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Off Gore Point, where tide rips collide, the rolling swells rear up and steepen into whitecaps. Quiet with concentration, Chris Pallister decelerates from 15 knots to 8, strains to peer through a windshield blurry with spray, tightens his grip on the wheel and, like a skier negotiating moguls, coaxes his home-built boat, the Opus — aptly named for a comic-strip penguin — through the chaos of waves. Our progress becomes a series of concussions punctuated by troughs of anxious calm. In this it resembles the rest of Pallister’s life.
Storms drive plastic debris hundreds of feet into the forest beyond the shores of Gore Point.
A 55-year-old lawyer with a monkish haircut, glasses that look difficult to break, an allergy of the eyes that makes him squint and a private law practice in Anchorage, Pallister spends most of his time directing a nonprofit group called the Gulf of Alaska Keeper, or GoAK (pronounced GO-ay-kay). According to its mission statement, GoAK’s lofty purpose is to “protect, preserve, enhance and restore the ecological integrity, wilderness quality and productivity of Prince William Sound and the North Gulf Coast of Alaska.” In practice, the group has, since Pallister and a few like-minded buddies founded it in 2005, done little else besides clean trash from beaches. All along Alaska’s outer coast, Chris Pallister will tell you, there are shores strewn with marine debris, as man-made flotsam and jetsam is officially known. Most of that debris is plastic, and much of it crosses the Gulf of Alaska or even the Pacific Ocean to arrive there.
The tide of plastic isn’t rising only on Alaskan shores. In 2004 two oceanographers from the British Antarctic Survey completed a study of plastic dispersal in the Atlantic that spanned both hemispheres. “Remote oceanic islands,” the study showed, “may have similar levels of debris to those adjacent to heavily industrialized coasts.” Even on the shores of Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic, the survey found on average a plastic item every five meters.
Back in the 1980s, the specter of fouled beaches was a recurring collective nightmare. The Jersey Shore was awash in used syringes. New York’s garbage barge wandered the seas. On the approach to Kennedy Airport, the protagonist of “Paradise,” a late Donald Barthelme novel, looked out his airplane window and saw “a hundred miles of garbage in the water, from the air white floating scruff.” We tend to tire of new variations on the apocalypse, however, the same way we tire of celebrities and pop songs. Eventually all those syringes, no longer delivering a jolt of guilt or dread, receded from the national consciousness. Who could worry about seabirds garotted by six-pack rings when Alaska’s shores were awash in Exxon’s crude? Who could worry about turtles tangled in derelict fishing nets when the ice caps were melting and the terrorists were coming?
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"We stand at the edge of the sea. We say nothing. We breathe its salt, its oxygen. We see its... continue