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Marine debris clean-up

Project Title:

Marine debris clean-up



Alaska’s Shelikof Strait


Marine debris clean-up effort on the remote shores of Alaska’s Shelikof Strait

A garrulous and gravel-voiced Barry Fisher opened the North Pacific Rim Fishermen’s Conference on Marine Debris with characteristic frankness.  He looked squarely at the audience, comprised of delegates from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan and growled, “Gentlemen, we have begun to foul our own nest.  The tonnages are extreme… the effects almost incalculable.  We are reaching the flashpoint,” he stated, “of degrading our environment.”

This conference, bringing together representatives from several fishing industries and governments, was held in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, in 1988.  Since that time, though attention has focused more and more on the worldwide problem of marine debris, the pollution has only become worse.  A floating gyre of plastic debris is known to exist in the central Pacific Ocean, an island unto itself and testimony to man’s indifference to the oceans.  It is estimated that as of this writing, eight million plastic items, of varying sizes, enter the world’s oceans every day.

Thirty three years after the Kailua-Kona meeting, the United Nations Environmental Programme, or UNEP, called yet another conference, hosting 35 countries, several governmental representatives, and industry experts.  This Fifth International Marine Debris Conference was also held in Hawaii, in Honolulu, in March of this year.

"Marine debris - trash in our oceans - is a symptom of our throw-away society and our approach to how we use our natural resources. It affects every country and every ocean, and shows us in highly visible terms the urgency of shifting towards a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy as nations prepare for Rio+20 in 2012," said United Nations Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a message to conference delegates. "The impact of marine debris today on flora and fauna in the oceans is one that we must now address with greater speed," added Mr. Steiner.

"However, one community or one country acting in isolation will not be the answer. We need to address marine debris collectively across national boundaries and with the private sector, which has a critical role to play both in reducing the kinds of wastes that can end up in the world's oceans, and through research into new materials. It is by bringing all these players together that we can truly make a difference," said Mr. Steiner.

It is more than a problem of mere aesthetics, though that is certainly a valid reason in its own right.  Lost fishing gear, industrial wastes, sewage run-off, garbage of every sort, from vessels and land sources as well, inundate our oceans at an ever-growing pace.

Plastics alone, among the other noxious substances entering our seas, are deadly even in seemingly harmless forms.  Six-pack rings snare birds and fish, packing bands become lethal collars for sea lions and seals which nose them about with a natural curiosity, and tiny plastic pellets look so much like planktonic organisms, fish eggs, or even squid eyes, that sea birds feed regularly on them.  In one study of 50 Laysan albatross chicks, 90% had ingested plastic.  This can cause ulceration, intestinal blockage, and false feelings of satiation.  Sea turtles also mistake plastic (in this case bags) for their preferred delicacy of jellyfish, often suffering fatal consequences.


The conference in Honolulu did produce an important result, the Honolulu Commitment, an agreement which  encourages the sharing of technical, legal and market-based solutions to reduce marine debris, improving local and regional understanding of the scale and impact of the problem and advocating the improvement of waste management worldwide.

“This conference comes at a critical time for our world" said Monica Medina, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere. "The oceans and coasts are facing a multitude of stressors, including marine debris, that lead to consequences that have both ecosystem and economic impacts. It is vitally important to bring together people committed to these issues to share ideas, develop partnerships and move us all a step closer to the changes that are badly needed for our oceans and coasts."

The enormity of marine pollution is clear, though what it means for this global ecosystem is not yet understood.  As Barry Fisher chaired the meeting decades ago in Kailua-Kona, he cautioned against “the ostrich-like behavior of burying one’s head in the sand, as it exposes a rather large part of one’s anatomy…”  And he posed a question even more relevant today when he asked simply, “What do we have to do to control our own excesses?”


Earth Council Geneva, recognizing the global importance of the problem, helped fund a marine debris clean-up effort on the remote shores of Alaska’s Shelikof Strait in both 2008 and 2009.  This effort helped to remove derelict fishing gear from the coast, preventing it from continuing to kill and harm wildlife.  The removal was combined with an educational effort, targeting fishermen and others potentially responsible.  A 2011 program is currently being considered.