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Rare Outbreak of Bipartisanship on Need to Fight Ocean Pollution

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Save Our Seas Act to reauthorize a marine debris program and work with other nations to reduce ocean pollution. Backers hope the House will approve the legislation in 2018.

Written by Erica Cirino Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Trash on Mokuleia Beach in Oahu, Hawaii.Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

HONOLULU – If you’re hanging out on Oahu’s most popular beaches, you won’t find much trash besides the errant ice cream wrapper or foam clamshell from someone’s lunch carelessly discarded on the beach. That’s because state workers are paid to intensively clean these beaches for tourists. Not so at the island’s less popular beaches. Local volunteer groups such as B.E.A.C.H.Hawaii Wildlife Fund and the Surfrider Foundation – many of which are supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program – spend hours pulling tens of thousands of pounds of trash off Oahu’s beaches annually.

Help may be on the way. In a rare show of bipartisanship, the United States Senate has unanimously passed the Save Our Seas Act of 2017, which would reauthorize the NOAA Marine Debris Program for five years and encourage international cooperation to prevent and clean up plastic pollution.

“Over the course of years and decades, marine debris deposited in the ocean half a world away inevitably finds its way to our coastal communities and ecosystems. Alaska feels the brunt of this crisis with its extensive coastline,” Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Arkansas), one of the three politicians who introduced the act this year, wrote in a statement upon the act’s passage in the Senate in August.

Like Alaska, Hawaii’s coasts are particularly vulnerable to ocean plastic pollution. That’s because it lies in the path of the North Pacific Gyre, a swirling ocean current that carries trash from Eastern Asia to the West Coast of the U.S. and Mexico. This current overlaps with others in the South Pacific and subpolar regions. The Save Our Seas Act recognizes the interconnectedness of the world’s waterways and coastlines, and the need to address the issue of marine debris not only in the ocean but where it starts: in human hands. The Act calls for NOAA to “work with other federal agencies to develop outreach and education strategies to address both land- and sea-based sources of marine debris.”

“Cleaning up marine debris is great, but to solve the issue we really need to cut down on the amount of plastic that we’re using,” said Hawaii state representative Cedric Gates, vice chair of the Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.“ As the youngest state representative in the House of Representatives, I am acutely aware of the need to take action now in order to ensure a sustainable future, and fully support this act as a means of addressing marine debris.”

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program supports education, cleanup and innovation efforts to reduce marine debris in U.S. waterways and coastlines. The Save Our Seas Act would authorize the program for five years at a maximum of $10 million per year. While a relatively modest sum, the budget ensures money for the marine debris cleanup effort in a political environment where environmental and scientific programs are losing funding.

The act would also require the U.S. State Department to work with countries to reduce ocean pollution. A report released earlier this year by the Ocean Conservancy identified China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam as the top five countries contributing to the ocean plastic pollution crisis.

With wide bipartisan support for the Save Our Seas Act demonstrated in the Senate, proponents are hopeful that the House of Representatives will pass the legislation within the next two years. “Given the sheer volume of other legislative business pending in the House, it’s much more likely that we’ll see action on the issue in 2018,” said Kevin Allexon, senior manager of government relations at the Ocean Conservancy.

An estimated 80 percent of marine debris originates as land-based trash with the remaining 20 percent being released at sea, according to United Kingdom-based Eunomia Research and Consulting. Scientists have established that plastic products quickly degrade in the marine environment from exposure to the sun, wind and waves. When plastic items break down into small pieces called microplastic, they more easily absorb toxins such as pesticides and PCBs from seawater. Those toxins can poison and affect the behavior of fish and other marine life that mistake microplastics for food. A recent study showed microplastics could move up the food chain, raising the possibility they could end up on dinner plates.

“This mismanaged waste has affected more than 800 different marine species and threatens our economy,” said Allexon. “This is a global problem that is getting worse every passing day. The Save Our Seas Act is a modest but important step forward in ensuring the U.S. addresses the issue of ocean plastic, and is a wonderful example of bipartisanship on conservation.”

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