Land and sea sick: Four more reindeer pay ultimate price for garbage; how much are we willing to pay so they don’t have to?

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Four more reindeer paid the ultimate price during the past several days for due to the trash scattered around Svalbard (actually, many more undoubtably did as well, but not in view of people exploring near town).

The question is: how much of a price are we willing to pay so the animals don’t have to?

A group of scientists is hoping to answer that question during the next three years, although that won’t make much difference for the latest of many victims of trash scattered around Svalbard. A reindeer snagged in cables was killed last Tuesday by officials who stated there was no possibility of saving the animal. Two more were killed Saturday and another Sunday, all in the same valley about 10 kilometers outside Longyearbryen.

Two reindeer tangled in debris were spotted in Bolterdalen, according to a statement by The Governor of Svalbard. Officials from the governor’s office and employees at Green Dog Svalbard were able to free one reindeer by cutting off 16.5 kilograms of cables.

“The reindeer with the most cabling in its antlers had difficulty running, and it was therefore possible to capture it in and rid it of the wire,” the statement notes. “On the same day we had to euthanize a buck near Mine 7 because its antlers were entangled with cables and steel wire. Efforts to capture it failed and it was therefore sacrificed.”

The same decision was made with the reindeer spotted Saturday and Sunday, according to the governor’s office.

Incidents of reindeer getting entangled in ropes, nets, cables and other debris occur annually and “can cause great suffering for the animals,” said Knut Fossum, the governor’s chief environmental advisor, in the statement following the incident involving the first two reindeer.

“Many people participate in beach clearings and that is very good,” he said. “Previously there has also been clearing of waste from places such as mining operations in neighboring areas around Longyearbyen. These two cases show that we are failing to do the clearance work required.”

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Kayleigh Wyles of the Norwegian Research Institute, center, moderates a discussion Thursday about Svalbard’s most important environmental assets at Huset. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Such failures – and the fact debris will return to beach and inland areas even if they are cleaned – is one of the motivators for a new project by six researchers at the Norwegian Research Institute (NORUT). They met with a small group of Longyearbyen residents this week as part an initial surveying effort to determine what kind of preventative/cleanup efforts locals feel should be  prioritized, and if there is support for having locals and visitors pay a fee to make those efforts possible.

“A lot of projects have a focus on cleaning up,” said Jannike Falk-Andersson, one of the project’s lead researchers. “Cleaning up is a never ending process. Our focus in on how we can prevent the problem of marine pollution in the Arctic.”

Kayleigh Wyles, a project participant who moderated much of this week’s meeting, spent the first part of the meeting asking residents what they valued most about Svalbard’s coastlines – be it locations, landmarks, species or other distinctions. A discussion failed to produce a consensus about that – and about how the extent to which they’re threatened.

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A chart showing how two different fees might reduce marine pollution and its impact of Svalbard’s wildlife is part of a new research project on the issue. Data by the Norwegian Research Institute.

“We disagree in a sense that Svalbard’s wilderness is pure and clean,” said one women attending the discussion. “Of course we’re not blind, so of course we can see the plastic and the cords. We get so close to the animals here. We have visits from foxes almost every day.”

There were also fluctuations when they were asked to rate the state of Svalbard’s seas and coasts – although, as one university student put it, that’s because cleanup often occurs in areas tourists and others can easily access, while more remote areas are ignored.

The NORUT researchers – while emphasizing their work is preliminary, and an in-depth survey of locals and residents is planned next summer – did present some proposals they plan to study as part of the project.

Among them are seeking better enforcement of existing regulations for the fishing and shipping industry, as well as more frequent cleanups of areas.”It will cost money to do either, so the question is where will the money come from?” Falk-Andersson asked. “We will ask tourists and residents if they are willing to pay a fee for those enforcements or cleanups.”

The researchers asked the locals how they felt about two different fees: 250 kroner (per year for residents, per visit for tourist) that would somewhat reduce the impact on wildlife or 400 kroner that would have a more significant effect – but not necessarily have an across-the-board effect.

In one chart presented by the group, the higher fee would result in a sharp reduction of microplastics and birds eating them, but fewer beach cleanups that with a lower fee.

Reaction from residents to a fee was mixed, with one man noting “we already pay a lot of taxes” for mitigating efforts. He suggested instead “you get rewarded for good behavior.”

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