Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife oversight hearing on Marine Debris and Wildlife: Impacts, Sources, and Solutions

In his opening statement, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said that for coastal states, particularly on the West Coast, the prevalence of marine debris is a chronic issue.

In March 2011, a large earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, creating a large tsunami that sucked millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, most of which eventually started to wash up the Pacific Northwest coast.

In some extreme examples, a 185-ton dock washed up on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula coast, the U.S. Coast Guard sank a floating ghost ship off Alaska before it reached shore, and a motorcycle washed ashore in British Columbia.

Alaska is still dealing with the tsunami’s impacts today, Sen. Sullivan said.  The witnesses will explain how, and in addition to the organizations represented at the hearing, other groups are conducting important response and research work.  The Alaska Pinniped Entanglement Group, for example, is partnering with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to rescue marine mammals entangled in marine debris.

NOAA has identified a number of hotspots, where debris accumulates in large quantities due to ocean currents and other factors.  Located mostly in the Pacific, the existence of these so called “garbage patches” have been known to scientists for years.  However, the impact of this debris on marine and land based birds, mammals, other species and the ecosystem is less well known.

The marine debris problem has no clear solutions.

The U.S. and the plastics industry have pursued ways to address debris in the marine environment.  In Alaska and other coastal states, most debris comes from foreign sources.  Japan has gifted $5 million to the U.S. government to assist in tsunami debris removal and response efforts, which supplemented NOAA’s congressional appropriation for the Marine Debris Program.

Though the authorization for the Marine Debris Program has lapsed, Congress has continued to fund this work.  The funding and clean-up work is the extent of the response.  Sen. Sullivan said the hearing can address the ways the U.S. can encourage better sanitation management practices in developing countries and ideas for innovative solutions.

In his opening statement, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said a 2014 seabird study found that, among 80 species studied, 90 percent of the individual birds had plastic in their stomachs.  Additionally, when 13 sperm whales beached themselves on the German coast in Germany, a 43 foot long shrimp fishing net and a large piece of a plastic car engine cover was found in one whale’s stomach.

Microplastics combine with plankton blooms to mix in with the greater food chain.

At present rates, by the middle of this century, the plastic mass in the ocean will outweigh all of the marine wildlife.

Clearly, developing countries’ upland waste management systems have failed, Sen. Whitehouse said.  Maybe the terms of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) should be rethought to put pressure on the five biggest contributors to marine debris—China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka—to clean up their act.

Jim Kurth, Deputy Director of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), Department of the Interior, began his testimony with an overview of the marine debris problem.

Defining marine debris as “any persistent sold material that is manufactured or processed that is either directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or Great Lakes,” Kurth made the following points.

  • Plastic is a visible part of the marine debris problem, but its environmental impact is only beginning to be understood. The most commonly used plastics do not degrade into organic and inorganic molecules, but break into smaller pieces called microplastics.  With their associated toxic chemical components, microplastics contribute to human and wildlife health risks.
  • Wildlife—such as sea birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals—ingest larger plastic pieces causing nutritional loss, internal injury, intestinal blockage, starvation, and death.
  • Derelict fishing gear (DFG) damages marine habitats, entangles marine species, creates navigational hazards, and causes ghost fishing of commercially important species. Entanglement has led to injury, illness, suffocation, starvation, and death.
  • Abandoned and derelict vessels (ADVs) obstruct navigational channels, cause environmental harm, and diminish commercial and recreational activities.
  • Marine debris is preventable and can be addressed through increased public awareness, changed behavior, and improved waste infrastructure. Marine debris can also be targeted at the source through prevention and education.  The Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee (IMDCC) is a multi-agency group tasked with ensuring this comprehensive approach is implemented.
  • In the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska Maritime Refuge), Pribilof Island residents work with commercial fishermen to remove nets and other debris from fur seal rookeries, an activity that grew out of a children’s refuge stewardship camp. USFWS provides marine debris education at communities throughout the refuge and has supported clean-up efforts in the Aleutians, Alaska Peninsula, and Gulf of Alaska.
  • Clean-ups are a short-term fix because “cleaned” areas are often littered again after the next high tide. In Alaska, USFWS emphasizes education because it’s unable to patrol and clean up thousands of miles of refuge beaches on a regular basis.
  • Marine debris impacts can be observed at most of the service’s refuges. In response, USFWS works with federal and nonfederal partners to understand marine debris causes and effects, identify strategies, and educate the public.

Chris Pallaster, President and Co-Founder, Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) testified that GoAK has received significant support from many organizations, but has no long term funding sources.  Consequently, cleanup organizations cannot properly plan or capitalize projects.  Pallaster made the following points in the rest of his statement.

  • Several Alaska organizations conduct marine debris cleanups, debris monitoring, and public awareness campaigns, but GoAK is the most active Alaska organization and the only one targeting marine debris remediation and removal. GoAK also conducts an extensive monitoring program and collaborates with researchers from the College of William and Mary and the University of Alaska who are studying the biological impacts of noxious chemicals, particularly phthalates that leach from plastic debris.
  • The plastic that blankets large swaths of the Gulf of Alaska coast is the most insidious debris. With its limited resources, GoAK targets plastic, 30 to 40 percent of which is polystyrene and polyurethane plastic foam.  Foam debris sources include structures destroyed by natural disasters, sunken vessel freezer holds, lost refrigerated shipping containers, cargo spills, aquaculture buoys and third world deliberate dumping.  Debris also is flushed into the Pacific from typhoons, floods and other storms.
  • Plastic marine debris pollution is one of the most significant environmental issues of our time. Everywhere they search in the marine environment, the scientists find plastic debris or plastic chemical components.  Plastic particles are imbedded in North Pole ice.
  • As plastic chemicals are linked with harmful health impacts, plastic debris potentially threatens commercial fisheries viability. For example, the Gulf of Alaska’s intertidal habitat, awash in plastic debris, is a highly productive Class One ecosystem that provides spawning grounds and rearing nurseries for rich offshore fisheries.  The debris threatens this prolific system.
  • The Ocean Conservancy recently identified China, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia as the five countries most responsible for the marine debris problem. South Korea, judging by debris found on Alaska’s beaches, also belongs in this group.
  • Because of currents, storms and geography, the Gulf of Alaska’s expansive coastline collects a massive amount of debris from these countries. While the foreign debris accounts for 90 percent by volume, domestic commercial fishing contributes at least 50 percent by weight.
  • Marine debris is an international issue. MARPOL Annex V, the international treaty that bans dumping plastics in the ocean, must be strengthened and enforcement—now nearly nonexistent—stepped up.  The preventable sources of marine debris can be addressed through education and taxes, imposed to pay clean-up costs.  Public education can help reduce the use of plastics and promote appropriate disposal and recycling options.
  • Even with perfect education and compliance, marine debris will always be a problem because of natural disasters, container spills and shipwrecks. Support for aggressive industrial-scale initial debris removal is critically important on an ongoing basis.  All federal and state land-management agencies with coastal habitat must be required to include funding for maintenance cleanups in their annual budgets.
  • Because of the international component of the marine-debris problem, particularly in Alaska, the federal government must take the lead by facilitating an international response and providing significant funding to remove accumulated debris. Conservatively, at least $100 million would be needed to clean the most heavily impacted Alaskan shorelines.  While GoAK supports NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, it recommends that additional debris removal money be given to Alaska in federal block grants.



Pallaster’s written testimony also included details of a study on tissue phthalate levels correlated with changes in immune gene expression in a population of juvenile wild salmon.

Nicholas Mallos, Director of the Trash Free Seas Alliance for the Ocean Conservancy, testified that a new, interdisciplinary research agenda is needed to better explain the impact on plastics on marine ecosystems, and push for better-informed policies.

Plastic debris is not a “coastal issue,” but a global issue because seafood—which accounts for 20 percent of the animal protein in the diets of roughly half of the world’s population—is shipped and consumed all over the world, Mallos said.  As many as 51 trillion pieces of microplastics are estimated to circulate in the ocean globally, ready to be ingested.

In a 2015 study, high levels of ingested plastic were found in fish caught in Indonesia and California.  A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the Pacific oyster lost almost 50 percent of its reproductive ability because of ingested plastics.

In response, the International Coastal Cleanup has since its inception used more than 11.5 million volunteers to record and remove more than 225 million individual trash items weighing more than 110,000 short tons (100,000 metric tons).

The conservancy compiles the data on marine debris and aggregates it in the Ocean Trash Index, an item-by item, location-by-location listing of the most persistent forms of trash in the marine environment.  Though the index is the largest database of its kind, the magnitude of debris far exceeds what is documented because so much of the world’s coastline hasn’t been surveyed.

Little data exists on how much new material is entering the ocean and its source.  Up to 80 percent is thought to come from land locations and be transported to the ocean by rivers.  An analysis published in the journal Science in February 2015 quantified―for the first time―the global scale of the problem.  As part of a scientific working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Dr. Jenna Jambeck and colleagues showed that more than 13 million short tons (12 million metric tons) of plastic debris enter the ocean each year.  This is three orders of magnitude greater than the debris currently floating in the ocean gyres, and equivalent in mass to the annual global tuna harvest.

The majority of debris comes from rapidly developing economies where the use of plastics outstrips the capacity of the in-country waste management systems.

At its core, plastic debris is a people problem.  The conservancy founded the Trash Free Seas Alliance in 2011 to unite industry, conservation and academia in creating pragmatic, real-world solutions to reduce plastic debris.  The conservancy’s 2015 report, Stemming the Tide, identified leakage points where, if active efforts were initiated, up to 45 percent of plastic debris could be prevented from entering the ocean by 2025.

To conclude, Mallos said scientists and policymakers urgently need more information in four broad priority areas: the sources, distribution, fates, and impacts of plastics in the ocean.  In particular, better information is needed about the consequences of microplastics in human-consumed, wild and farmed fish and shellfish.

Mallos said NOAA’s debris program needs additional resources as it’s currently not adequately funded to meet new research needs.

Johnathan Stone, Executive Director of Save the Bay, testified about the chronic marine debris problems in Narragansett Bay and on Rhode Island’s south coast.

Rhode Island’s marine debris comes from illegal dumping and littering, and polluted storm water runoff.

The storm water solution is to capture the run-off and filter and clean it before it reaches the waterways and coast.  This can be accomplished through infrastructure investments, ongoing maintenance, storm water management programs, and federal assistance for system design, construction and maintenance.

Jenna Jambeck, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of Georgia, testified about debris impacts, sources, and solutions.  She highlighted three key points:

  • With few exceptions, global plastic production has increased annually for 65 years with 311 million metric tons of plastic produced globally in 2014. Rapid growth is expected to continue.  An estimated eight million metric tons enters the ocean every year.
  • Plastic waste is an important environmental contamination issue, with implications for freshwater and soils as well as oceans and wildlife.
  • Interventions and mitigation strategies can occur along the plastic value chain. Through science, they can be culturally appropriate.  Investment in science and innovation may also spur economic growth in new industries.

In 1976 Congress passed the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) that required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (typically through the states) to regulate solid and hazardous waste.  “Open dumping” was prohibited and replaced by engineered and regulated landfills, and composting and recovery systems.

RCRA also specifically called for research to inform solutions, including demonstrations and special studies on measures for waste reduction, waste collection, and economic incentives to promote recycling.

Similar to RCRA, Jambeck wants science to help determine marine debris solutions.  Looking at the sources of ocean plastic, the biggest factor is coastline population density, Jambeck said.  Middle income countries with rapidly growing economies don’t yet have waste management systems that can handle the increasing amounts of waste.

While the U.S. has well-designed and effective waste management systems, its large coastal population still generates lots of marine debris.

Jambeck described potential intervention points and actions along the value chain:

  • Reduce plastic production.
    • Change materials and product design to incorporate green engineering principles and encourage recycling.
  • Reduce waste generation. In high density population areas, even small behavioral changes—such as using reusable bottles and not using straws—can make a big difference.
  • Improve global waste management.
  • Improve litter capture. One innovative example is the Baltimore Water Wheel.  Operated in Baltimore Harbor with mechanical and solar energy, the wheel uses booms to skim the harbor surface and direct floating trash to a conveyer system that removes trash from the water and deposits it in a dumpster.
  • Reduce ocean input concentrations (with a goal of zero).

Sen. Sullivan questions witnesses

Sen. Sullivan asked about the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee (IMDCC) and its effectiveness.

Kurth replied that IMDDC is effective, and that tackling the marine debris problem requires broad federal capacity.

Sen. Sullivan asked for recommendations about working with other countries on debris.

Kurth replied that the U.S. needs to be engaged with the world.  One problem is that people in the developing world don’t know what happens to their trash.

Acknowledging that this is a big issue, Sen. Sullivan asked if focusing on a more specific aspect—plastics—would be helpful.

Mallos said that while he agrees, simply addressing plastics in the waste stream, particularly in developing economies, is not a viable option.  The entire waste stream must be addressed to ensure that the plastic threat is mitigated.

Sen. Sullivan asked if the largest waste producing countries recognize that they have a problem.  Jambeck replied that they know, and a lot of grassroots movements are working on this.

Asked if a specific international agreement that addresses plastics—in addition to already existing agreements—is needed, Jambeck replied that a lot of discussion about this subject has occurred at the United Nations level.

Asked about TFSA, Mallos said the organization was founded in 2011 and built on the sustainable seafood movement model with a mandate to bring together all the diverse stakeholders.  It focuses on minimizing, better managing, and mitigating waste.

Mallos said TFSA is trying to jump start waste management in developing economies.

Asked by Sen. Sullivan about Alaska-specific clean-up challenges, Pallister said operations are extremely difficult.  None of the coastline is accessible by road.  Current activities on Montague Island in Prince William Sound are supported by helicopter, which is very expensive.  Workers have found 30 tons of debris per mile, and 72 miles of shoreline need to be cleaned.

Sen. Whitehouse questions witnesses

Sen. Whitehouse asked about plastic component chemical signatures.  Pallister replied that the chemical components may be more dangerous than the physical dangers.  Scientists are now finding that the chemicals and their metabolites are present in almost all marine organisms.  A lot of these chemicals are very toxic and can affect human health.

Sen. Whitehouse added that the bioaccumulation phenomena is potentially impacting Alaska fisheries.  Researchers are finding Phthalates in almost every marine mammal they examine in Alaska.

Sen. Whitehouse said he is skeptical about products made in countries that don’t have effective waste management systems.  The products are cheaper because millions of tons of plastic can be dumped directly into the ocean.  U.S. manufacturers, in comparison, support the cost of a working waste management system.  The situation should be addressed through trade policies.

Pallister replied that the Trans-Pacific Partnership provides an opportunity to address part of the problem.  Cargo ships often lose containers and no one goes after the shipping companies for damage the containers inflict on shorelines.  In 2012, for example, the China Ocean Shipping Company lost 29 containers in the northern Gulf of Alaska, and the debris from those containers was spread over thousands of miles of Alaska coastline.

A statute of limitations provision would allow the federal government to obtain funds from the Chinese company for shoreline damages and cleanup work.  With tens of millions of dollars potentially available, landowners (i.e. the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, etc.) may want to explore filing damage claims.