Science - June 12, 2017

Spitsbergen is the waste pit of the ocean

Text:
Roelof Kleis

The sea around Spitsbergen is the waste pit of the ocean. An ever-increasing amount of plastic amasses there. A large part of that plastic originates from fishing.

©WJ Strietman

This is what Wouter Jan Strietman (Wageningen Economic Research) says, who just returned from an expedition to Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen. Together with Eelco Leemans (Clean Arctic Alliance), he studied the origins of much of the plastic present there on the coast. To do this, they travelled on a tourist boat of Oceanwide Expeditions. The researchers scrutinised 100-metre-long patches on seven different beaches.

Dials
The waste on those beaches was recorded and analysed. Especially that analysis part is new. Its aim was to localise the source of the waste, explains Strietman. ‘That is important information if you want to know which dials you have to turn to decrease the amount of plastic waste in this area. That means that when you find fishing nets, you want to know exactly which fishing operation they come from. This way, we make way for a strategy, together with regional and international stakeholders.’

afvalSpitsbergen2.jpg

According to Strietman, one can discern four streams of waste. ‘The first is the Gulf Stream coming from the south (North America and Europe), the sea stream from the north (Siberia) and the fishing operations in the surrounding waters. Finally, the most surprising stream: the ice. A lot of plastic is frozen in ice; in location where the ice melts, the plastic is released.’

Strietman and Leemans analysed almost 2000 pieces of plastic spread over the seven beaches, ranging from buoys and fishing nets to household waste and even the steering wheel of a motorboat. Upon the remote Jan Mayen – a small Norwegian island located north of Iceland – they found 575 pieces of waste on a 100-metre-long piece of beach. For comparison: an outlying piece of beach in the Netherlands has an average of 395 pieces of waste. According to Strietman, sea streams from the north and the south meet at Jan Mayen. ‘You can find waste originating everywhere.’

Bigbags
‘One example of what we found’, Strietman continues, ‘is a plastic part that is used in Southern Europe in oyster farming. That means this piece drifted for over 3000 km before beaching here.’ As a matter of fact, the mess on Spitsbergen is even worse. ‘The beaches that we studied are apparently not even that bad. During a recent clean up on Spitsbergen, a total of 15 cubic metres of waste was collected along a 500-metre beach section. That’s 15 bigbags filled to the brim.’ Far from all the plastic that Strietman and Leeman found could be traced back to its origins. Strietman: ’20 to 50 percent of the pieces is so weathered that is becomes impossible to track their origins.’

During and after their trip, Strietman and Leeman share their experiences in a blog. You can read this Dutch blog at http://weblog.wur.nl/kustzee.


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