Pushing Against The Ocean: In six years the Arctic coasts they’re cleaning will again be full of trash – is it worth the effort? (PLUS: Watch trailer for upcoming documentary)

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The beach along the rocky inlet is strewn with so much and such diverse garbage it’s reasonable to suspect it might have been the dumping ground for a fish camp. And some Russian graves at the top of the ridge might support that theory – if they weren’t more than a century old.

Instead, the evidence suggests it was dumped during a six-year period by everyone from fishermen in the north Atlantic to families in London who don’t recycle their soda cans.

The fishnets – massive ones weighing hundreds of kilograms and skinny ones that might be a short thread or a cleverly buried  strand several meters long – are expected. As are the giant balls. Oh, the things now being done with those balls.

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And check out the trailer for our documentary about the cruise below

And while discards like plastic Shell oil bottles might easily belong to the fishing trawlers many raise a stink about, bagging things like sneakers, party balloons, extremely faded artwork (although one item survived its voyage well enough that it was brought back to civilization) suggests the ugliness is not due to seamen alone.

“I found a crazy amount of shoes and deodorant sticks and things that are like ‘what are these things doing in the ocean?'” said Maria Becherini, a cleanup cruise volunteer who moved to Longyearbyen from Argentina.

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Participants in one of two annual coastal cleanup cruises hosted by The Governor of Svalbard pick up a large fishnet and various other debris this month. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

She and about a dozen others participating in the second of two five-day cleanup cruises hosted annually by The Governor of Svalbard heard about the pollution problem in detail before heading out. But that didn’t prepare them for the sheer volume and variety of what there is to pick up.

“What was surprising was how much small plastic there was,” said Jesper Larsson, the trip’s designated polar bear guard. “But we found a lot of big stuff. Nets, balls from nets, lots of beach stuff…it kills birds and everything.”

The group spent their first morning of the cleanup slowly working their way down about a kilometer of the coastline, struggling to get much of the debris out from under rocks and heavy pieces of driftwood.

“Sometimes I would pick up something that looks like a little piece of plastic and when I started pulling I almost didn’t have the strength to keep pulling because it was a huge piece or plastic or netting,” Becherini said.

Larsson stood at the top of the ridge near the graves with a rifle, constantly scanning the valley and hills beyond for polar bears. Another person remained in the small boat that brought the group to shore, emptying canvas bags full of trash brought by the others into much thicker bags a couple meters in diameter, sorting the items by type – nets, balls, plastics and such.

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A polar bear at the northern edge of Spitsbergen is snagged in a large fishnet similar to one collected during this summer’s cleanup cruise. This bear, observed during a cleanup cruise, eventually managed to free itself, but such nets cause the deaths of many animals annually. Photo courtesy of The Governor of Svalbard.

When they paused for lunch shortly before noon the cleanup work was mostly done, but the beach was hardly clean. Thousands and thousands of small bits of plastic, netting, – and untold numbers of even smaller bits that might escape notice at a casual glance – remain behind for birds other wildlife to consume.

“I think it’s very important for those animals,” said Solvår Reiten, an environmental advisor to the governor and the primary organizer of the cleanup cruises. “The reindeer could be stuck in those fishnets and also the birds could pick up the plastic. So I think its important for each individual animal that we pick things up to help them survive.”

But any desire to try to make the area as pristine as possible have to give way to practical concerns about removing the largest volume of trash in the time the group is in the area. There are two more large-scale cleanups planned on different shores during the day.
Besides, the same amount of trash will be on the shore six years from now – if that.

“I don’t think you even need to wait six years,” Becherini said. “But I think if someone goes during the next couple of weeks they’ll find something that is least kind of pristine in a way.”

What’s it feel like knowing the “kind of pristine” state won’t last long?

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Polar bear guard Jesper Larsson, carrying rifle, gets a rare opportunity to join other participants cleaning a breach on Svalbard’s northernmost island at 80 degrees latitude north, where household items like Pot Noodle cups are found. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople

“I feel hopeless in a way, but I was feeling that before I came,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a short-term solution to this and I know that we coming here are just a bunch of people doing just a little bit of something. Sometimes I feel we’re just making a statement…but still, we are doing something.”

More than 12 million tons of garbage are dumped into oceans annually, according to the governor’s office. Perhaps a few thousand tons were collected during this year’s cruises, but participants could see new objects large and small – and usually out of reach – drifting toward shores during boat trips between destinations.

“It’s a shame that there’s so much garbage all around the place, but it’s also educating people and…it’s very important to have these cleanup cruises and focus on the problem,” Reiten said.

Twenty-one of the 24 cleanup volunteers  were selected from more than 200 people who entered a lottery drawing in which only residents of Svalbard are eligible. One volunteer was selected from from a media organization (disclosure: the author was selected in the lottery) and two bought their spots by submitting the highest bigs during an annual charity auction in which some winning bids over the years have neared 20,000 kroner.

“I didn’t know that they were paying so much to be a part of it,” said Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt, who was appointed to the position about a year ago. “Perhaps I’m a little bit surprised that it’s that popular.”

The surprise should indeed be “a little bit” since Askholt may have been the hardest-working government executive on the planet during the second cruise as a full-fledged cleanup participant who spared (and was spared) no effort despite her lofty title – and the fact her underlings were largely doing less physical work like driving the small boats.

“I had heard about these trips for many years and I’ve wanted to know how it worked,” said Askholt, one of four officials from her office participating in the trip.

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Kjell Reidar Hovelsrud, right, tells Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt and others about a polar bear encounter near the trapping station he built from driftwood 30 years ago on northern Spitsbergen on the third night of the cleanup cruise. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

But while the work was often backbreaking and exhausting – naps immediately after dinner most evenings seemed to be the norm – participants still found plenty of time to enjoy their time on rare turf both during and after work shifts. Post-nap visits were made to a historical research station one evening, and a cabin built 30 years ago and now occupied by legendary trapper Kjell Reidar Hovelsrud on another. The final cleanup day featured a lunchtime bonfire and fish/hot dog cookout, plus a surprise evening stop in Ny-Ålesund during the return voyage to Longyearbyen.

“It’s an interesting thing to do, just to see the island, see the beach, see the north, and see what people, the fishing industry and other industries leave behind,” Larsson said.

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