Beach litter in Svalbard

Closeup of bits of plastic trash laying on a rocky beach in Svalbard.
Photo: Stein Ø. Nilsen / Norwegian Polar Institute

Litter is causing extensive pollution of the seas, contaminating the shores, the seabed and the water itself. Animals may suffer considerable injury and suffering. Pollutants and alien species can also be spread with the litter. Economic and social consequences include the expense of tidying up, damage to vessels, loss of fishing gear and shores becoming less attractive for recreation and tourism.

What is being monitored?

Weight of beach litter

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Litter that has drifted ashore annually in Brucebukta, Breibogen and Isflakbukta (a 200 metre long stretch in each case). Breibogen and Isflakbukta have not been cleared since 2010. Note that the discovery of a whole net on the shore in Isflakbukta in 2005 reflects greatly in the figures (410 kg recorded); amounts otherwise seldom exceed 50 kg. Ice and snow in Isflakbukta resulted in no litter being recorded there in 2007 and 2008. In 2008, Breibogen was by mistake entirely cleared of litter without that being weighed.

OSPAR-monitoring of beach litter

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OSPAR methodology. Litter per item.

Status and trend

The reports resulting from the tidying-up actions organised by the Office of the Governor of Svalbard each year clearly show that the bulk of the litter consists of plastic originating from fishing vessels. It comprises remnants of nets and trawls, net weights of plastic and metal, fish crates and plastic drums. There is also some household waste, such as plastic and glass bottles and jars, and other kinds of plastic packaging materials, shoe soles and articles of everyday use.

The litter on three stretches of beach in Svalbard has been cleared and its weight recorded each year since 2001, apart from a few breaks. There are sources of error and breaks in the time series at Breibogen and Isflakbukta which prevent the figures from there being used to illustrate the trend.

The method used to map beach litter was changed in 2011. Brucebukta is the only stretch of beach still monitored using the “old” method. The OSPAR methodology is applied to Brucebukta and Luftskipsodden. However, no obvious tendency can be read out of the statistics. The small amounts of litter which drift ashore there vary relatively little and do not form a basis for saying whether the problem is increasing or decreasing.

The primary objective for Svalbard is to keep anthropogenic pressures at a low level, and litter on the beaches has a bearing on several more detailed targets. The Management Plan for the Barents Sea and Lofoten has a goal to prevent pollution deriving from litter from directly or indirectly inflicting harm on the environment. The threshold for when measures are to be implemented is ”unacceptable litter accumulation in the shore zone”, but this is not defined more precisely. The problem of setting clear objectives is also seen in OSPAR, which wanted member countries to set specific targets for the reduction of beach litter by 2012 when they had surveyed the problem better.

Litter on the beaches is entirely a human-induced problem and should really never occur. Based on the large quantities found on Svalbard beaches, there is no reason to say that there is an “acceptable” level of marine litter (cf. the threshold). Large quantities of waste arising from human activities reach the oceans every year, but very little is removed. Objects of plastic, glass and rubber can remain in the environment for hundreds or thousands of years. Both the quantities and the increased knowledge of the harm they cause call for the implementation of more stringent measures against the spreading of litter.  

The indicator covers too few beaches in a too confined geographical area to permit us to draw conclusions whether the quantity of litter in the Barents Sea is changing and whether or not we are approaching the goal. OSPAR (2009) drew the following main conclusion for the northeast Atlantic: ”the overall amount of marine litter is consistently high and is not reducing despite recent efforts”.

Causal factors

Litter in the oceans stems from many activities on land and at sea. Examples of sources on land are diffuse litter (thrown away or lost by individual people), tourism, industry, illegal litter dumps and waste disposal sites. The litter from these sources can be transported to the sea by rivers, sewerage systems, storm tides or wind. At sea, fishing vessels, ships and offshore oil and gas installations are important sources. When the litter has reached the sea, it is carried by the ocean currents, often across territorial borders. The coastal current along the Norwegian coast, with its branch along the west coast of Svalbard, is a possible transport route for litter dumped further south.

Fishing vessels in the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea seem to be the largest source of the beach litter in Svalbard, but much may derive from cruise ships and other vessels. It is difficult to be more specific about the source, in other words from which areas of ocean the majority of the waste derives. Some is admittedly equipped with the name of the firm and can therefore to some extent be partially tracked.


Wildlife can be inflicted considerable harm and suffering because of litter. Plastic is eaten by seabirds, fish and filtering organisms, for instance, because they confuse it with food. It can damage internal organs, reduce the uptake of food and, in the worst instances, kill the animals. Marine mammals, birds and fish become entangled in old fishing lines and remains of nets. Plastic accumulates pollutants and may spread alien species.

Svalbard reindeer find much of their grazing close to the sea. One consequence of the litter which is particularly relevant for Svalbard is therefore reindeer becoming entangled in nets and trawls. Many animals suffer a slow, painful death in this way each year.

Seabirds are another exposed group regarding litter. OSPAR has systematically monitored the stomach contents of dead fulmars. The fulmar is a surface feeder which consumes many fragments of plastic. Recent studies showed that 9 out of 10 fulmars in Svalbard had plastic in their stomachs, suggesting they ingested it.

Litter in the shore zone can be a health hazard for people. In addition, there are negative economic and social impacts such as the cost of tidying up, damage to vessels, loss of fishing gear and reduction in the aesthetic value of the coast.

About the monitoring

The large quantities of litter which drift ashore on beaches in Svalbard are a visible result of the widespread pollution of the oceans with litter. The litter stems from many activities on land and at sea, and is also transported by ocean currents across territorial boundaries. It is found in the shore zone, on the seabed and floating on and beneath the surface, often as fragments and microparticles.

The Management Plan for the Barents Sea and Lofoten has a goal to prevent pollution deriving from litter from directly or indirectly inflicting harm on the environment.

At its ministerial meeting in Bergen in September 2010, OSPAR called on all its member nations to adopt a specific target to reduce beach litter by 2012. The main reason why the countries postponed the setting of a specific goal was that several, including Norway, still lacked adequate knowledge about the present level of beach litter. Such information is essential if realistic targets are to be set and to be able to monitor whether they are attained. There is therefore a need for more mapping and systematic monitoring of marine litter in Norway.

Measuring the quantity of litter will be important to assess whether political goals are attained and existing provisions are sufficiently effective or should be made more stringent. The most important of these provisions today are:

Annex V of the M ARPOL Convention forbids discharge of plastic from vessels and places limitations on dumping of other litter, particularly near the coast and in special areas like the North Sea. A revision from 2010 (not yet entered into force) forbids the disposal of litter unless it is explicitly permitted.

The London Convention forbids the dumping of litter in the sea. The ban does not cover operational discharges from ships (cf. the MARPOL Convention).

Norwegian legislation (§ 27 of the Pollution Control Act) forbids the disposal of litter on both land and sea.

The Norwegian Marine Resources Act forbids the dumping or unnecessary abandonment of fishing gear.

Practical organisation, including the collecting and processing of litter, would be an important means of living up to these provisions, in addition to other measures concerned with litter policies, like levies, recycling schemes, trade agreements, etc.

Places and areas

Relations to other monitoring

Monitoring programme
International environmental agreements
Voluntary international cooperation
Related monitoring