Expert Report

Tackling Marine Debris in the 21st Century (2009)

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Humans once viewed the ocean as limitless, believing that disposal of debris into the marine environment would do little harm. However, awareness of the impacts of marine debris has grown as the public has seen horrific images of seabirds, turtles, and marine mammals that are dead or dying because they have ingested debris or become entangled in errant fishing gear. Littered beaches and surface waters impair recreational activities and reduce tourism, among other socioeconomic effects. Unfortunately, international conventions and domestic laws intended to control marine debris have not been successful, in part because the laws, as written, provide little incentive to change behavior, and evidence shows that the problem continues and will likely worsen. At the request of Congress, this report assesses the international and national measures used to prevent and reduce marine debris that is discharged at sea from commercial shipping, fishing, recreational boating, cruise ships, and other sources, and the report identifies several ways that current mandates could be strengthened to reduce waste, improve waste disposal at ports, and strengthen the regulatory framework toward a goal of zero waste discharge into the marine environment.

Key Messages

  • Although there is clear evidence that marine debris is a problem, there has not been a coordinated or targeted effort to thoroughly document and understand its sources, fates, and impacts.
  • Despite measures to prevent and reduce marine debris, evidence shows that the problem continues and will likely worsen. This indicates that current measures for preventing and reducing marine debris are inadequate.
  • To prevent the discharge of waste at sea, ships must have the ability and incentives to properly dispose of waste onshore at port reception facilities.
  • While all maritime sectors contribute to ocean-based marine debris, there has been growing concern about the contribution of fishing vessels to this problem. Current regulations do not include accountability measures for gear loss, and fishermen and fisheries management organizations have few incentives and several disincentives to take responsibility for the impacts and for cleanup.