Beach litter in Svalbard
Last updated 21 March 2023
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
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.
(Cite these data: The Governor of Svalbard (2023). Beach litter, annual amounts by weight at Brucebukta. Environmental monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen (MOSJ). URL: https://mosj.no/en/indikator/influence/pollution/beach-litter-in-svalbard/)
Details on these data
|Last updated||21 March 2023|
|Next update||February 2024|
|Commissioning organization||Ministry of Climate and Environment|
|Executive organization||Governor of Svalbard|
|Contact persons||Magnus Jakola-Fjeld|
Lisbeth Schnug Melhus
Beach litter is collected in Brucebukta for two purposes: As part of OSPAR’s beach litter monitoring programme and for MOSJ. As regards the OSPAR monitoring programmes, all finds are categorised into pre-defined categories, while for MOSJ the total weight of all finds is reported. The litter is collected once a year (during the summer) from a designated section of the beach. Collection for OSPAR takes place along a 100-metre section, while for the MOSJ indicator, collection takes place along a 200-metre section, split into two 100-metre subsections.
The weight is recorded at the time of collection and will be affected by humidity. Furthermore, the method that has been adopted means that large individual finds, such as trawl and fishing nets, can have a major impact on the data series. All litter, not just plastic litter, is recorded. Only driftwood, other untreated timber and cultural monuments is not recorded.
The indicator that is used, the weight of litter, tells us whether the amount of litter is increasing or declining over time, and whether there are years in which the amount of litter differs a lot. As the same section of beach is cleared every year, we also know that the amount that is cleared is what has been supplied during the past year.
The MOSJ indicator does not provide any information about the number of objects, the type of litter or the sources of the litter.
With OSPAR’s method, the individual litter finds are recorded under specific categories in accordance with a fixed protocol. This method therefore provides an overview of the quantity and type of litter, which can then be used to identify litter sources. The results of the OSPAR monitoring programme in Brucebukta can be found here: https://beachlitter.ospar.org/beach/brucebukta.
The results of the two surveys complement each other.
An important source of error with both methods is that there is a possibility that the beach is cleared by others during the year.
There are no specific requirements for quality assurance.
Reference level and action level
In Norway’s ocean management plans, (Report to the Storting (white paper) No. 20 (2019–2020)), the goals for marine litter are as follows:
• Inputs of waste and microplastics to the management plan areas should be avoided.
• Waste quantities in marine and coastal areas should be reduced by means of clean-up operations where appropriate.
These goals are repeated in Norway’s plastics strategy, 2021.
The Governor of Svalbard has developed its own strategy against marine litter (in Norwegian).
No action limit has been defined.
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”.
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 on the European mainland.
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.
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
- Management Plan for the Norwegian Sea (in Norwegian)
Litter along the coast is also an indicator in the Management Plan for the Norwegian Sea.
International environmental agreements
OSPAR through the Intercessional Correspondence Group on Marine Litter (Contact: Norwegian Environment Agency).
Voluntary international cooperation
- International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships – MARPOL
The results are also relevant for follow-up by MARPOL and the London Convention.
- PAME Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter
- AMAP Litter and Microplastics Monitoring Plan
- AMAP Litter and Microplastics Monitoring Guidelines. Version 1.0
- Marine debris conferences
- UNEP pages on litter pollution of the sea: Contains several reports on litter pollution of the sea, including its monitoring.
- Beach litter on Svalbard in Environment.no (in Norwegian)
- Falk-Andersson, J., and W. J. Strietman. 2019. Svalbard Beach Litter Deep Dive. SALT Lofoten.
- OSPAR (20019), https://oap.ospar.org/en/ospar-assessments/committee-assessments/eiha-thematic-assessments/marine-litter/beach-litter-monitoring/ besøkt september 2021
- Report to the Storting No. 20 (2019–2020) Norway’s integrated ocean management plans — Barents Sea-Lofoten area; the Norwegian Sea, and the North Sea and Skagerrak