Beasts of burden: Volunteers discover ultimate price wildlife pays for trash, want others to see the deadly entanglements

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Several meters away from a large square of crude log benches were more than a dozen intact and shattered wine bottles were loosely grouped, two large sets of reindeer antlers were hopelessly snarled by a torn section of fishnet at one end and an far more tortuous snarl of steel cords at the other.

The debris’ fatal presence didn’t end with the reindeer who, like many other larger sea and land wildlife, were slowly starved of food, oxygen or some other life necessity. Kai Müller, a volunteer helping to clean the beach where the antlers were found, got metallic slivers in his eyes while carrying it on his shoulder – the kind of tiny fragments that kill multitudes of birds, fish and other small animals.

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A volunteer examines the large bags of trash collected from four kilometers of shoreline in Isfjorden during a one-day cleanup cruise. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“Help me with this,” he said after finally reaching the group’s meeting point midway along the beach. “This should be (on display) somewhere in Longyearbyen, just like that.”

Müller and about 40 other volunteers spent the day clearing trash from about five kilometers of shoreline in Isfjorden during the first of a series of cleanups in the fjord scheduled until September. The cleanups include one- and three-day trips for adults (minimum age 16) and families (minimum age 5), and some of the garbage collected will be analyzed by researchers from the Netherlands to determine its origins.

For many the initial trip was a chance to explore  a new area as well as clean it up. Carina Gsottbauer, who moved to Longyearbyen this spring and is about to receive her doctorate in marine biology, called the shore along Gåsodden “my new favorite beach” after discovering swarms of tiny jellyfish, crustaceans and other creatures in ponds – as well as plenty of large and tiny animal skeletons on land – during the day.

She said it’s her first cleanup in Svalbard, but she has participated in similar efforts in England and Germany, where the items as well as the volume were markedly different than what she found in Isfjorden.

“I think it was pretty minor compared to what I’ve seen,” she said. “It all seems like old stuff.”

Still, while Gsottbauer and others said the shores seemed less polluted than expected, she estimates she picked up about 20 kilograms of trash during the four hours before lunch break. Most consisted of plastic items ranging from fractured fishbox fragments to plastic bottles, but there were also metal items from old mining equipment, a few shoes and – strangest of all to her – a vacuum cleaner hose.

The site, as well as others that will be visited during future cleanups, were based on scouting trips by officials from The Governor of Svalbard, said Silje Hagen, coordinator of the project for Aktiv i Friluft Longyearbyen, during a briefing on the boat journey to the beach aboard the Polargirl that departed Longyearbyen at 9 a.m. July 30.

“We’re not quote sure how much garbage is on the shores, but we know there’s garbage on every beach,” she said.

Unlike some cleanups focusing mostly on larger items while leaving hard-to-collect smaller ones behind, including the governor’s annual cleanup cruises to northern Svalbard that collect vastly greater volumes of trash, Hagen emphasized volunteers should try to clean every bit of debris.

“There’s also a lot of birds, so it’s important to pick up all the garbage, including the small items,” she said.

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Organizers of the volunteer trash cruise to Isfjorden serve lunch at a point where two groups picking up trash from opposite ends met. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

It took nearly two hours to reach the cleanup area and roughly another hour to bring all the volunteers ashore in four groups using a 12-passenger auxiliary boat. The first, consisting of five polar bear guards, were brought ashore first using a small boat and deployed along a four-kilometer stretch of land. Two groups of people were then placed at the far ends of the cleanup area so they could walk toward a central meeting point. A fourth group at meeting point setup the lunch site (cooked aboard the Polargirl and brought ashore by a local catering company) while doing a extra-thorough cleanup of a 100-meter area for the researchers, including sorting items by size and cutting samples from the larger items.

The team of researchers, whose work will be the primary focus during a cleanup in late August, also requested all volunteers separate the caps of bottles as part of the effort to determine where the trash originated. Beyond that trash was sorted into separate bags for items such as metals, plastics and fishnets, thus saving a larger sorting later.

“If everybody does a little bit it’s not so big a job,” said Heidi Harviken, one of the two leaders for the first cruise, during the briefing.

A post-lunch cleanup extended to the beach at Anservika where, in additional to vast quantities of whole and broken bottles apparently left by campfire parties on the beach, Hagen discovered the intertwined reindeer antlers that Müller and another volunteer carried a couple kilometers back to the lunch site and final pickup point with great effort. Trash collected during the day, now sorted from the personal-size pickup bags into giant industrial-strength ones, was ferried along with the passengers back to the Polargirl for the return trip.

The boat arrived at Longyearbyen Harbor at about 8:30 p.m. – well past the advertised 6 p.m. ending time at the online registration page, but no complaints were heard as participants disembarked – including Müller as he dragged the entangled reindeers’ horns well away from the trash bring loaded onto a crane in the hope they will have a new high-profile home soon.

The cleanups are being financed with a grant from the Svalbard Environmental Protection Funds, with some of the money being used to repair dog kennels in Longyearbyen damaged by landslides last fall. Those interested in future cleanup cruises can sign up online. Remaining dates include:

• Aug. 11-13 (family)
• Aug. 18-20 (family)
• Aug. 21 (students in grades 7-9)
• Aug. 22 (students in grades ten and up)
• Aug. 27 (family)
• Sept. 3 (adults)
• Sept. 8-10 (adults)

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