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EditorialIsland Voices

Reducing marine debris is worldwide challenge

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Marine debris has been a problem for years. Above, a biologist pulled a net found on Southeast Island at Pearl and Hermes Atoll into a storage bin in 1999.

The people of Hawaii, along with millions of visitors to the islands each year, celebrate clear marine waters and abundant wildlife and fisheries.

To help preserve the vibrant oceans off Hawaii’s coast and other coastal regions worldwide, citizen groups from around the world are meeting in Honolulu this week for the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference.

Marine debris is a growing problem. One striking example floats just over the horizon, in what is commonly called the "great Pacific garbage patch," an area of waste littering the sea between Hawaii and the mainland. Much of this is plastic, broken down to very small bits by sunlight that can be deadly for wildlife that mistake the plastic for food.

The vast majority of this waste originates on land. This winter, during Oahu’s heavy winter rains, the problem was particularly evident. In addition to the usual mix of plastic bags, water bottles and other debris, medical waste was seen washing out to sea.

Increasingly, littered oceans are a concern in other regions of the globe as well. Collectively, our challenge is to more effectively reuse and recycle, make wiser choices in our purchases, and adopt strategies to reduce pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency is working to maximize states’ regulatory tools to limit trash entering our waterways. We encourage better packaging of consumer products and reducing major sources of marine debris in sectors such as transportation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program is working to identify, reduce and prevent waste in our oceans and waterways, including promoting cleanups to recover abandoned fishing nets that ensnare marine life.

Since 2009, NOAA has worked with local and other partners to remove nearly 65 metric tons of debris from reefs and coastal waters in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, relieving pressures on local ecosystems and the rippling effects such waste has on the food chain.

Thanks to the leadership of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who championed the Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act, our agencies are able to do more. The act established an Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee, which is co-chaired by NOAA and EPA. This committee coordinates federal activities, recommends research priorities and monitors techniques, educational programs and regulatory action.

Next month, in observance of Earth Day, the people of many nations will take part in local beach cleanups. A priority is to learn from these cleanups so that, in time, each nation can work from a common template. Together we can begin to identify the most common and harmful debris items and the most productive ways of bringing about change. This week’s international conference is an important step toward tackling these challenges.

Whether governments, businesses, students or lovers of marine wildlife, we each have a significant role to play as stewards of the ocean upon which we all depend.


Jared Blumenfeld is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. Jane Lubchenco is undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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