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HomeArctic blog: Jan Mayen, Spitsbergen → The sea mons­ter (a pla­s­tic sto­ry)

The sea mons­ter (a pla­s­tic sto­ry)

992 kilos of gar­ba­ge… and still a lot more. That is the title of a blog writ­ten by my col­le­ague Bir­git Lutz on her web­site (click here to get to her blog).

And still a lot more! That says it all. Pret­ty much ever­y­bo­dy who has been with us on Anti­gua to Spits­ber­gen knows that we coll­ect a lot of pla­s­tics on almost every trip. We are easi­ly tal­king about seve­ral hundred kilos per trip, or seve­ral cubic met­res, in other words.

Why “almost” every trip and not just every trip? Well, wea­ther is one thing. When the ground is fro­zen or cover­ed with snow, then it is such a thing with coll­ec­ting pla­s­tics. But the main reason is that the dis­tri­bi­ti­on of the pla­s­tic lit­ter is quite irre­gu­lar. It is well known that some bea­ches are real­ly was­te dumps, and the­se are in many cases the remo­te ones, whe­re few peo­p­le ever get. That has to do with local curr­ents.

Other bea­ches are quite clean. How much pla­s­tic lit­ter have you seen in Kongsfjord, Kross­fjord or Mag­da­le­nefjord? Pro­ba­b­ly not too much (of cour­se the­re is some, it is ever­y­whe­re!). But in Smee­ren­burg, vir­tual­ly around the cor­ner from the lat­ter one, how many big­bags did we fill the­re over the years? No idea, I should have coun­ted them. It was a lot, that’s for sure.

Yes, that is exact­ly what is coming on top of it: tou­rists are coll­ec­ting pla­s­tic lit­ter. Not all of them, but many ships in the fleet do join in this meaningful task, inclu­ding the Ocean­wi­de fleet and Anti­gua. We have been doing that for many years now. Not only sin­ce the admi­nis­tra­ti­on offi­ci­al­ly star­ted with the “Clean up Sval­bard” pro­gram­me. We don’t need to be encou­ra­ged by anyo­ne to free the bea­ches from the pla­s­tics. Need­less to say it is a gre­at pro­ject, it gets more peo­p­le to join in, but we are not blind, and it is such an obvious thing that the pla­s­tic lit­ter needs to be remo­ved from the­se beau­tiful arc­tic bea­ches!

And it is to a good effect. You should have seen Smee­ren­burg 15 years ago. A was­te dump! Now it is reason­ab­ly clean again, as it is a place that is regu­lar­ly visi­ted and many peo­p­le take their bit. On the other hand, every inco­ming wave brings more pla­s­tic lit­ter.

So that is one of the les­sons that we had to learn, and it was an obvious one. You can fight the pla­s­tic-pro­blem on loca­ti­on, but you can not sol­ve it the­re. Same as with cli­ma­te chan­ge and the ozone deple­ti­on, the­se are glo­bal pro­blems that need a glo­bal solu­ti­on. It is for a reason that I have men­tio­ned the ozone “hole” here, as it shows that the inter­na­tio­nal com­mu­ni­ty is actual­ly able to deal with a glo­bal pro­blem. If ever­y­bo­dy joins and takes his or her share of the respon­si­bi­li­ty. Which is not even too much of a bur­den then!

Why is it actual­ly a pro­blem, bey­ond the visu­al aspect? Very simp­le: the pla­s­tic lit­ter mes­ses up the who­le mari­ne food chain and it is direct­ly threa­tening count­less ani­mals. The­re is hard­ly a nor­t­hern ful­mar the­se days that does not have pla­s­tic in the sto­mach. Alba­tross chicks are dying from it in lar­ge num­bers in some remo­te colo­nies. And the­se are just a few well-known examp­les. Most mari­ne ani­mals have got pla­s­tic in their sys­tem. It is colourful, it has the size of their food (wha­te­ver size that is – pla­s­tics have any size) and after a while it even smells good to tho­se crea­tures, when it is over­grown by algae. So more and more ani­mals have a sto­mach full of pla­s­tic and star­ve to death. As simp­le as that. And this is not “only” about the suf­fe­ring and death of the indi­vi­du­al ani­mal, it is about the col­lap­se of popu­la­ti­ons, food webs and eco­sys­tems.

You can not ove­re­sti­ma­te the sca­le of the pro­blem for mari­ne eco­sys­tems. To which we, as humans, also belong, by the way. Some more than others, but nobo­dy can lea­ve wit­hout the oce­ans. It would be our own dea­rest inte­rest to get it sor­ted, the soo­ner the bet­ter. But that is not how we, as a glo­bal com­mu­ni­ty, are, unfort­u­na­te­ly. Too often, humans are more homo (human) than sapi­ens (wise).

Of cour­se the count­less ani­mals that die a pain­ful death, ent­an­gled in ropes and fishing nets, drow­ning or dying utter­ly pain­ful when they keep gro­wing insi­de a rigid net or rope, or star­ving to death at sea or on land, they are an ever­y­day rea­li­ty. The word “pro­blem” almost seems to be sug­ar­coa­ting this rea­li­ty. It is a glo­bal cata­stro­phy, not­hing less. Just unseen by most peo­p­le.

What was near this sum­mer? A “citi­zen sci­ence” rese­arch pro­ject initia­ted by the Alfred Wege­ner Insti­tu­te, that Bir­git Lutz intro­du­ced on board good old Anti­gua and other ships. Many of our fel­low guests and crew have made con­tri­bu­ti­ons by obser­ving pre­cis­e­ly how much pla­s­tic the­re was, what kinds of lit­ter and whe­re. At sea and on land. During the crossing from Nor­way to Spits­ber­gen and up north in arc­tic waters, a total of 18 so-cal­led tran­sects were made, pas­sa­ges at sea whe­re each and every visi­ble pie­ce of lit­ter was noted with posi­ti­on and all infor­ma­ti­on you can think of. The rese­arch ship Polar­stern coll­ec­ted cor­re­spon­ding data out at high sea in the north Atlan­tic.

During a num­ber of trips on three ships (Anti­gua, Noor­der­licht, Plan­ci­us), Bir­git has docu­men­ted 992.4 kg of pla­s­tic lit­ter. The majo­ri­ty (927 kg) is mate­ri­al used in the fishing indus­try: old fishing nets, ropes, floa­ta­ti­on balls, fen­ders, fish boxes. The rest was most­ly pack­a­ging (55.69 kg) fol­lo­wed by emp­ty bot­t­les and arc­tic­les of ever­y­day use in the house­hold. Results include some data on amounts of pla­s­tic lit­ter on Spitsbergen’s bea­ches, which amount to 8-43 kg per 100 met­res, a value rough­ly com­pa­ra­ble to the North Sea whe­re you have 10-345 kg per 100 m.

Check out Birgit’s blog for the­se and other details. Thank you very much, Bir­git, for all your work on this! That takes the work that we – mea­ning a lot of peo­p­le – have done for years up to a new, sci­en­ti­fic level. Let’s hope it makes a con­tri­bu­ti­on to know­ledge and under­stan­ding, which will then hop­eful­ly result in glo­bal action on indi­vi­du­al, socie­ty and poli­ti­cal levels.

Next to redu­cing use of pla­s­tic, coll­ec­ting lit­ter in natu­re will keep us busy for a long time. We will con­ti­nue doing that in Spits­ber­gen and whe­re­ver we have the chan­ce. We would, by the way, love to do that on Jan May­en as well, but here Nor­we­gi­an law (alle­gedly made to pro­tect natu­re!) sets a strong stop­per. Well, that is ano­ther sto­ry. But other peo­p­le take up the chall­enge of coll­ec­ting pla­s­tic lit­ter at the high seas. A very inte­res­t­ing, pro­mi­sing tech­ni­que is deve­lo­ped by The Oce­an Cle­a­nup, a pro­ject that deser­ves sup­port. Good thing!

Now I got car­ri­ed a way a bit, but is important. I almost for­got to tell the sto­ry of the sea mons­ter. This was my ori­gi­nal inten­ti­on 🙂 so the sea mons­ter, that was a big fishing net that we found in ear­ly June 2016 on the coast of Reins­dyr­flya in Wood­fjord. It was so huge that it was direct­ly clear to me that we would never be able to get it off the beach and on board. It would be bet­ter to lea­ve it whe­re it was, half buried in the sand. But I had not taken Birgit’s per­sis­tence into con­side­ra­ti­on. After we had done our excur­si­ons and coll­ec­ted the usu­al smal­ler bits and pie­ces of lit­ter, she star­ted to grab some vol­un­teers and to pull and dig on the net. Admit­ted­ly, I thought quite some time that it would never work, while I took gloves, sho­vel and axe to do my bit. But how gre­at can it be to be pro­ven wrong! It took quite a few hours until we mana­ged, with com­bi­ned forces from pas­sen­gers and crew of SV Anti­gua, to get the net out of the sand and towards the beach. Next to many hand, we invol­ved 80 or 100 hor­ses that were gal­lo­ping in the out­board engi­nes of our Zodiacs, pul­ling on the net from the sea. Alre­a­dy now it was clear that this thing would be remem­be­red as the sea mons­ter!

It was a beau­tiful moment when the Zodiacs actual­ly drag­ged the net free from the beach and into deeper water. We had atta­ched fen­ders to it to make sure it wouldn’t be lost in the deep, which would other­wi­se sure­ly have hap­pen­ed very quick­ly. But now the fun was just about to – well, not to begin, but to keep us busy for ano­ther, sur­pri­sin­gly long time. It was more than just a litt­le chall­enge to get it on board. But a sai­ling ship has win­ches here and the­re. Pul­ling a sea mons­ter out of the water is dif­fe­rent from set­ting sails, though. Ask Cap­tain Maar­ten about it! Final­ly, and it was not the first attempt, the boom with the net swang over the rail and it was lowe­red on deck under a lot of cheerful shou­ting.

I have to admit that I was more than just a litt­le bit tired. Din­ner did somehow not hap­pen that evening, at least con­cer­ning a small group of us who had just kept working. May­be we just thought we’d finish this quick­ly (what a sil­ly thought!), I don’t remem­ber. And then I had made the mista­ke to quick­ly jump into the Zodiac wit­hout a jacket to help the net out of the water at sea level, fixing ropes and so on, while ever­y­bo­dy was busy pul­ling ropes on deck. Big mista­ke! Of cour­se not­hing hap­pens quick­ly. It was f($!$#ng cold!

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

It was such a gre­at moment to see the net on deck and to know that our love­ly chef Sascha was just about to get an extra por­ti­on of that gre­at Dutch bread din­ner rea­dy. The best mid­night din­ner I have ever had! Of cour­se I was not the only one who was cold and tired.

plastic litter, Spitsbergen: the sea monster

So that is the sto­ry of the sea mons­ter from Wood­fjord. End of sto­ry.

P.S. You are curious about how to redu­ce the use of pla­s­tics in dai­ly life? Visit less­pla­s­tic!



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last modification: 2017-01-04 · copyright: Rolf Stange