The discarded nets and other oceanic debris sitting on a table behind the spectators weren’t just examples of possible ocean trash – they were actual marine debris that had been found in, or entrapping, marine life. The Oceans Caucus Foundation, with support from a number of organizations, hosted a Congressional briefing to discuss ongoing issues associated with marine debris and how to solve this global problem.
The briefing focused on public-private partnerships as a means to curb the amount of trash reaching the ocean, remove trash that is already there, and protect aquatic animals from the effects of debris. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) highlighted the extent of the problem with a dire statistic: plastic will outnumber fish in the ocean by 2050, due to both waning fish stocks and the ever-increasing rate of plastic pollution. Trash in the sea is becoming a serious problem for marine life, large and small, and Sen. Whitehouse has identified this as the next issue to be taken up by the six-year-old bipartisan, bicameral Oceans Caucus.
The complex oceanic debris problem requires multi-faceted, partnered solutions, which were outlined by panelists Dr. Pam Yochem (Executive Vice President, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute), Dr. Peter Thomas (Policy Program Director, Marine Mammal Commission), Courtney McGeachy (Manager of Marine Conservation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation), Eric Otjen (Assistant Curator of Mammals, Sea World, San Diego), and Dune Ives (Executive Director, The Lonely Whale Foundation). According to Dr. Yochem, “Everyone can be a part of the system” to fix the ocean trash problem, including sport fishers, maritime industry, government, university researchers, nonprofit organizations, and the public.
In order to limit additional trash inputs, the U.S. and international governments should improve policies to minimize upstream trash, the fishing industry can innovate to limit abandoned gear, and the public can choose biodegradable products or those with smaller environmental impacts. Similarly, the efforts to remove trash that is already in the ocean require diverse networks. Debris removal can be studied by university researchers, funded by governmental agencies, supported by nonprofits, and undertaken by members of the public. Large beach cleanups are already a mainstay of nonprofit organizations and public volunteerism. Industry partners have also recently proposed a huge, floating screen to skim plastic out of the ocean. Additionally, nonprofit organizations can play a pivotal role in the process by funding grants for marine debris research and outreach, according to Ms. McGeachy.
The protection of marine life from debris also requires teamwork. Many fisheries innovations have been envisaged by the fishers themselves; ensuing testing by researchers has resulted in improved regulations. In addition to innovations on discarded gear, operable gear can also be reimagined to improve sea animal issues. As an example, Dr. Yochem spoke of west coast pinnipeds that were becoming injured or trapped in the slack lines connecting crab pots to buoys. Once the problem was identified, fishers tried several approaches to ease the issue and have switched to a stiffer tethering cord, which has resulted in fewer mammalian entanglements.
Everyone can have a positive impact on the marine debris problem by taking steps to reduce harmful waste, some of which makes its way into the ocean. As Ms. Ives explained, with 500 million plastic straws being used in the U.S. each day, equivalent to filling 125 school busses with just straws, the pollution problem is certainly one that starts at home. We must keep addressing the ocean trash issue from all fronts to save the ocean from becoming earth’s garbage dump.