More marine debris cleanup projects coming to Alaska

marine debris
Marine debris collected on Gore Point. (Aaron Bolton/KBBI)

Plastic, wood, fishing nets and buoys are just some of the waste that washes up on even the most remote parts of Alaska’s coastline. Now, programs aimed at cleaning up that marine debris are getting a funding boost from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – thanks to an influx of grant money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Nearly $14 million in federal funding is earmarked for two separate programs aimed at cleaning up marine debris in the state. The money is distributed through NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that was passed in 2021.

Peter Murphy is Alaska’s regional debris coordinator with NOAA. He said the new programs go beyond just cleaning up existing debris.

“But also prevention, finding ways to reduce how much is getting into the ocean, because at the end of the day, we’re not going to be able to clean our way out of the problem,” he said.

Of that money, $5.85 million will go to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to establish a Center for Marine Debris based in Kodiak, that will serve as a kind of a regional headquarters for marine debris removal projects across the state. The center will eventually be able to process and recycle debris that is shipped there.

Partner organizations on the project include Alaska Sea Grant, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Douglas Indian Association, Matson, the Native Village of Port Heiden and the Ocean Plastics Recovery Project.

The other project is focused on removing abandoned fishing gear from Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast, and $8 million will go to that project, which is spearheaded by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. But it will also include a grant program that organizations in Alaska can tap into.

Murphy said abandoned gear is a problem across the country — and it has a big impact on fisheries. For instance, a study in Southeast Alaska showed that abandoned crab pots were still catching crabs and other marine animals years after they were lost.

“Fishing gear is a specifically impactful type of marine debris, because once it gets lost or abandoned in the marine environment, it does what it was intended to do. It continues to catch animals but it does so indiscriminately,” he said.

Money for both programs is included in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for this year, and both the marine debris and fishing gear cleanup programs are set to start this summer.

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