Marine debris will likely worsen in the 21st century

By Jennifer Walsh

Current measures to prevent and reduce marine debris are inadequate, and the problem will likely worsen, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council.

The United States and the international maritime community should adopt a goal of "zero discharge" of waste into the marine environment, and a system to assess the effectiveness of existing and future marine debris prevention and reduction actions should be implemented.

In addition, better leadership, coordination, and integration of mandates and resources are needed, as responsibilities for preventing and mitigating marine debris are scattered across federal organizations and management regimes. 

"The committee found that despite all the regulations and limitations over the last 20 years, there are still large quantities of waste and litter in the oceans," said Keith Criddle, chair of the committee that wrote the report and the Ted Stevens distinguished Professor of Marine Policy at the Juneau Center for Fisheries and Ocean Science, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

"We concluded that the United States must take the lead and coordinate with other coastal countries, as well as with local and state governments, to better manage marine debris and try to achieve zero discharge."

A National Research Council committee was convened at the request of Congress to assess the effectiveness of international and national measures to prevent and reduce marine debris and its impact. Marine debris, man-made materials that intentionally or accidentally enter and pollute the ocean, can cause significant harm.

For instance, birds, fish, and marine mammals ingest debris, especially plastics, which can lead to digestive problems and uptake of toxic compounds. Animals can also suffer injuries or die after becoming entangled in fishing-related debris such as plastic net fragments, rope, and packing straps.

Marine debris also poses a health and safety hazard to beachgoers and divers, and could impact coastal recreation and tourism revenue.

While marine debris comes from sources both on land and at sea, the committee focused on debris discharged at sea for the purposes of this report.


National Research Council Keith Criddle Fisheries and Ocean Science University of Alaska Fairbanks