Yakutat youth collect marine debris and litter at Cannon Beach, June 1, 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Past rusty-tipped spruce trees and pink flickers of salmonberry flowers, about 40 kids are combing the Yakutat shoreline and picking up trash.
Lydia Henry, a Yakutat Community Health Center employee, held open a bright green trash bag while a little girl dropped in a piece of glittery litter.
“I love this,” she said, as she adjusted her grip on the bag, heavy with old cans and a fishing net. “Everybody’s having fun, the spring berries are about to blossom, and kids are trying to clean up.”
She led her group back to Sarah Israelson, a local teacher who volunteered to help with the cleanup. They took note of all the beach finds: a shoe, a chainsaw chain, that fishing net, cigarette butts, glass, a toy racecar. One group gathered 52 beer cans.
“Who remembers the cultural value of what we just did?” Israelson asked the students.
“Haa aaní,” came the response in Tlingit: honoring our land.
The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe partnered with the Ocean Conservancy for this youth marine debris cleanup at Cannon Beach. The outing was part of a larger project: The city of Yakutat received a grant from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program in Alaska. The project shows Yakutat youth how their small town connects to an international waste management issue.
Since 2006, NOAA projects have removed more than 900 metric tons of debris from the state’s shorelines. The Yakutat project aims to remove more than 100,000 tons of marine debris from 50 miles of shoreline. The kids’ cleanup will be bookended by two major adult cleanup efforts — one that took place last year and a final cleanup that will run for a week at the end of June.
Sitka-based Kristina Tirman is the first marine debris manager for the Ocean Conservancy.
“Alaska is so big and has so much coastline that it’s challenging to address. Lots of organizations and tribes are working on it,” she said. “There’s so much garbage it can be overwhelming. But it’s about connecting with people to share ideas and strategies.”
The debris the project collects is all stored in Yakutat, where it’s categorized and weighed. Tirman said the goal is to recycle most of it, but she is working on a plan to backhaul, or to barge much of it out. Yakutat, like many remote towns in Alaska, doesn’t have excess landfill space.
“We have enough problems with our own trash that when you account for all the trash on our shores, small communities don’t have the money or the manpower to deal with it,” she said. “Small communities here are taking on the world’s garbage—it shouldn’t be theirs to deal with.”
Tirman hopes the data from the project, including the data the kids logged, will help activists spur policy change in the state. She pointed to coastal states like Hawaii and California that protect their coastlines with single-use plastic bans, and how data showing the prevalence of cigarette butts spurs some beaches to bar them.
The kids who participated in the cleanup helped log the types of trash they found for the Ocean Conservancy’s data collection and mapping program.
Anchorage artist Kristie Traver joined the group to show the kids how to turn buoys and other marine debris into art by painting them. She picked up the skill while living in the Pribilof Islands, where traditional canvases are hard to come by. The city will hang the new artwork around town to raise awareness around marine debris and its effects on the coastline.
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