Fifth International Marine Debris Conference

The Fifth International Marine Debris Conference (5IMDC) in Honolulu March 20-25, 2011, was organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). The conference's subtitle, “Waves of Change: Global Lessons to Inspire Local Action,” described the agenda well, in as much as there were many presentations from grassroots organizations, as well as an attempt to address policy steps required. In part due to the idyllic setting overlooking Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, and a very full agenda over five days, some might say too full, registration was cut off shortly after it well exceeded the 400 participants expected. Overlapping sessions made it impossible to attend every presentation, but I will nonetheless draw attention to some aspects which struck particularly me. It was an excellent conference, full of enthusiasm and goodwill, focused primarily on efforts to contain and limit ocean pollution. However, from our perspective, it would have been nice to see more consideration of debris other than plastics, which are no doubt the most pressing problem, but not the only one. There was clearly frustration that more progress had not been made to date on issues of marine debris in general, which has occupied many of the conference's participants for over thirty years (the last IMDC was held eleven years ago). But there was optimism that progress is being made, in large part due to the involvement of children, educators, and NGOs, which have inspired others, despite bureaucratic setbacks and shortages of funding. There are real efforts underway to work together to clean up our seas. Kalani Souza, a “Hawaiian cross-cultural facilitator,” reminded us that we are a species given to cooperation, so now we should get on with it and cooperate!

We are very grateful to the Omidyar Foundation and the EW Wells Group who made our participation in this conference possible. Our team consisted of Paul Walker, Director of Global Green's Security and Sustainability Program; Ryo Sato, who had interned with us a year ago and again now; and yours truly, Finn Longinotto, Senior Fellow, as well as Rick Stauber, celebrated Ordnance Disposal Expert, and Kathryn Steele from the Wells Group. We spent time between sessions drumming up attendance for the session we chaired and the three presentations related specifically to sea-dumped munitions. While the conference participants we talked to were extremely knowledgeable about marine debris consisting largely of plastic, fishing nets and traps, derelict fishing or sporting vessels and the like, they were almost entirely unaware of sea-dumped munitions, especially chemical weapons, and the dangers these pose.

This presented us with an enormous opportunity to raise awareness on the issue of munitions dumped at sea in large quantities, primarily following WWII, and also to have the word spread when participants return to their homes and to see that munitions were included in this and future conference thinking. At the same time it was a challenge to enlist support for a wider definition of “marine debris,” currently described as "any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment," so as to include chemical agents which might be contained in “solid” barrels and weapons, as well as oil leakages from sunken ships.

The Global Green USA panel on sea-dumped munitions included three presentations: • Rick Stauber, EW Wells Group, “Research effort to document military munitions disposal sites worldwide;” • Robert O’Connor and Matt Perry, NOAA, “Ordnance Reef coral impact assessment and mitigation of remotely operated underwater munitions recovery system demonstration project;” and, • Paul Walker, Finn Longinotto, and Ryo Sato, Global Green USA, “Assessing the dangers and removal of sea-dumped munitions and other marine hazardous debris” (see attached PowerPoint presentation).

From Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Congressman Sam Farr of California, “our own” Jean-Michel Cousteau, Chairman of Green Cross France, and numerous other speakers, clear messages came through regarding the disproportionate damage we humans continue to inflict on our coastal ecosystems and marine habitats. Moving forward, the awareness raised by such actions as Coastal Collection Days and education programs both in advanced communities, and in those without any waste management to speak of at all, where everything ends up in the sea, all present possible opportunities for us to help the next generation do a better job than ours has done so far.

Congressman Farr described his efforts in Congress and the difficulty of getting appropriations, as opposed to authorizations, for enforcement of the 2006 Marine Debris Protection Act. Some arbitrary numbers, which I believe I got right but don't want to be held to, were that $12 billion, less than a third of the authorized amount, had gone to this, compared to $18 billion to the oil industry. Over the years NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had become less than 50% “ocean.” As a result, Congressman Farr’s recommendation was that we get out and vote in 2012!

Some other numbers, from other speakers, make one wonder: every year 245 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide, 20% of that amount in Europe. On average each of us uses 100 kilograms of plastic per annum. In Asia this number averages 20 kilograms, but is expected to double. As for water bottles, in the US alone 45 million are consumed every day. We are truly a “throw-away” society and the “we” means all of us, so this is indeed a problem to be addressed internationally, though in some circles in Washington “international” is politically a bad word right now.

Some of the most poignant points were made even more staggering by videos - which underline the value of this medium to get messages across. I am thinking of the stomachs of dead birds and marine animals, from albatrosses to seals, which were exposed to, strangled by, or killed by the ingestion of huge amounts of plastics, as well as the distorted bodies of turtles caught up in fishing nets. There is also a concern around micro-plastics which can find their way into the human food chain. There were discussions on alternative and new materials which need to be found to replace plastics, using waste as a source, as well as the role the UN and the private sector could play in shaping the future. There was also much discussion around the importance of recycling cans, bottles, and plastics and the need for “bottle bills” and “deposit laws” in every country to encourage recycling.

I personally learned a good deal about marine debris and there is no doubt that many participants learned a lot from us. We also realized that many of the research methods described, from mapping databases, analyzing the causes of deaths in marine animals, fish and birds, as well as recovery technology, could conceivably be made easily adaptable to our work. For example, when analyzing the stomach of dead creatures near a known chemical weapon dump site one could look for chemical concentrations in addition to plastics as a source or contributor to the creatures’ deaths.

As noted, from the perspective of our Security and Sustainability Program, both through our presentations and informal get-togethers during our days in Hawaii, we were certainly able to bring attention to an issue that had received almost no attention to-date. At the concluding ceremony, the importance of sea-dumped munitions and the contribution we had made to the conference was raised, though it did not make it into the final summary (see attached). Nonetheless, we will continue to have an input with the development of the conference group’s strategy going forward and it was clearly voiced by many that the next meeting should be in three to five years, not ten or eleven.

For the conference website, see www.5imdc.org.

-- Finn Longinotto, Senior Fellow, Security & Sustainability, Global Green USA