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What’s the scoop on Bristol Bay poop: A closer look at the bucket system

Alaskan artist Kitty Sopow's sticker design represents the iconic and inevitable part of fishing in Bristol Bay
Courtesy of Kitty Sopow @sopowart
Alaskan artist Kitty Sopow's sticker design represents the iconic and inevitable part of fishing in Bristol Bay

Everybody poops, and during peak season in Bristol Bay, a big influx of people to the region means a big influx of waste. On land, that sewage travels from toilet to treatment plant. But for boats in the bay, the bathroom is a bucket.

Technically, it’s against the law to dump sewage waste within three nautical miles of shore. Each year, fleets receive a letter reminder. The Department of Environmental Conservation runs a public awareness campaign, “Don’t Poo in the Blue” - to avoid the potential negative impacts to the environment and human health.

But between the long fishing hours and the unique geography of Bristol Bay’s fishing districts, the options for properly disposing of waste on the water are limited.

Randy Bates is the director for the division of water at Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). As a commercial fisherman himself in Bristol Bay, he says he understands that compliance is not always possible.

“You're not, ‘Oh, let's take a break. Pull the net. I'm gonna run three miles out so you can take a dump in a bucket and toss it over and we’re legal.’ I understand that,” Bates said.

Bates says although compliance is a challenge, raising public awareness is important.

“If you're pooping in the water, you're pooping exactly where you recreate and harvest from,” he said.

And with enough boats on the water, he says the impacts can add up.

“In the drift fleet, you put 500 of those boats, 32 foot vessels with an average crew of three or four individuals in a confined space, all of them eating and pooping,” he said. “That has a tendency to collect in the water.”

Dumping sewage near shore can have negative health and environmental consequences, including shellfish contamination, low oxygen levels in the water, and increased risk of disease.

“Now, think about if you're a crew, and you're pulling the nets over and you get a couple of floaters in your net. Maybe you don't know it, but it's there,” Bates said.

Tav Ammu is a Nushagak fisherman and works with Alaska Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Program. He says illegal waste dumping is most concerning where boats are congregated.

“The main concern is when there's a large amount of boats in a very small area with not a lot of movement of water, such as in the harbor,” Ammu said.

In Dillingham, Ammu helped implement the Alaska Clean Harbors program, which focuses on public education around proper waste disposal.

“We posted signs in the harbor about please, keeping our waters clean,” he said. “Not to dump sewage waste, or any other discharges like oil, hydraulic oil, ATF or anything like that.”

Ammu says the program developed Clean Harbor signs incorporating the winning artwork from a youth art contest of a local elementary schooler. The signs illustrate the importance of clean harbors, and post information about where to dispose of waste.

“I think a lot of people want to do the right thing,” he said. “They just don't necessarily know what the right thing is. And so having those signs at key times I think is really beneficial.”

People may want to do the right thing, but beyond the harbor and out on the water, the options are limited. State officials advise boats to use pump out stations when available. But Randy Bates, with the Department of Environmental Conservation says in Bristol Bay, there are none.

“I'm not aware that there are real viable options that folks would make use of at this point in the Bristol Bay region. We do not, to the best of my knowledge, have pump out stations in any of the harbor areas or communities there,” Bates said.

So just how much waste is making its way to Bristol Bay’s beaches? And at what point does it become a problem?

State environmental health researchers with the DEC are conducting a two-year monitoring project testing bacteria levels on Dillingham’s beaches including Kanakanak, Scandinavian, and Snag Point. Bates says the goal is to answer those questions.

“Is there a level of fecal material or enterococci that is harmful?” Bates said. “Both of those are commonly found in human feces. And so when they show up, it's an indicator that you've got some level of human material in the water system.”

So far, the study found both types of bacteria on the beaches, but neither reached a level requiring public notice. And these aren’t necessarily indicators of human waste, things like seagull droppings and seafood processing plant discharge contribute to these levels too.

Fisherman’s options are limited, but the DEC says there are things boaters can do to reduce overboard waste disposal, such as using onshore restrooms when available and disposing of waste properly when in the harbor.

At the Dillingham harbor, city wastewater operator, Chris Maines, says the influx of commercial fishing crews isn’t a problem. He says the amount of overall sewage discharge nearly doubles during the fishing season, but Dillingham’s onshore sewage systems are well-equipped to handle the increase. Maines says they monitor the flow digitally.

“So I can actually see what is coming in on a minute-by-minute basis, and I can adjust accordingly,” Maines said. “If the influx is greater, I have ways of being able to change the system from within. So I can deal with heavier traffic as well as periods of low traffic.”

In Naknek, the borough’s sewage system is also set up to handle the heavy summer traffic. James Wilson is the Bristol Bay Borough Manager.

“We have significant additional pumps that will come online as the wastewater increases during the busy fishing season.”

Between the beach bacteria studies and the Clean Harbor Program, Randy Bates with the DEC says the primary goal is to protect human health and the environment in Alaskan waters.

“We have such dynamic fisheries, so successful and incredible, like Bristol Bay is,” he said. “The last thing we want is to get a poor message out on how we care for our waters, let alone our fish.”

The Bristol Bay water quality monitoring project continues this season, providing more clues on poo, as does the Bristol Bay bucket system.

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Jessie Sheldon is a fisheries reporter for KDLG. She has spent several summers working in Alaska, both on the water and in the recording studio. Jessie is passionate about marine ecosystems, connection through storytelling, and all things fishy.