WASHINGTON (CN) — Ocean trash and its impact on the environment and wildlife in Alaska took center stage on Capitol Hill this week, with Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan asking his colleagues to find ways to clean up the mess.
“The purpose of this hearing is to examine impacts and sources of marine debris on wildlife populations and potential solutions to this issue,” Sullivan told fellow members of the Fisheries, Water and Wildlife Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
In show of bipartisan cooperation, Sullivan, a Republican, turned the panel over to ranking subcommittee member Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, commenting that both the largest and smallest states in the union love our oceans.
“Rhode Island is the Ocean State and Alaska has the most ocean coastline than the rest of the United States combined, so this issue matters to all of us,” Sullivan said.
After thanking Sullivan for his leadership, Whitehouse noted that “This committee hasn’t always seen eye to eye” on whether humans are the cause of global warming, “but there is no denying man’s role in the startling amount of trash that litters our coasts and oceans.”
Whitehouse quoted several recent studies on seabirds, other marine wildlife and the quantities and impact of plastics in the world’s oceans and locally in his state. A one-day event in Rhode Island as part of the International Coastal Cleanup netted 19,000 pounds of trash.
“A 2014 study of 80 species of seabirds showed that 90 percent of individual birds had plastic in their bellies that had they had mistaken for food,” Whitehouse said.
The Rhode Island senator also emphasized a study from invited panel member Jenna Jambeck, associate professor of environmental engineering with the University of Georgia College of Engineering.
“An estimated eight million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean each year. At the current rate the mass of waste plastic in the ocean will outweigh the mass of all the living fish in the ocean by the middle of the century,” Whitehouse said, quoting Jambeck — who later repeated the finding.
Whitehouse pointed out that 50 percent of the marine debris comes from five nations’ failed upland waste management systems: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. He then turned the discussion over to Jambeck and representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and nonprofits Gulf of Alaska Keeper, Ocean Conservancy, and Save the Bay.
Whitehouse closed his remarks by noting his participation in the Senate’s Oceans Caucus, where he and others are also making marine debris a priority issue.
“We are determined to make progress,” Whitehouse said. “Perhaps the present rethinking of the transpacific trade agreement will give us a chance to encourage the filthy five marine debris countries to clean up their act.”
Even with Whitehouse’s keen awareness of the marine debris problem, he stopped the testimony of Gulf of Alaska Keeper president Chris Pallister in disbelief over the $100 million price tag for cleaning up only the most impacted of Alaska’s shorelines.
Pallister spoke of an ongoing Alaska cleanup effort in an area that holds 30 tons of plastic debris per mile, along shorelines with virtually no vehicle access.
“It’s a dangerous place to work. It’s incredibly challenging,” Pallister said. “There are thousands of miles like that in Alaska.”
By volume, 90 percent of the debris that washes up on Alaska’s shores comes from foreign countries, Pallister testified. By weight, more than half of the debris comes from commercial fishing — including nets, pallets and crates.
He emphasized that the fishing trash doesn’t come from Alaskan fisheries, but instead from international dumping and sunken fishing and cargo ships.
Besides the trash issue, but bioaccumulation of ingested chemicals from decomposing plastics is wreaking havoc on the world’s fish. Larger fish eat smaller fish with high levels of phthalates and other chemicals, and the problem continues on up the food chain.
“This could come home to roost in Alaskan salmon,” Whitehouse added.
Jim Kurth, deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife, said, “The scale and complexity of this problem outstrips the ability of any agency or nation to address alone.”
He described the efforts to remove marine debris that is already washing ashore as only a “short term fix” and that the problem reappears “at the next high tide.”
While all agreed on the seriousness of the problem, no ready answers were apparent. Suggested solutions included restructuring trade agreements with developing nations, increased authority to agencies like Fish and Wildlife to legally recover damages of agency-managed land from shipwrecks, and positioning the United States to play a lead role in United Nations discussions.
Witnesses told the subcommittee that tackling the issue will be no simple task for any one agency or nation. Funding, enforcement, education and international cooperation are all necessary, they said.
Sullivan answered that with a “Stay tuned.” Both he and Whitehouse expressed “a bipartisan consensus to take action” and that they are already looking into possible solutions.
“There has to be a deeper way we can address this with other nations,” Sullivan said.
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