“Marine debris isn’t just a sailor’s problem, it’s all of our problem,” said Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo at the 2015 Ocean Summit on Marine Debris held during the Volvo Ocean Race in Newport earlier this May.
The Ocean Summit on Marine Debris, which was sponsored by The Embassy of Sweden, the U.S. State Department, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sail Newport, was held to raise awareness and educate attendees about the growing environmental concern of marine debris.
Governor Raimondo was one of several speakers, including U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse; Catherine Novelli, undersecretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment at the State Department; representatives of the Swedish government; Wendy Schmidt, Schmidt Family Foundation; Knut Frostad, CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race; Dr. Sandra Whitehouse, senior advisor for the Ocean Conservancy; and Charlie Enright, from team Alvimedica.
The Summit was held in Newport as part of the race’s only North American stopover to capitalize on the highly public and international event, said Dennis Nixon, Director of Rhode Island Sea Grant, who played Master of Ceremonies for the Summit.
“Sailors are the canaries of the coal mine and are warning us on land what’s really going on out in the ocean,” said Nixon. “The amount of plastic in the ocean is increasing dramatically, and we care about that because as the plastic breaks down in the ocean it is eaten by small animals which in turn are eaten by larger animals, and we don’t know how that plastic is metabolized in larger fish. All of us eat seafood and we’re talking about the future of the web of life in the ocean. If we don’t do something to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean, we’re risking the world’s food supply.”
About 66 percent of wildlife is impacted by marine debris either by damaging digestive tracts, poisoning, or entanglement, according to Dr. Whitehouse, and about 8 million metric tons of plastic are getting into the ocean everyday; 80 percent coming from land-based activities. While plastic has great utility in carrying clean drinking water and use as film mulch, she said, it “persists for decades or centuries,” in the environment. Much of the problem is caused by direct dumping due to lack of waste facilities. So while the U.S. may be producing more plastic, 99 percent ends up in landfills, whereas developing countries such as Indonesia and China don’t have the proper facilities and necessary management.
“There isn’t one single solution,” Dr. Whitehouse said, explaining that there’s a process and some countries struggle with one specific aspect or another, whether that’s collecting the trash or providing a landfill for dumping. “They’ll need to be tailored for each country.”
“We all have a part to play in protecting our oceans,” said Governor Raimondo, explaining her efforts to help build a clean energy infrastructure bank that would fund projects such as stormwater treatment to keep Rhode Island’s environment cleaner and healthier. “The ocean and Narragansett Bay are core to Rhode Island’s culture and economy, and we need to protect it.”
More than 2,000 pounds of debris — fishing lines, plastic bottles and bags, shoes, pens, etc. — was removed from Fort Adams alone last year.
“Where the race ends we must continue to be sustainable,” said Governor Raimondo. “We must use this as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the effort.”
Nixon echoed these sentiments by expressing that Sea Grant will continue investments in marine debris removal and education in tandem with the state and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, which awarded Rhode Island $200,000 to support locally driven, community-based marine debris cleanup projects. One such project includes an archeology study of the Providence Harbor for historic shipwrecks.
“Through this study we will be able to identify what’s debris and what are historic wrecks,” said Nixon. “This will enable the debris removal plan to move forward.”
Future efforts by Rhode Island Sea Grant will be investigating recycling fiberglass boats that have been abandoned and continued partnership with affiliates, such as Save the Bay and Sailors for the Sea, that engage in clean-ups and sustainable maritime events.
“Sailors have given us a call to action. We ignore it at our own peril,” said Nixon, expressing hope that businesses and governments will be more accountable for collective action and have something to show at the next Volvo Ocean Race in three years.
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Meredith Haas | Rhode Island Sea Grant Research Communications Specialist