Restoring Critical Habitat in the Bering Sea

A pile of nets.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program and the Sitka Sound Science Center partnered to remove approximately 106 tons of marine debris from important areas around local communities across the Bering Sea. This effort, composed of two separate projects awarded grants in 2013 and 2014, worked to empower local communities to address debris issues impacting the local area as well as important habitat, wildlife, and economic resources.

Type of Project: Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant

Region: Alaska

Project Dates: August 2013 - December 2017

Who is involved?
The Sitka Sound Science Center (SSSC), with the support of a NOAA Marine Debris Program Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant, partnered with local communities in the Bering Sea to remove marine debris from remote Alaskan areas in and around Port Heiden, Nelson Lagoon, St. George Island, Nikolski, and Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island. The grants were originally awarded to the Alaska Marine Stewardship Foundation, which has since merged with the SSSC. This effort also received active funding from local Community Development Quota programs, providing critical support for these communities to address the issue of marine debris.

What is the project and why is it important?
The Bering Sea is an area rich in biodiversity. It contains critical habitat designated by both the federal government and the State of Alaska to protect several important species that call it home, including the endangered Steller sea lion, and two bird species—the threatened Steller’s eider and the endangered short-tailed albatross. The Bering Sea also supports some of the largest commercial fisheries in both Alaska and the United States, providing an important economic and food resource for the local community and the nation at large. Unfortunately, large amounts of debris accumulate in many of these critical habitat areas, with the most prevalent types being those most prone to causing entanglements (such as nets, crab pot lines, and packing bands).

Through these projects, the SSSC worked with local communities in the Bering Sea to remove and dispose of large accumulations of marine debris from critical habitat areas. Their aim was to restore habitat and prevent harmful wildlife interactions. The collected debris was analyzed to determine the overall composition by type and the accumulation rate by quantity at each location. The SSSC also worked to determine the sources of derelict fishing nets found through this removal project by cataloging and tracking net samples.

Many of the debris types found in these areas are those that will not reaccumulate following removal; this includes debris like high seas nets that were once allowed but have since been banned, or legacy fishing gear lost long ago. In an effort to prevent reaccumulation of all types of marine debris, the SSSC also conducted outreach with fishermen and local communities to educate about the impacts of marine debris and how to prevent it.