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January 2012 Issue

Taking on the Rising Tide Of Marine Debris

By Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.)
House Oceans Caucus
U.S. House of Representatives

I would like to start by sharing a startling statistic that every American should be concerned about: More than 14 billion pounds of trash end up in the world's oceans and soil our beaches every year. To put this in perspective, this is the equivalent to the approximate weight of 15,000 fully loaded Boeing 747 airplanes, 175,000 semitrailers or 1 million elephants. This marine debris includes everything from single-use plastic shopping bags to bottle caps, cigarette butts, plastic bottles, food wrappers, derelict fishing gear and sunken vessels.

Last March, I was fortunate to be a keynote speaker at the International Marine Debris Conference in Hono'lulu, Hawaii. This conference brought together more than 450 professionals spanning a variety of sectors, from the industry to local grassroots organizations, who are all concerned about marine debris. After attending this weeklong event, it was clear to me that we must act now or our oceans will face irreversible damage.

In March, I introduced H.R. 1171, the Marine Debris Act Reauthorization Amendments of 2011. The bill would allow the Marine Debris Program within NOAA to continue its critical work to prevent and reduce marine debris and its impacts on the marine ecosystem, the national economy and navigation safety.

Marine Debris Background
Every year, more than 77.8 million Americans from all over the country visit a beach. Many coastal businesses rely solely on tourism for their success, and an increase in the prevalence of marine debris can have long-lasting economic impacts. For example, in the summers of 1988 and 1989, New Jersey and New York experienced beach closures when medical marine debris washed ashore. Estimates suggest the loss in tourism revenues was as much as $3.6 billion.

In addition to these economic impacts, marine debris is taking a toll on the marine environment. It impacts more than 267 marine species through ingestion or entanglement, and estimates suggest that up to 100,000 marine mammals are killed each year by marine debris. It also poses an ongoing threat to endangered species and recovery efforts. For instance, in the past 20 years, there have been more than 200 observed incidents of Hawaiian monk seal entanglement in marine debris. For a species with a population of less than 1,000, the threat posed by marine debris could be the deciding factor for the future of the Hawaiian monk seal.

Marine Debris Act of 2006
In 2006, Congress first recognized the pervasive problem of marine debris by passing the original Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act of 2006. This law established programs within NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to address the problem of marine debris. Specifically, the law laid the foundation for partnerships between the USCG, NOAA and other federal agencies with the creation of the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee (IMDCC). The IMDCC facilitates joint-agency efforts to increase awareness and improve compliance amongst various stakeholders, including the maritime industry and boaters, in order to reduce and prevent marine debris. The interagency coordination and information sharing resulting from the existing law have helped both NOAA and the USCG to be more effective and efficient in their missions, including the USCG's mandate to enforce MARPOL Annex V, an international agreement which prohibits dumping of plastics at sea. Additionally, existing law has helped agencies in the IMDCC more easily coordinate research priorities, monitoring techniques and education programs.

In addition to interagency partnerships, NOAA and the USCG have been particularly successful in forming public-private partnerships with local communities, academic institutions, the private sector and the fishing industry to find wide-ranging solutions to prevent and reduce marine debris. These partnerships are critical to leveraging private funds and result in more resourceful and successful federal programs. H.R. 1171 explicitly calls for the further establishment of public-private partnerships that will assist in the implementation of marine debris prevention and reduction initiatives.

Since 2006, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has funded 86 local projects across the country. One of these projects the program helps fund every year is the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup, the world's largest single-day marine debris cleanup event. Last year's event took place in September, and I was proud to be among the 4,584 volunteers who participated along California's central coast to clean up 17,000 pounds of trash. People of all ages contributed to this successful day, and it is time that America's policymakers got involved, too.

Bill Status
At the time this article was written, H.R. 1171 had 26 bipartisan co-sponsors but, surprisingly, has been met with some resistance. The cut, squeeze and trim fiscal climate in Wash'ington has led leaders in Congress to ignore the connection between a healthy marine environment and a healthy national economy. Instead we are seeing a pattern where funding for ocean programs is being cut or eliminated altogether.

I am a firm believer in grassroots efforts, however, and this is one area where Americans can truly make a difference. So I would like to pose a challenge for readers to reach out to members of Congress, educate them about our marine debris problem and request that they co-sponsor H.R. 1171.

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