BREIBOGEN (Svalbardposten): The beach cleanup cruise is barely underway Tuesday morning when the queen of the Arctic announces her arrival. Several large clearing bags were full of garbage when the epitome of a wild and untouched Svalbard came along the shoreline in Norddalsbukta at Reinsdyrflya, the northwest tip of Spitsbergen, barely half an hour after work started.
– Everyone in the boat!
The cleanup teams retreat out into the polar waters and the well-fed-bear tramples onward, without caring about the old Tuborg trawl floats or many, many meters of packing strips collected into one place within just a few minutes.
Overflowing with garbage
Perhaps it's because she's become well-accustomed to the sight: Svalbard's beaches are overflowing with garbage and human fingerprints, no matter how far one goes from settlements. Plastic bottles, sandals, lighters, cords, German milk cartons, rubber ducks, and fuel bottles. Trawl balls, fish boxes, parts from a conveyor belt and countless webbing straps.
– It comes from all over the world, but the fishing industry along the local coastline is the main culprit, says Arild Lyssand, the expedition's leader and a police chief lieutenant for The Governor of Svalbard.
A death trap for wildlife
Old nets, yarns and ropes are an obvious death trap. An animal that gets its antlers or an ear tag snared into the large and heavy materials are at risk of suffering a protracted and painful fate. It nearly happened last year when a bear was found with about 170 kilograms of fishing net clinging to its head. Reindeer have been observed tied together in tandem and countless birds have lost their lives to the nylon strands that continue to "fish" for many centuries.
– After the cruise last year we suggested that some of the fishing industry come with us to see what floats up here. But no one is here this year, Lyssand says.
But the debris doesn't have to be large to be fatal or harmful. Once the female bear is a safe distance away, work continues on the beach. At first glance, it may look fairly clean and pretty, but a closer look tells a different story. Between the rocks, seal carcasses and driftwood there are a huge number of small plastic pieces of all colors, and it is impossible to see all of them. During a hard day's work, the cleanup teams working in two shifts will fill 14 so-called "big bags" with junk.
– That corresponds to around 10 to 12 cubic meters of relatively small pieces of plastic. This beach has been cleaned before and that shows that the inflow is large, Lyssand says.
It's about the same amount that was picked up on the first beach during last year's expedition.
– And this was not the worst beach I've ever seen. We picked up what we saw, but there is so much more that is buried under rocks and driftwood, says Solvår Reiten, an advisor for the governor's environmental department.
Eight million tons of trash
Every year 8.8 million tons of garbage ends up in the ocean, Reiten says. Most of the waste is plastic. Once it is in the wild it won't disappear by itself. The problem just takes on other forms. Large plastic crates become brittle like biscuits in the sun, break up into pieces, and become "food" for fish, birds and animals at the bottom of the food chain.
– An investigation revealed plastic in the stomach of 90 percent of fulmars surveyed in Svalbard. The pieces are blocking their absorption of nutrients and they can die, Reiten says.
Because the animals obviously can't digest plastic, it accumulates and makes its way up the food chain - including the meat that ends up in our own food. Making matters worse is the plastics absorb human emissions like a sponge.
– As a consequence, the animals ingest both plastic and toxic substances, Reiten says.
This year's beach cleanup cruise is from July 20 to 27, with a crew change on July 23.