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Paradise lost to plastic?

Paradise lost Credit Julien Joly

18 April 2014 - Hornstrandir, the northwestern most part of Iceland has been abandoned for over a century, when the last settlers left their farms close to the Arctic Circle. On a clear day, the ice caps of the glaciers on the equally, virtually uninhabited, east coast of Greenland can be seen on the horizon. This remote and isolated area is famous for its untouched landscapes and the colonies of millions of seabirds, enjoying the absence of man. That is at least what French photographer Julien Joly, was expecting, when he toured the region.

Plastic debris on the shore was one of the last things he expected to see.

“I thought the shores of regions like Hornstrandir would be untouched by the hand of man,” says Joly in an interview with the Newsletter. I was even more shocked to see that some of the debris was in the stomach of birds and marine animals.“

The US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that plastic debris kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals annually in the world, as well as millions of birds and fishes.

Instead of showing photos of untouched nature, Joly returned home to France to show plastic debris on Icelandic shores in a gallery in the Breton city, Rennes. “I was on an expedition with a group from the Arctic Fox Research Center. When we reached Hornstrandir we passed a long beach full of multicoloured fragments of broken floats and fishing nets. My Icelandic companions explained that all of this was brought by currents.”

The Icelandic NGO, the Blue Army (Blái herinn), has spent 49,000 man-hours of volunteer work on cleaning the shores in almost 2 decades. Tómas Knútsson, the founder of the NGO, says “Unfortunately, the photos show the situation as it is. Wherever possible, currents throw upon land both driftwood and debris such as fishing gear, plastics and tyres. Judging from inscriptions, they come from several different countries.”

That includes China, according to Mr Jolie´s photos. But Mr. Knútsson says that the fishing gear comes from mostly Icelandic vessels. “Fishermen throw a lot of garbage into the sea, although some owners have imposed a total ban on such activity.”

The Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners (LIU) has campaigned against pollution from Icelandic fishing ships and for over a decade it has avoided fishing gear made of synthetic material. “To my knowledge no fishing nation has taken this problem as seriously as we do,” Guðlaugur G. Johnsen, the Federation´s technical advisor told the Newsletter.

The Icelandic tourist industry promotes Iceland as a natural and “clean” destination. According to Mr Joly, they have every reason to take the situation seriously. He says he received a strong reaction in Iceland but even stronger abroad.

“The feed-back from Icelanders has been that they deplore the situation of their shores. The reaction was even stronger in France, because we think of Iceland as a kind of a natural paradise. These images have quite shocked the visitors of the exposition. They cannot believe the photos were taken close to the Arctic Circle. I hope the shock helps them to understand what an enormous problem this is.”

Learn more about plastic pollution's effect on our oceans here.

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