This is wilderness, as wild as it gets. Kuiu Island’s intricate shorelines and high profile cut an imposing figure out on the western edge of Southeast Alaska, where bear and wolves roam the backcountry and humpback whales patrol the waters just off shore. There is a timeless quality to this remote corner of the planet, the distinct feel of a place apart, so far from the reach of modern life.
So far, and yet so incredibly near.
Plastic is an inescapable reality of today’s world. We manufacture over 300 million tons of plastic every year and each year sees approximately 8 million tons go into our oceans. Some of this flotsam sinks, some floats and some of it eventually makes its way ashore. Plastic is part of every beach on the planet – from Svalbard to the Antarctic – and the beaches of Kuiu Island are no exception.
The Ikkatsu Project was formed at the same time as debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami began to wash ashore in the Pacific Northwest. Whether it is conducting surveys by sea kayak on Washington’s roadless coast, collecting water samples in northwestern Cook Inlet for a global microplastics study, or working with students to set up field studies of fresh-water plastics, the Ikkatsu Project is dedicated to raising awareness of and advocating for the marine environment.
Last summer, after kayaking out to Cape Decision from Wrangell and encountering the littered beaches along the way, the idea for a purposeful return was something that stayed with me after I’d made it back home to the lower 48. It didn’t take long to decide to come back next year, with volunteers and a mission to remove what we can of the marine debris that we will encounter, including legacy Coast Guard refuse in the vicinity of the lighthouse.
Objectives for this project include cleaning four different beaches on the southern part of Kuiu, collecting data (debris surveys, sediment and water samples), and working to ensure the maximum level of reuse and recycling of the debris that is removed.
By collaborating with government agencies, schools, environmental organizations and individual volunteers, the South Kuiu Cleanup will not only result in measurably cleaner beaches and additional layers of valuable scientific data, it will also connect volunteers and the public to one of the wildest and most beautiful places on Earth.
By focusing on specific locations and consolidating debris for pickup, we expect to be able to effectively clean four separate beaches near the southern tip of Kuiu Island. The goal for the cleanup is to leave each beach virtually plastic-free when the 2018 project is over.
Collected debris will be loaded onto a boat and brought to Wrangell, where items will be separated into different categories, depending on whether they are to be reused, recycled or removed to a landfill. We are working with the Japan Environmental Action Network and Surfrider Japan about the possible reuse of recovered fishing gear, and other items may be used for art projects and curriculum development. Recycling will be an option for selected items and the remaining debris will be disposed of responsibly.
Every piece of plastic ever produced is still out there somewhere. It is estimated that there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans and in some areas, plastic particles are vastly more common than plankton.
By surveying the beaches and then cleaning them as fully as possible, we will be able to contribute to specific knowledge about the types and sources of the plastic that is found and deposition rates on wilderness island shorelines. Data collected will be available for follow-on research and coordinated with existing databases through the University of Puget Sound, NOAA and similar regional studies already completed elsewhere.
People care about what they know, and introducing the public to this amazing part of Alaska and the threats it is facing is critical to its eventual protection.
The actual cleanup and sorting work will be done by volunteers, people who give of their time and money to be able to spend valuable time in this wilderness environment. Articles and short films about the project will carry the message further and enlist others in helping to rethink our relationship with plastic. A series of informational presentations that will travel to various Southeast communities after the 2018 cleanup is complete is also part of the overall project.
By familiarizing people with the problem of marine debris and what it means for the future of the oceans, we can make an authentic and lasting difference in the way we see our planet, and the way we see ourselves.