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Report to Congress: Tackling Marine Debris

By Sally Acharya

sea turtle underwater

This is a ghost story that starts with a fishing net. The story will have ghostbusters, too, but they enter later.

First comes the net. It’s not a small net, but a gill net thousands of feet long, anchored to the sea floor awaiting a commercial fishing boat to scoop it up with its catch. Somehow, though, it gets loose from its moorings. It begins to drift in the ocean, fishing without stopping, a huge and nearly invisible curtain snaring much of what swims into its path. It entangles sea turtles, traps seals, snags fish who act as bait to lure other fish, who are trapped in their turn.

Perhaps it hooks on a coral reef where it rakes against the fragile coral, abrading and killing parts of the reef, clipping off chunks, reducing it to rubble. Perhaps it goes on forever.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Science has its ghostbusters, and they’re in pursuit of these derelict nets known as ghost nets, along with the wildlife-killing garbage dumped at sea by freighters and fishing fleets.

The ghostbusters are people like marine biologist and AU environmental science professor Kiho Kim, who goes after marine debris as a member of the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council. Their weapons are data, meetings, long hours analyzing research, and ultimately, a national report and testimony to Congress on the changes needed in marine policy and regulations.

Deadly debris

The sight of marine debris is familiar to Kim, who spots it whenever he dives around the coral reefs that are the focus of his research. “Every time I go diving, I come back up with a pocket full of weights and lines,” he says. “After a week of working, you could set up your own tackle shop.”

Some of it washes into the sea from land. A plastic bottle chucked into a clump of water weeds by a Georgetown fisherman can end up in a sea turtle’s belly. Bottle caps and plastic bags can be mistaken by marine life for jellyfish or other edibles, with lethal results. “Plastic can lacerate intestines. Animals can choke, or their intestines can be blocked up so they can’t eat any more,” Kim says.

He’s led AU students to do what they can, in practical ways, to stop trash on the shoreline from washing into the seas. Students cleaning the water’s edge this fall at a seemingly pristine Georgetown park were startled at what they found.

Freshmen combing the riverbank emerged with bags stuffed with bait containers, beer bottles, a tennis ball, a shoe, a lost Barbie, and yard after yard of fishing line. “You’d think fisherman would care more,” lamented Caitlin Langfitt, an environmental studies freshman who fishes with her father in Ohio.

The cleanup removed a risk to wildlife, and the data will be useful to science. But the debris problem, particularly in the ocean, is too big to eliminate with weekend actions. That’s why Kim and his colleagues have spent almost two years examining the situation and, in the end, proposing specific solutions.

Reporting to Congress

The National Research Council is, in essence, the research arm of the federal government. Its Ocean Studies Board includes experts in a variety of areas, such as lawyers who looked at regulations, along with some leading marine biologists—including Kim.

Their report called for the United States and the international maritime community to adopt a goal of zero discharge of waste, in part by doing something that would seem obvious, but turns out to be a challenge: encouraging rather than penalizing responsible behavior.

Right now, Kim notes, if seamen on a freighter spot a ghost net in the ocean and haul it onboard like good global citizens, they could be fined for transporting equipment for which they’re not licensed.

If a ship carries garbage to port rather than spilling it into the waves, it’s often stuck with no way to dispose of it, because ports often have no garbage facilities.

If commercial fishermen don’t flinch at dumping old gear in the sea, they suffer no retribution, because the gear isn’t required to be labeled and can’t be traced to repeat offenders.

Kim and his colleagues recommended a series of changes to policies and regulations that could bring the goal of zero discharge closer to reality. And that could make a real impact in saving the seas from the specter of wildlife-killing debris.

Back at the riverside park where the AU students picked up trash, Washington angler Oscar Vasquez had a thought that, in its way, encapsulated the ethic that Kim and the Ocean Studies Board are trying to make into an oceanwide policy.

Things won’t change until there are more people like the AU students, Vasquez said. “People should just be honest and think about their responsibility.”

It’s a solution that turns everyone into ghostbusters. And it works whether the threat is as small as a plastic bottle cap that could choke a turtle or as vast as a thousand-foot ghost net haunting the seas.