780 AM | 96.1 FM 


(907) 443-5221

‘Pulse’ of Marine Debris in Region Likely Coming From Russian Side of Bering Strait

Some of the empty bottles and trash that washed up in the Bering Strait Region within the last few weeks. Photo taken by Austin Ahmasuk, shared by Gay Sheffield with Alaska Sea Grant (2020).

An influx of empty bottles and potentially hazardous marine debris have washed up in communities across the Bering Strait region. The consensus from those involved in the cleanup process is that the debris is coming from the other side of the Strait.

Robb Kaler, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently shared a collection of reports and observations from at least five different communities in the Bering Strait region. Those include Diomede, Wales, Shishmaref, Gambell, Savoonga, Unalakleet, and Nome. All of them saw unusually high amounts of marine debris and trash, found along the beaches of Western Alaska.

“A lot of water bottles, but some of it Butane, some of it penetrating oil, really not good things. And you can see that the writing is not U.S. writing on these. So that increased vessel traffic, I think it’s important to somehow outreach and make sure they understand that our folks that are fishing on the other side of the [Bering Strait], that they know not to be dumping.”

– Robb Kaler

Some of those reports came from regional residents like Erika Apatiki of Gambell. She picked up marine debris with her mother on August 3rd near an important subsistence area.

Apatiki says she has seen some trash wash up on the coast of Gambell before, but not on this scale.

“It’s actually pretty heartbreaking, especially since we see on the media that the whales are dying…from plastic pollution, all over the world.”

– Erika Apatiki

After one day of picking up trash on a 3-mile stretch of beach, Apatiki filled up roughly 19 40-gallon trash bags.

One stretch of Gambell’s coastline near an important subsistence area, littered with blue plastic wrappings and other marine debris. Photo taken by Erika Apatiki, shared by Gay Sheffield (2020).

Apatiki mentioned she saw the beach was mostly littered with blue plastic wrappings for filleted fish, with words written in a foreign language on them; potentially Russian or Korean.

Then in Nome, Austin Ahmasuk of Kawerak collected a sizable amount of trash on his own earlier this summer. Ahmasuk preferred not to comment for this story, but Gay Sheffield with Alaska Sea Grant summarized his efforts and observations from his time traveling in the Nome area.

“So Austin went from Sinuk River back to Nome and had 124 different items [in total]. He picked up about 75 that he had in trash bags, and we went through each one… it was shocking.”

Russian penetrating oil cans found along the beaches of Nome this summer by Austin Ahmasuk. Photo taken by Ahmasuk, shared by Gay Sheffield with Alaska Sea Grant (2020)

When looking at vessel traffic in the Bering Strait recently, there have been significantly more fishing vessels and tankers traveling along the coast of Eastern Russian than there are in Western Alaska. Kawerak Inc. believes the increased vessel traffic is at least partially to blame for the influx of marine debris.

In the tribal consortium’s letter to the U.S. Coast Guard, Kawerak said, “residents in our communities have taken it upon themselves to become first responders and despite efforts to reach out to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris program, and the U.S. Coast Guard, it seems as though responding to this event has not been adequate to meet our concern and we are having to bear the cost of cleaning our shores ourselves.”

Jacob Martin, the Tribal Resources Director with Nome Eskimo Community (NEC), has been facilitating a beach cleanup program every summer since 2017. Martin says the program is funded through an EPA IGAP grant and with that support they’re able to cleanup mostly local and close recreational areas around Nome, the Nome River and various beaches. He noted that NEC only found one bottle with foreign writing on it this year, and the amount of trash seems to have slightly declined this summer compared to previous years. However, Martin also points out that more members of the public have picked up trash recently and they could have found collected other items.

Peter Murphy is the Alaska Coordinator for NOAA’s Marine Debris program. He says the network of agencies and individuals involved in responding to the recent marine debris in the region is still gathering more information to determine the source of the trash. However, Murphy suspects this is related to a point-in-time release of a large amount of debris, in one place at one time.

“A lot of what we’re seeing in this pulse right now, that’s been reported, are relatively really fresh items. So, the labels are clear, the writing is clear, they aren’t weathered. Whereas the items that would’ve come from previous events or just what is unfortunately, chronic every day debris that’s already out in the ocean and circulating, that’s going to look different. It’s going to be more faded, it’s going to be harder to distinguish.”

Kawerak, along with several communities in the Bering Strait region, have urged the Coast Guard to investigate the source of this marine debris and enforce national and international rules governing the dumping of plastics into the world’s oceans.

If you would like to report foreign trash or various marine debris found in the Bering Strait region, call Gay Sheffield at 907 434-1149. According to Murphy, there will be a presentation or opportunity for regional communities to engage with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program [peter.murphy@noaa.gov] on this topic in the near future.

Image at top: Some of the empty bottles and trash that washed up in the Bering Strait Region within the last few weeks. Photo taken by Austin Ahmasuk, shared by Gay Sheffield with Alaska Sea Grant (2020).

Share this story


Recent Posts

Patrick Landback Wins Gold Dust Dash 5k Race

Waves crashed just feet away as a row of runners lined up on Nome’s East End Beach. Veronica Perez, a Summercise Intern for Norton Sound Health Corporation, announced to the 35 competitors of the Gold Dust Dash that it was time to get ready to race.  “Ladies and gentleman, start

Read More »

MS Westerdam Passengers Recall Icy Approach to Nome

Holland America’s MS Westerdam has arrived in Nome. The cruise ship that holds over 1,900 passengers is anchored just off the coast of Nome, too big to dock in the port. Small tenders that hold about 80 passengers each are ferrying visitors to and from the shore throughout the day.

Read More »

First-Ever KNOM Radio Music Fest Draws a Crowd, Drives Donations

Selma Casagranda serenaded audience members with a few of her original songs. Casagranda is from Seward and one of four finalists from KNOM’s 2023 American Idol search. Audience members joined the King Island dance group for an invitational dance. One of KNOM’s 2023 American Idol search finalists, Martin Paul of

Read More »



Work for Us:




(907) 443-5221 


(907) 868-1200 

Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that KNOM Radio Mission is located on the customary lands of Indigenous peoples. 

Based in the Bering Strait region, KNOM broadcasts throughout the homelands of the Iñupiaq, Siberian Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Yup’ik peoples.