Fighting Marine Plastic Pollution in the Arctic

Josh Wright

05 Jun 2018

the time has come to combat an increasingly serious threat to arctic wildlife

In April of this year, ahead of our annual expeditions to Svalbard, the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) issued a press release heralding their commitment to combatting marine plastic litter. In partnership with the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund and the UN’s Clean Seas campaign, the AECO have been allotted 2.43 million Norwegian krone (just over £220,000) to assist in facilitating beach clean-ups, finding alternatives to single-use plastics, and educating travellers about the dangers that plastic pollution poses to both marine and terrestrial wildlife, as well as Arctic ecosystems in general.

The first of our Svalbard expeditions for this year are now under way, and when travelling here, guests of Natural World Safaris can participate in Clean Up Svalbard, a project that encourages visitors to the archipelago to collect and remove manmade debris found during the course of their travels. Established by Svalbard’s governor a number of years ago, the project is vital to the preservation of this precious polar wilderness, two-thirds of which has been designated as national park or nature reserve. Svalbard, with an area of 23,000 square miles and a population of fewer than 3,000, is one of the least densely populated regions on earth; ensuring Svalbard’s shores remain free of pollutants is therefore a mammoth task, one that every individual privileged enough to set foot here should contribute to. The archipelago’s residents participate in yearly Clean Up Svalbard excursions, but with our expeditions taking travellers deep into the wild, our contributions are essential.

The bulk of the waste that one can find here does not come from Svalbard’s residents or visitors, but rather from the ocean. The Gulf Stream, an ocean current that brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to the coastlines of Western Europe, carries with it debris that has found its way into the world’s oceans. Many of the items you’ll find on the shores of Svalbard will have originated from the shipping trade, particularly fishing fleets operating in the Barents Sea. In addition to the pollution that these manmade objects bring to Svalbard – non-organic items take years to break down – they also pose dangers to wildlife, with plastics being accidentally ingested and reindeer getting their antlers stuck in fishing nets. Once collected, the debris (wires, ropes, nets, trawl balls, discarded plastic, etc.) is taken back to Longyearbyen where it is separated, processed and then either burned or sent to mainland Norway for further treatment.

Clean Up Svalbard is a fantastic example of the positive impact that tourism can have in the Arctic. In the world’s wildest places, humans must strike a delicate balance between keeping an area’s natural treasures intact and participating in frontline conservation work. In the best cases, tourism dollars support conservation programs, but direct involvement with wildlife and the environment must, ideally, be kept to a minimum. In Africa, endangered species like rhinos and elephants must be monitored closely to prevent them falling victim to the illegal wildlife trade, thus making strict regulations on things like park boundaries essential. But in Svalbard, the danger comes not from poachers but from pollution. Travellers, tour operators, residents and government officials may not be responsible for the rubbish that finds its way to the shores of the archipelago, but it is up to those who truly care for the natural world to step into the wild and do their part to keep Svalbard as pristine as possible.

One recent example of how successful human involvement can be in protecting the polar regions is the case of South Georgia, a remote island in the South Atlantic. Here, they were tasked with rectifying the mistakes of the past. The sailors who unintentionally brought rats to the island in the 18th century as stowaways on their ships may be long gone, but the dangers posed by their oversight remained. The rats’ presence posed a threat to a number of seabird species that nest on South Georgia, including albatrosses, skuas, terns, petrels and two endangered species found nowhere else on the planet: the South Georgia pipit and South Georgia pintail. Both eggs and chicks would be on the menu for the ravenous rodents. But just last month, South Georgia was officially declared rat-free, the culmination of one of the most successful island conservation projects on record. Never before had an island this large been cleared of invasive rodents, and the success was no small undertaking. Specialists worked for almost a decade among South Georgia’s hills, mountains and coastlines, using over 300 metric tonnes of rat poison in the process. The entire project cost more than $13 million to complete.

Thanks to their association with the UN and equipped with the aforementioned funding from the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund, the AECO is hoping to achieve similar success in Svalbard. Marine plastic pollution is ‘one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time’, the AECO wrote in their press release. But it’s not just about removing plastics when they’re already lying on the beach. AECO’s Executive Director Frigg Jørgensen has stated that his organisation will also “examine the whole value chain”, in order to “reduce the risk of plastic finding its way into our oceans in the first place”. One such way of achieving this, says Jørgensen, is by “finding alternatives to disposable plastic products” for use on Arctic expedition ships. And in addition to practical changes, Jørgensen also hopes to educate travellers and “change people’s attitudes towards disposable plastics”. The issue is clear, and the dangers facing our planet’s wildlife and wild places undeniable. The time for action is now, and Natural World Safaris are proud to be working at the forefront of change in the Arctic.

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