Senate Navigates Growing Marine Debris Problem

2017-07-31T15:12:20+00:00 July 31, 2017|
Marine debris from below in Hawaii. (Credit: NOAA)

(Click to enlarge) Marine debris from below in Hawaii. (Credit: NOAA)

Eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year – and in total, the amount already in existence outweighs each human by ten to one (approximately the same as a cow or female giraffe), according to Dr. Melissa Duhaime (Assistant Professor, University of Michigan).

At a hearing held by the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, lawmakers explored efforts to tackle marine debris in the ocean and Great Lakes. Marine debris refers to any kind of discarded human litter, including derelict fishing equipment; sunken vessels; and trash from fabrics, metal, cardboard, or other substances, but the most abundant – and problematic – form is plastic.

Marine debris poses a number of problems. There are alarming human health implications of consuming polluted seafood and drinking water, and the full extent of their impacts is unknown. Dr. Duhaime described current research using only “caveman approaches” to examine the problem due to inadequate modeling and analytical techniques. In addition to health risks, Ms. Nancy Wallace (Director, Marine Debris Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)) explained that marine debris can pose navigational hazards and impacts tourism, fisheries, ecosystems, and safety.

The U.S. government has been tackling this predicament from several angles, both internationally and at home. Subcommittee Chairman Dan Sullivan (AK)’s Save Our Seas Act (S. 756) and its counterpart in the House (H.R. 2748) would reauthorize the Marine Debris Act (P.L.109-449) to promote international action to reduce marine debris. The U.S. Department of State and NOAA’s Marine Debris Program have also been working together to find solutions. Ambassador David Balton (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Fisheries, Department of State) highlighted the State Department’s efforts with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation to reduce pollution from Southeast Asian countries (which constitute the top five producers of marine debris). Ms. Wallace detailed the five pillars NOAA’s Marine Debris Program uses to address the problem within the United States: research, removal, prevention, regional coordination, and emergency response. All witnesses emphasized that preventing plastics from entering the ecosystem in the first place is key. The subcommittee expressed their appreciation for the efforts the State Department and NOAA have made thus far, but Senator Cory Booker (NJ) called the issue “far more dire than we are expressing,” saying “we are barreling towards a crisis of global proportions” and “what our grandchildren are going to inherit is unconscionable.”

Witnesses had plenty of suggestions for what Congress could do to help reduce marine debris. Ms. Wallace suggested working with state and local partners to combat pollution, raising awareness among constituents, and continuing research on microplastics and microfibers. For future microplastic research projects, Dr. Duhaime recommended studying the impacts of human ingestion and inhalation; altering risk measurement standards; improving analyzing and modeling techniques; and examining the economic, health, and societal impacts needed to define incentives for change.

As public awareness of the sheer volume of marine debris increases, the push to solve the problem is noticeably bipartisan. Chairman Sullivan (AK) said the issue is “absolutely a crisis” in his home state, which has more coastline than the rest of the continental U.S. combined and collected more than one million tons of plastic in 2015 alone. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) testified before the subcommittee to explain the work he has done as a leader on marine debris in Congress and expressed appreciation for the bipartisan efforts of the committee. Looking forward, Sen. Booker asked witnesses to produce lists of top marine debris priorities for Congress to use as an action plan, which could help guide future congressional action.