Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Marine Debris—solutions to a persistent problem

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine by Mr. David Major, U.S. Coast Guard Environmental Standards Division.

As a compliance and enforcement agency, the U.S. Coast Guard regulates items that may become marine debris. Beyond this regulatory role, the U.S. Coast Guard provides support and leadership for a variety of anti-marine debris activities.

Persistent Materials
The term “marine debris” encompasses a variety of items that persist in the marine environment. The picture at left shows Coast Guard Seaman Bryan Grebe as he works to offload a mountain of fishnet from the Coast Guard Cutter Walnut. While shipwrecks and other artifacts indicate that man-made items are already present in the marine environment, social and technical changes have added a new dimension to the problem.

Replacing natural fibers with synthetic has exacerbated the marine debris problem. Fishing nets, for example, used to be made with natural materials. Modern nets are typically made of synthetic materials. In addition to resisting decay, modern nets are more likely to maintain positive buoyancy.

Widespread consumer use of persistent, single-use beverage containers, such as aluminum cans and plastic bottles, also took hold in the United States. Today, the “individual retail package” is a common sight on the shores of many American beaches.

In the case of consumer plastics, the advances in durability of synthetic fibers combined with a lifestyle based on throwaway goods can also create a significant threat to the marine environment. Plastic straws, beverage bottles, and bags are the most commonly found marine debris items.

Transportation of Marine Debris
One unique problem with marine debris prevention stems from the ocean’s ability to move and circulate the debris. The combination of ocean currents and atmospheric winds can transport debris across great distances. It can also retain and concentrate items.

Nets and other fishing gear may come from fisheries far from the marine ecosystem that suffers the impact; more than 80 percent of the northwest Hawaiian Islands’ recovered derelict gear comes from seine or trawl fisheries operating hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Derelict fishing gear may circulate for years in areas like the North Pacific.

The Environmental Toll
Marine debris is known to cause mortality among marine species. Even after being lost, fishing gear can continue to kill fish in a process known as “ghost fishing.” Ghost nets can also entrap and kill species that were never intended to be netted. In 2003, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal had one of the highest entanglement rates of any seal worldwide (see seal picture).

Seabirds may mistake fragments of plastic for food. This may cause intestinal blockages or reduction in the absorption of nutrients. Filter-feeding organisms may be unable to distinguish between debris and plankton.

Coast Guard Activities to Prevent Marine Debris
The U.S. Coast Guard combats marine pollution by regulating the at-sea discharge of vessel-generated waste. Certain vessels over 40 feet must maintain a written document that provides for compliance with Annex V of MARPOL 73/78 and U.S. law, including a description of procedures for collecting, processing, storing, and discharging garbage. Placarding is required for the smallest class of vessels.

The Coast Guard also ensures compliance with U.S. regulations related to marine environmental protection through inspections and boardings. For recreational and commercial fishing vessels that are not required by law to be inspected, boardings allow the Coast Guard to ensure environmental compliance.

Annual facility inspections and harbor patrol spot-checks ensure compliance among reception facilities. When a vessel is found to have violated regulations, we may issue written warnings, impose monetary civil penalties, and, for the most serious instances, refer the case to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution or civil judicial enforcement action.

Beyond Regulation: Finding Solutions to a Persistent Problem
During discussions at a Coast Guard-sponsored meeting in Irvine, Calif., marine industry members highlighted the strides they have taken to minimize waste. Some cruise ships have voluntarily developed advanced programs for waste minimization and waste stream management. One practical example is using beverage containers without plastic rings.

Concerned civic organizations in Southern California recently banded together to promote a “Day Without a Bag.” Stores donated reusable bags and offered discounts and rebates to reusable bag users.

Through the “Sea Partners” campaign, U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary personnel educate the maritime industry and boating public on pollution issues via public education classes, vessel safety checks, voluntary commercial vessel exams, public marine events, and annual pollution prevention conferences. Through school visits and educational materials, the “Officer Snook” program communicates Sea Partners’ marine pollution mission to children.

Looking Forward
While the Coast Guard has authority over a mere fragment of items that might be considered marine debris, it is fitting that the solution to a problem composed of small persistent fragments is found in the aggregate effect of small contributions to marine debris prevention and reduction.

Through its regulatory authorities, the U.S. Coast Guard can limit the amount of persistent items entering the environment from sea-based sources. As a partnering organization, it can cooperate with international counterparts to prevent the deposition of debris beyond U.S. jurisdiction; work with government agencies to develop policy that will reduce marine debris; remove items that pose significant harm to the environment; and assist industry to develop strategies that exceed legal obligations, especially in regard to garbage handling and source reduction.

Most importantly, the U.S. Coast Guard can educate a concerned public about the dangers of marine pollution and its ability to ensure that marine debris will become less pervasive.

For more information:
Full article and “Environmental Protection” edition of USCG Proceedings is available at http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/Winter2008-09/.

Subscribe online at http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/subscribe.asp.

Direct requests for print copies of this edition to: HQS-DG-NMCProceedings@uscg.mil.