Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the source of funding for the trip to Augustine Island.
On Augustine Island, human footprints are rare. Evidence of humans is not.
“Whoa, more buoys!” Johannes Bynagle shouted as he ran down the beach, crisscrossing piles of driftwood logs and tangles of seaweed. His friend Gautoma Iwamura, nicknamed Baba, followed close behind.
“Guys, guys, we’re not just here to get the buoys,” Derek Bynagle called after them, rebalancing a five-gallon bucket full of water bottles, a glass alcohol bottle and foam chunks on his hip. “We have to get the little stuff, too.”
The two boys pulled the orange and black buoys down to the sand and continued to gather up stray chunks of foam, plastic water jugs and single-use beverage bottles littering the dusky volcanic sand of the beach. Overhead, the snow-capped Augustine Volcano bent the clouds, overlooking the island composed of volcanic material from hundreds of years of eruptions past.
Augustine Island, set just inside the mouth of Kamishak Bay on the west side of Cook Inlet about 80 miles southwest of Homer, is one of the most remote places in the Cook Inlet area. Uninhabited, the island is little more than a rocky circle around the central spike of the volcano.
However, the island’s eastern beach facing Cook Inlet is littered with all manner of marine debris. The Bynagles and Iwamura walked the long beach with bright yellow trash bags, gathering up the small pieces they could fit into the bags and tying together buoys with stray sections of cord, at one point unearthing a fish tote lid and using it as an impromptu sledge to load a variety of large pieces of trash. The participants were there as part of a trip organized by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, a Homer-based environmental education and conservation nonprofit. For two days, they wandered the island’s coasts, collecting trash and observing the wildlife and plant life present there.
Further down the beach, another 20-some people did the same. They spread out along approximately three miles of the windy coast, ranging up into the uplands to hunt for whatever the tide washed in.
The Augustine Island trip, funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was an extension of coastal cleanups the group already does in Homer, picking up cigarette butts and trash from along the Homer beaches and coast, and in other locations such as Gore Point. However, the organization staff had never done a cleanup on Augustine Island, said Henry Reiske, environmental educator and coastwalk coordinator for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.
“It’s a location where not many people go, so we can really see the effects we have even though nobody lives here,” he said.
He said the coordinators weren’t expecting so much trash volume along the coast. In a few hours Sunday afternoon, the first day of the trip, the participants amassed such a pile of debris that the boat crew had to do some Tetris to fit all the bags and pieces on board.
The international issue of ocean pollution has drawn attention from bodies as high as the United Nations. In December 2016, a UN report highlighted how marine debris is affecting 817 species of marine life and constitutes an increasing threat to human health. Plastic is the biggest offender, according to the report, with items like food wrappers and bottle caps that can fragment into microplastics that can harm fish, mammals and birds if swallowed.
“Plastic production has grown exponentially since the 1950s and is expected to continue at an increasing rate over the coming decades,” the UN report states. “According to current estimates, between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste entered the marine environment in 2010.”
This week, the UN is hosting a conference on oceans, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opening the conference with a warning about the density of plastic waste in the ocean. The conference is expected to result in a Call for Action with an international agreement to implement long-term strategies to reduce the use of plastics and microplastics, among other ocean-conservation measures, according to a Monday news release from the UN.
In the Pacific, there are two pervasively high-density patches of garbage, sometimes called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. Currents can carry garbage far from its point of origin, either depositing it on the ocean floor or washing up onshore. Some trash doesn’t travel far, either — much of the trash the volunteers spotted on Augustine was commercial fishing gear, likely lost from vessels that fish in Cook Inlet or in the nearby Gulf of Alaska and Kodiak-are commercial fisheries.
Other islands in the Gulf of Alaska have already received attention for their dense marine debris issues. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation received a $950,000 grant from NOAA and the government of Japan to help clean up debris as a result of the 2011 tsunami that struck the coast of Japan, adding to the $2.5 million contributed since to help cleanup in affected areas. Most of the $950,000 went to cleaning up Kayak and Montague Islands in Prince William Sound, which the DEC called “collector shorelines” in a February 2016 press release.
On Augustine Island, many pieces of trash were labeled with Japanese characters: a laundry basket, an oil bottle, a construction hard hat in the Japanese style, and fishing buoys.
But marine debris accumulation is an issue on many coastlines of Alaska. Caden Boyer, a high school student at Polaris K-12 School in Anchorage who also came on the Augustine Island trip, said he also participated in a cleanup effort near McNeil River on the Cook Inlet’s west side last year.
“There was a ton of trash out there,” he said. “I found a punching bag.”
For some students, the trip was the culmination of a year of learning about how to reduce waste production overall.
Sixth-grader Lawson Alexson-Walls and fifth-grader Beatrix McDonough, both students at West Homer Elementary School, said they remember participating in the Zero-Waste Challenge last school year, in which the fourth-grade class studied how much waste they produced during lunchtime with disposable trays and utensils. In response, they chose not to use the disposable forks, opting for reusable utensils as well to save the waste.
Robyn Walls, a teacher at West Homer Elementary and Lawson’s mother, said she remembers the students taking to the challenge whole-heartedly. When the school reintroduced the plastic sporks after not using them, the students rejected the idea, she said.
“They didn’t want to use them,” she said. “They said, ‘I”ll eat with my fingers.’”
Beatrix McDonough, who participated in the trip with her mother, Jackie, said she’ll remember how densely the marine garbage was distributed on one side of the island more than the other.
“It was surprising how much trash was on the beach side versus the side with all the trees,” she said.
Andie Sonnen, a senior at Homer High School who participated in the cleanup, agreed about remembering the distribution.
“It says a lot about the tides,” she said.
The participants also logged the debris they collected on data sheets as part of the International Coastal Cleanup program, coordinated by the Ocean Conservancy. All throughout the trip, Reiske encouraged the participants to reuse and recycle their cups and bags and to produce as little waste as possible. The data helps contribute to the information on the top contaminants in the ocean. Plastic pollution can also contribute to the larger scale of climate change and ecosystem damage, both by damaging marine life and because plastics require petroleum to manufacture.
There is increasing climate change and environmental awareness in the U.S. An October 2015 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that two in three Americans think global warming is happening, and about half believe it is human caused.
Iris Downey, a Homer High School student who came on the trip as the Alaska Center for Coastal Studies intern for the summer, said she is concerned about the effects of global climate change in Alaska. Standing on the deck of the boat moored off the coast of Augustine Island overlooking the glacier spilling into Kamishak Bay, she said she understands that some of it is natural, but people can do things to help reduce their impact.
“It’s my generation that will be affected by this,” she said.