Beach litter in Svalbard

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

Large quantities of litter are entering our oceans, and litter is all too apparent on beaches, in the water and on the seabed. Severe injuries and suffering can be inflicted on animals when they come into physical contact with this litter, and plastic can also contribute to the spreading of pollutants and alien species. Direct economic and social consequences include clean-up costs, damage to boats, the loss of fishing gear and beaches that are less attractive for recreation and tourism. In addition, negative effects on the diversity and functioning of marine ecosystems over time can lead to a deterioration in harvestable resources and ecosystem services.

What is being monitored?

Weight of beach litter at Brucebukta

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Annual quantities of litter stranded in Brucebukta. A 200 metres long section, split into two 100-metre subsections, is cleared. The data show that marine litter enters Brucebukta every year. In some years, this includes large appliances/objects which have a major impact on the total weight. Unfortunately, the weight of the litter collected in 2009 and 2020 was not recorded.

Status and trend

The clean-up of Brucebukta shows that marine litter is still entering the area. However, the clearing of a single beach in Svalbard does not provide sufficient documentary evidence of possible changes over time as regards the amount of litter found in the surrounding marine areas.

The Governor of Svalbard's annual clean-up programme clearly indicates that the vast majority of the litter volume comprises plastic from the fishing fleet. There are fragments of fishing and trawl nets, yarn balls made of plastic or metal, fish crates and plastic drums. The waste also includes some household refuse, such as glass and plastic bottles, other plastic packaging, shoe soles and various utensils. This is also confirmed by detailed analyses of the composition of litter finds in Svalbard (Falk-Andersson and Strietman, 2019).

It is a general goal for Svalbard to keep human impacts at a low level. Norway’s ocean management plans establish a goal of avoiding littering and other damage to the environment as a result of waste.

Manmade litter is still entering the oceans every year, and the goal of preventing this has therefore not been reached. However, there has been a stronger focus on beach clean-ups in recent years. The Governor of Svalbard became concerned about the issue at an early stage and has been organising beach clean-ups in Svalbard since 2000.

The indicator covers too few beaches in too small a geographical area for us to draw any conclusions regarding whether or not litter volumes in the Barents Sea are changing and whether we are getting closer to the goal. OSPAR (2019) compares developments in its monitoring trends and concludes that:"Regional differences in the abundance and composition of litter types indicate that the sources of marine litter pollution differ between regions. Composition and abundance of litter items on survey sites in the Arctic Waters region probably reflect the low human population there, but relatively high fishing intensity in Arctic waters". 

Causal factors

Plastic waste in the ocean stems from a wide variety of activities on land and in the water. Examples of land-based sources are litter which is discarded or lost by individuals, tourism, industry, illegal waste disposal sites and landfill sites. From these sources, the waste can be transported to the ocean via watercourses, drains, storm surges or wind. At sea, the fishing fleet, ships and offshore oil and gas installations are important sources. When the litter reaches the sea, it is transported by ocean currents. The coastal current along the Norwegian coast and its branch along the west coast of Svalbard is a possible transport route for litter reaching the ocean further south.

The fishing fleets in the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea appear to be the largest source of beach litter in Svalbard, but large quantities may also originate from cruise ships and other vessels (Falk-Andersson and Strietman, 2019). It is difficult to draw any specific conclusions about which marine areas the majority of the waste originates from. Only in exceptional cases is waste marked with the name of a company and therefore traceable.

Consequences

Litter can inflict severe injuries and suffering on animals. Fragments of plastic have been shown to be eaten by seabirds, fish and whales, which confuse the fragments with food. This plastic can damage internal organs, reduce the uptake of food due to a feeling of being full or even kill the animals in the worst case scenario. Filtering organisms may not necessarily distinguish between microplastics and food particles, and food uptake can be reduced in the event of high concentrations of microplastics.

Littering may also cause other physical harm to marine and land wildlife. Mammals, birds and fish can become trapped in old fishing lines, abandoned nets and other litter. This can kill them or cause them to suffer severe external injuries. For example, Svalbard reindeer find much of their pasture along the coast. One consequence of the waste that particularly applies to Svalbard is therefore that reindeer become trapped in fishing and trawl nets. No figures are available for Svalbard regarding the number of animals and birds that become entangled in beach litter, but annual photographic evidence indicates that it does occur.

Litter in the form of plastic may accumulate and transport pollutants in the environment, and alien species can grow on litter and be transported over great distances as passengers on it.

For the general population, plastic litter has negative economic and social consequences, such as the cost of clean-up operations, damage to boats, lost fishing gear and reduction in the aesthetic value of the coast.

About the monitoring

Over time, the monitoring of designated sections of beach which are only cleared for this one purpose will enable an accurate picture to be built up of whether the quantities of litter in the ocean, and therefore the potential for input, are changing over time. Data from the monitoring programme in Brucebukta can be interpreted as indicating that the quantity of litter remains approximately the same today as it was when the monitoring began, and that large appliances occasionally strand on the beach. We also know that there are error sources, partly because we cannot rule out the possibility that the beaches concerned are being cleared by others. It may be beneficial to extend the monitoring to include more locations and to mark the beaches to inform others that the beach is being cleared for a specific purpose.

Monitoring litter quantities is an important step in assessing whether political objectives are being achieved and whether the regulations that are in force are sufficiently effective or whether they need to be tightened. The main regulatory mechanisms regarding litter are currently:

  • Annex V to the MARPOL Convention prohibits the release of plastic from ships and imposes limitations on the discharge of other waste.
  • The London Convention prohibits the dumping of waste into the sea. The ban does not apply to operational discharges from ships; ref. MARPOL.
  • On the mainland, littering both on land and at sea is prohibited under Section 27 of the Pollution Control Act.
  • The Marine Resources Act prohibits the discarding or unnecessary abandonment of fishing gear.
  • Sections 67 and 68 of the Svalbard Environment Act prohibit the discharge, dumping and incineration of waste from ships.
  • Establishing practical arrangements for the collection and treatment of waste will be an important instrument in ensuring compliance with these provisions, alongside other instruments in waste policy, such as taxes, recycling schemes, industry agreements, etc. These instruments are assessed in more detail in Norway's plastics strategy, 2021.

Places and areas

Relations to other monitoring

Monitoring programme
International environmental agreements
Voluntary international cooperation
Related monitoring
Other