Combing the Beaches of Islands

by George Pletnikoff

September 27, 2008

Growing up on the beaches of St. George Island, one of the five Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, I remember combing the beaches. There was, and is, so much to be found. Glass balls, I even found a container with chopsticks, very fancy, that I took to the Governments Island Manager’s house to find out what it was, and lots of other debris that we thought interesting and valuable. And so, after large storms, we went out on our favorite beaches looking to see what was there.

I remember that as children, growing up on this little Island, we used to collect glass balls, little balls of glass about the size of softballs today, covered with woven net. This was a prize. We used to, as kids in school, brag about how many we found, what sizes, and sometimes where. We exchanged stories about them. We talked about what we did with them, what trinkets we made, how we glued them together to make Christmas trees, and how we used files, a steel tool used to sharpen other tools, to cut a slit in them to make banks. And in these banks we put our dimes, nickels, pennies and the occasional quarter to go to the company store, or canteen run by the United States Government to buy candy. And we wondered where they came from and what they were used for. We did not know. Now we know they were used to hold up the miles long nets on the surface of the water used to kill hundreds and thousands of animals, mostly for fish, but birds, seals, whales, and anything else that would come into contact with them. And they were used by either the Japanese or Taiwanese Governments. We know that now, but not then. And they were a prize.

As time flowed by, now into the 60’s and 70’s we began to see different things coming ashore on our Islands.  Along with the occasional coke bottle, plastic bottle, glove and basket, large pieces of net began to show up. Again, being on a small Island, we did not know what these things were being used for. So, as far as we were concerned, all of this debris was normal. After all, everyone else in the world, our small world to be sure, was going through the same thing. Sure. If it was happening here it was surely happening elsewhere. Or was it?

You see? What was happening during the 60’s and 70’s while beach combing, miles and miles, and yards and yards of monofiliment nets were used to catch fish. Nets made of plastics, which would never degrade, made of by products of oil, to stretch out over the Bering Sea to kill. We did not know that, but now we do. And kill they did. They did not fall apart or come loose. They were made of a product that would last years and years. And they would, even if those who put them into the water, the fishers lost them, continue to kill and kill until there was nothing else to kill. Whales, fish, birds, seals, walruses, plankton and seaweed, no matter what came into contact with them, they were doomed to death.

Today, in the 2000’s, not much has changed, really. We still comb the beaches of the Pribilof Islands, both St. Paul and St. George and pick up stuff. Now instead of glass balls and chop sticks, we pick up nets, plastic balls, plastic gloves, plastic, plastic, plastic. Pop can  rings used to hold a six pack together is common. Plastic nets, ropes, lines caught in and around the necks of curious fur seals is oh so frequent. Often the nets are so tight around the necks of these animals that their flesh shows because it cuts into their fur. Plastic whatever. Imagine it and we pick them up. I remember not too long ago when I first began working for Greenpeace that we were on St. Paul Island. I took my buds to see one of the long sandy beaches on the Island, to walk and talk. To discuss what it was that they expected of me, an Unangan person working for a conservation group, and how I expected to fit in. We walked the beach and talked. At one point, one of the guys/gals stopped to pick up a plastic something, handed to one of the other Greenpeace persons with me and said, now its your responsibility. I did not know what that meant. Come to find out, if you pick up some piece of trash, no matter what it is, and handed it over to another of your buds, that person was now responsible for it. Needless to say, I did not accept anything from anyone else on our walk.

Today, large nets are still used to kill. The difference now is, is that they are not left to drift out in the ocean to arbitrarily kill, but are focused. Its called “directed fishery.” I am gonna kill these fishes, but sadly in the process, hundreds of millions of metric tonns of non directed fishes, called by-catch, are killed also. But, this is legal. It is considered fishing for fish using the best available science.

You know how it is said? That no matter how much has changed, everything remains the same? It’s true. Today, instead of collecting glass balls, our Tribal Government of the Aleut Community of St. Paul cleans our beaches every year. They go out to the same beaches that I used to collect collectibles and collect trash, tons of trash. And its all plastic trash, made to never degrade.Look at

Instead of talking to our friends in school about making Christmas trees and glass ball banks with what we found on the beach, we are now talking about what kind of people live out there who allow this to happen. Who are they? What are there values? What are they thinking? Indeed, what are we thinking that we allow this to happen?

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