded onto the barge, which is roughly the size of a football field, represents just 1 to 2 percent of the cleanup work that remains in Alaska, said Chris Pallister, president of the cleanup organization Gulf of Alaska Keeper, which coordinated the project.
Pallister is hopeful that Japanese volunteers might be available to assist in identifying any personal items or things from an identifiable region that could be returned.