Fighting for a Plastic-Free Ocean

Posted by: Elizabeth Maksymonko

The world’s oceans face many threats these days, and one that is receiving particular attention is marine debris. Marine debris, or ocean plastics, is an incredibly pervasive problem, and unlike some ocean issues, there is no debate about the cause: humans.  Because of improper trash disposal, storm water runoff, and the “throwaway lifestyle” we’ve developed, a surprising amount of our garbage finds its way into the ocean. We’re the cause of the problem, so it’s also up to us to create a solution, and fast.

A common misperception about plastics is that they eventually dissolve in the ocean, thus reducing their impact. This simply is not true: plastics don’t “go away;” they break down into ever smaller, harder to manage pieces called “microplastics.” The rate of breakdown depends on a number of issues, including plastic type and density, how it is compounded, and water temperature. Some degrade faster than others, but it is still there, whether we can see it or not.

Ocean plastic takes many forms: cigarette filters, food wrappers, bottles and cans, grocery and trash bags, and derelict fishing gear. The debris also transports organic compounds, polluting watersheds along the way. This raises serious issues for sea life and humans. Many sea creatures, from turtles to whales to fish, mistake plastic for food and ingest it, causing them to choke or starve, and eventually die. Many animals are also killed when they become entangled in webs of plastic debris. Human health is impacted as we eat seafood that has absorbed toxic chemicals from marine debris, or when we simply step on washed up shards of debris.

The question is, what can we do? Collecting plastic from the ocean itself has proven difficult as the pieces are often so small and are surrounded by marine life. The best way to address this problem is to prevent plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place by engineering plastic out of our lives (reusable bags and bottles). NOAA has worked hard to address the issue and encourage this sense of responsibility with its Marine Debris Program.

The Marine Debris Program has been working to prevent debris in the marine environment since 2006, when it was created by the Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act. The MDP has grant programs to distribute funds for solutions, and engages the public to drive habit change. Recently, strong ocean champs Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA) and Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) reintroduced the Marine Debris Act Reauthorization Amendments Act of 2011 to up the attention given to this growing problem.  Ultimately, this is a bipartisan issue that belongs to us all, and it is important to address it not only in Congress and on the national stage, but also as individuals. Reducing, reusing and recycling, as well as incorporating reusable bags and bottles into our daily lives are some good habits to adopt. With personal responsibility as a foundation, and help from our champions in Congress at the top, we can take steps to keep plastic out of our oceans.

Date Posted: March 31, 2011 @ 10:34 am Comments Off

Creating Surfboards From Ocean Debris: One Awesome Way to Address the Problem!

Posted by: Elizabeth Maksymonko

Marine debris is a huge problem in our oceans today. From threatening wildlife that may consume the trash to simply making beaches look quite unwelcoming, the debris is a menace to the seas.  Plastic in particular is a huge problem, as we consume it at a ridiculous rate, and every piece ever created is still on the earth somewhere, much of it in the ocean.  This demands lifestyle change (reusable shopping bags and water bottles, for example) and recycling.  In addition, many innovative approaches to reuse are popping up, and plastic is being remade into T-shirts, belts and shoes.  Recently, I stumbled onto what might be the ultimate ocean-focused reuse of plastic debris by a surfer named Kevin Cunningham.

Cunningham, owner of Spirare Surfboards, came up with an innovative way to use the trash he saw washing up on the local beaches of Providence, Rhode Island. He plans to help clean up the beaches by creating surfboards from reclaimed litter. He says he was inspired by the combination of the beauty of the oceans and having the desire to do something about the distressing amounts of trash washing up on the beaches. This is a great way to call attention to the problem of marine debris while putting the trash itself into good use. The possibilities are endless for the uses of the debris, and as Cunningham has said, some ideas are “plastic bags woven into a strengthening cloth, plastic bottles cut up and reassembled into fins, and many other possibilities to be explored.”

The project, Spirare Sustainable Surf Craft, will start as a limited series of boards that will travel to galleries across the country, followed by a line of 100 custom-made boards. The boards aren’t just sustainable – they’re seen by Cunningham has a functional work of art, as surfboards are, in his words, “the ultimate combination of form and function.” The pride he takes in his boards, combined with the hard work he’s putting into making these boards sustainable, is admirable.

Before he can begin this line, however, Cunningham needs some financial help. He’s currently taking donations through April 16 to reach the $3,500 that is needed to fund the project. If you’d like to donate to this ocean-friendly cause, you can do so here.  Kevin would be stoked to have your support, and you’d be helping to prove the concept that plastic waste can be repurposed from harming the ocean to helping surfers become one with it.

Date Posted: March 7, 2011 @ 11:30 am Comments Off

Let’s Support Sustainable Fishing with Our Wallets

Posted by: Elizabeth Maksymonko

It is painfully obvious that the world’s fish and fisheries are in serious peril. Fish populations are crashing, fisheries are collapsing and comprehensive action is needed to improve conditions before it’s too late. Conservation must start with protecting the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the law governing U.S. fisheries.  MSA’s 2006 reauthorization put mechanisms in place to end overfishing by 2011.  Ocean Champions played a big role in passing the 2006 reauthorization, and we’ll be heavily engaged in its defense as short-sighted groups attempt to use the weak economy to justify killing the overfishing limits. Additionally, we have to use innovative, effective ways to manage fisheries like catch shares, a system that has been proven to work for both fish and fishermen. Finally, we need to examine our own practices as consumers to ensure we incorporate sustainability into our buying decisions.

We have a responsibility as consumers to impact demand in a way that will encourage suppliers to offer more sustainable seafood choices. The vast array of choices and large amount of information on seafood may seem intimidating, but there are resources to make these choices easier. Before chowing down in restaurants or buying in local grocery stores, look at lists like Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which let you know which fish are sustainably caught and thus, okay to eat. There’s even an iPhone app that you can put to use in stores and restaurants.

Taking the idea a step further, fish2fork uses a wiki approach to allow consumers to rate restaurants not on how the fish taste, but how sustainable the restaurant’s practices are. Restaurants are scored on the sustainability of fish on the menu as well as their sourcing policies, another important aspect of responsible fishing. Sites like fish2fork let you plan our your sustainable dining choices beforehand instead of reaching the restaurant and realizing you have no information on the seafood that is offered. Quite simply, we should vote with our wallets to reward the suppliers that use sustainable practices while penalizing the ones that aren’t taking sustainability into account.

Consumer awareness can work at the wholesale level too.  Some large commercial chains have been feeling the heat lately for selling threatened fish thanks to watchdog groups calling attention to the issue. Costco just agreed to stop selling 12 red-listed fish species thanks to a strong campaign by our friends at Greenpeace, who were also successful last year in pressuring Trader Joe’s to agree to sell more sustainable fish species. We at Ocean Champions applaud the efforts by Greenpeace and other organizations that work tirelessly to promote sustainable fishing because it is so important to securing the future of many fish species. As an aside, it’s important to reinforce these good decisions with our wallets and our words.  Take a minute to send Costco a “thank you” for promoting sustainable fisheries!  A quick email to Donna Schell, who directs their fresh food buying would be great: dschell@costco.com.

Much of the success of sustainable fishing comes down to us as consumers and voters. It’s incredibly important to make smart, informed choices when considering our options in grocery stores and restaurants. Just as importantly, we need to take our hopes for fisheries and our oceans into the voting booth.  Some Members of Congress are good for fish and some aren’t, and just as the Seafood Watch Guide tells you what fish to buy, Ocean Champions can help tell you which Congressman or Senator to vote for.

Date Posted: March 4, 2011 @ 8:54 am Comments (1)