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Marine Debris: the issue, the policies… and the issues with our policies

So you’re a fisherman utilizing gill nets to catch another ridiculous amount of cod. The fish imprisoned in your net outweigh the float line’s buoyancy, and it sinks before you can get to it. The net is lost at sea, eventually lying somewhere on the seafloor, suffocating whatever previously inhabited that substrate along with all the cod that swam, unknowingly, into the death trap. Do you take the time to collect the net using the GPS pin that you dropped earlier today? No way. The sun’s about to kiss the horizon and a hefty paycheck is all you that’s looming in your mind. Actually, you have another, new gill net that you’ve been waiting to christen anyway. Might as well start using it now! Back tracking to retrieve a sunken gill net would be a waste of time and labor.

You’re not a fishermen? Okay, so you’re out on your family’s leisure yacht cruising around with old friends to celebrate Bobby’s engagement. Someone pops champagne up and overboard sending a shimmering mist soaring into the air. Things get wild, and people start shooting off confetti filled party-poppers as well as the all-too-familiar noisemakers you hated when you were 10 and still hate today. As the night goes on, everyone passes out below deck, dozing to the sound of waves slapping the hull. While they rest, the ocean breeze is graciously clearing the deck of any party-evidence. Every ridiculous decoration is washed over the deck in passing waves… and empty bottles roll off of the gunwale as the boat sways from left-to-right with the oceans breath. Luckily, when you awake with the other guests (with quite the hangover) the boat seems pretty tidy, and you have only sticky rum footprints to scrub when you get back to the marina. No one thinks twice about the missing champagne bottles, glasses, or party streamers.

These both seem like simple enough stories. Nobody is killed and there’s no extreme discovery being made that would warrant CNN news coverage. Yet they are both examples of how our oceans are being polluted on a daily basis, and someone needs to call attention to it. Every decision we make, and every thing we do has a consequence. Unfortunately when it comes to marine pollution, most of us get by without thinking twice about it. The problem is offshore where an average American might spend 1 % of their life. If it’s not on the surface, it’s suspended below the surface, waiting to be ingested by an endangered Right Whale, or on the seafloor (which most people imagine to look like the screensaver images that Microsoft so kindly provides on our computers). Since 95 % of the oceans still have not been explored, understanding how marine pollution is carrying on unnoticed seems easy (NOAA National Ocean Service, 2014b).

“Out of sight, out of mind”


Wrong. Some of us think about this problem day and night, and maybe that’s because we’re not average Americans, but have some keen passion for protecting the sea. Personally, I grew up surfing and diving off the South East Coast of Florida, and I am sick of finding plastic when I paddle out and collecting fishing line that I find tangled on the reef when I go diving.

If you’re interested, I am attaching an excerpt from a paper that I recently turned in as a part of my Environmental Law course. It outlines many of the policies regarding marine debris pollution, and shows some of my opinion of what needs to be done until we find a better solution for marine debris.

Thank you in advance for not having a mindless party on your family’s yacht.





Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A Review of Marine Debris Reduction Efforts in the United States


Image from


Katelyn Cucinotta


Our oceans are being polluted on a daily basis, and someone needs to call attention to it. Every decision we make, and every thing that we do has a consequence. Unfortunately when it comes to marine debris pollution, most of us get by without thinking twice about it. The problem is offshore where an average person might spend .01 % of their life. If it’s not on the surface, it is suspended below the surface, waiting to be ingested by the endangered Right Whale, or on the seafloor, which most people imagine to look like the flawless screensaver images that are so kindly provided on our computers. According to the NOAA National Ocean Service, 95 % of the oceans still have not been explored. This makes it easier to understand why marine debris pollution carries on unnoticed seems easy (NOAA National Ocean Service, 2014b). Out of sight, out of mind.

NOAA’s Ocean Service defines marine debris to be “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes” (NOAA National Ocean Service, 2014a). This means that marine debris may come in many forms. Some main classes of marine debris include: plastics, fishing gear, food packaging, glass, metal, medical waste, and cigarette filters (Sheavly, 2005b). Most of the sources are land-based according to the United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (Sheavly, 2005b).

Debris sources include litter from beachgoers or runoff litter that comes from inland areas and waste from sewage treatment plant overflow events or disposal facilities. Also, illegal dumping of industrial garbage into coastal waters is a huge land-based issue that will be covered in more detail in this review. Ocean-based sources of marine debris include: commercial fishing vessels, merchant, military, and research vessels, recreational boats, and cruise ships (Sheavly, 2005b). Large petroleum platforms and supply vessels also contribute to marine debris pollution both knowingly and inadvertently.

Fortunately, the world has begun to recognize marine pollution as an issue, and the United States is especially involved in judicial actions to mitigate this issue. What is unknown, however, is how effective these policies truly are. This paper will look at several key policies regulating marine debris pollution in the United States and internationally. It will analyze them based on effectiveness, and relevance to case studies.

Summary of Marine Debris Pollution Issue:

Marine debris pollution can easily lead to human health issues, but it also affects economics as tourism slows due to hazardous or unattractive coastal conditions. Vessels can be damaged when abandoned fishing gear such as monofilament fishing line becomes wrapped around propellers, or bags get sucked into water intake valves. Fortunately, when economics become involved, the government usually decides to step in, so these consequences are most often the catalyst for judicial action. Other than the obvious costs to humans and society, marine debris also leads to entanglement of wildlife and sadly many marine animals ingest waste particulates on a regular basis.


The first act that addressed marine debris was the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 (Coulter, 2010). This act prevents waste from being released into any navigable water or tributaries, and is often referred to in today’s cases. The most monumental act regarding water pollution in the United States is the Clean Water Act (CWA) passed in 1972 (Coulter, 2010). The CWA requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to support programs by local and state governments that monitor floatable material in “coastal recreation waters” (Coulter, 2010). Additionally, it requires that permits be acquired for discharges in waters 200 miles from the US shoreline (Coulter, 2010). This constitutes the Exclusive Economic Zone for the United States, or the EEZ. The Coastal Zone Management Act, also passed in 1972, showed Congress’ interest in preserving, and protecting or restoring the Nation’s coastal resources by encouraging coastal zone management plans (CZMPs) (Coulter, 2010). Then, according to Marine Defenders, again in 1972 the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA) was passed which gave the US Coast Guard and the EPA authority to regulate ocean dumping in federal or state waters (Marine Defenders).

On a larger scale, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) was established in 1973 and modified in 1978. The protocol from MARPOL created international guidelines to prevent pollution from ships via 6 annexes (Sheavly, 2005a). Annex 5 is specifically prohibits the disposal of plastics in the oceans and regulates other types of garbage (Sheavly, 2005a). Building from MARPOL, in 1987 the U.S. then passed the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MPPRCA) (Sheavly, 2005a). The MPPRCA implements MARPOL Annex 5 in US waterways and states that it is illegal to eject plastic off of any ship in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ (Coulter, 2010). Garbage restrictions also exist within three miles from shore, but gradually relax with distance from shore. This act was a huge step forward in solving the marine pollution issue, but doesn’t offer a solution to the problem of who is responsible for waste between national boundaries.

The Pollution Prevention Act (PPA) was signed in 1990 and is very important as a policy that actually focuses public attention on changes in production and raw material usage so that pollution can be prevented rather than controlled or managed post-production (United States EPA, 2014) Several other relevant policies include the: Shore Protection Act, Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, Coral Reef Conservation Act, and the most recent Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act (MDRPRA) (Marine Defenders).

All of these acts are positive steps toward reducing the presence of marine debris on our nations coasts, but they seem to lack any rule offering a regulatory authority for land-based debris. The CWA, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and PPA don’t specifically mention marine debris, but do include standards, which are applicable to land-based rubbish. Two laws that actually do refer to “marine debris” are the MPRSA and the Coastal Zone Management Act, mentioned previously. Unfortunately, this jumble of legislation does not seem to fix the issue at hand, and lawsuits regularly arise concerning marine debris pollution.

Case studies:

One relevant case involves a lawsuit by the United States in US v. Weitzenhoff where managers of a sewage treatment plant were disposing of non-biodegradable waste directly into the ocean at night, violating the CWA (Law School, 2013). Defendants claimed that they thought they had a permit allowing them to dump waste there. However, the pollution clearly violated the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, and managers had knowingly engaged in the violations (Law School, 2013). This case addresses the mens rea requirement where guilt or innocence in a case depends on whether the person actually intended to commit the crime (US v. Weitzenhoff, 2014). The final holding in this case found Weitzenhoff and Mariana, the managers guilty of six of 31 charges. They interpreted the word “knowingly” in 33 U.S.C. § 1319(c)(2) (in the MDRPR Act) to mean awareness of the wrongfulness or likelihood of illegality of one’s activities (US v. Weitzenhoff, 2014). It does not necessarily require that one be aware of exactly what statute is being violated (US v. Weitzenhoff, 2014).

Another case, this time involving ocean dumping, occurred when Princess Cruises, Inc. was fined $500,000 for dumping plastic bags full of garbage off their ship (US Department of Justice, 1995). Vacationers witnessed the dumping, caught it on videotape, and alarmed authorities immediately (US Department of Justice, 1995). This action directly violated the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, or the APPS, which made it illegal to violate the MARPOL Protocol.


Unfortunately, all the current actions to fight marine debris seem to be responsive rather than proactive. No one will ever be able to enforce all of these policies effectively without having an official on board of every ship, and on site of every coastal facility producing waste, which will likely never happen. Even then, people will find their way around the law, and surely will toss things into our environment when backs are turned. In my opinion, the most remarkable judicial move that the United States has made toward lessening marine debris is the PPA. This act attacks the root of the problem and attempts to stop pollution by reducing sources, which is the best approach to mitigating any environmental problem.

I am proud that our country is involved in the MARPOL Protocol, and that we have adopted the MPPRCA, but what I do not understand is why the regulations governing garbage dumping become less stringent as distance from shore increases. Under the MPPRCA, it is completely illegal to dump plastic waste within the EEZ, and it is illegal to throw any waste overboard in US navigable waters or within 3 miles from the US shoreline (National Research Council, 2008). Why is dumping waste 2 miles from shore any more significant than dumping waste 20 miles from shore? In international waters, according to MARPOL, it is always illegal to dump plastic waste, but why is it okay to dump anything else?

The international issue of marine debris is absolutely a tragedy of the commons. Instead of everyone taking a resource, however, everyone is taking advantage of the open space as a resource, and using it as a wasteland. If it were more feasible to have some sort of international law enforcement program that actively monitored every vessel that is on the sea, and every waste-producing facility with a connection to the sea, that would be our best bet. Simply levying fines when lawsuits come up from companies that complain of waste making its way onto their property, or when witnesses observe ocean dumping will never resolve the problem.

In addition, I truly believe that by educating the public, and engaging our communities through outreach initiatives, we will have much more of a chance of lessening marine debris for future generations. This doesn’t mean that the oceans will fix themselves currently, but if our children recognize the responsibility we have to preserve our oceans, they will be less likely to grow up polluting the ocean as our society currently does. Luckily, with the MDRPRA, passed in 2006, partnerships were made through the creation of the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee (IMDCC) (Farr, 2012). This committee is made up of representatives from federal agencies and is dedicated to facilitating joint efforts to increase compliance and awareness of marine debris to mitigate the issue. A report that they compiled in 2008 shares strategies that may be useful in addressing the problem (Farr, 2008). Not surprisingly, the report recommends education and outreach efforts along with enforcement, and more coordination between government, and NGO’s in response situations (Farr, 2008).

The MDRPRA also led to the creation of NOAA’s Marine Debris Prevention and Removal Program aimed at preventing and reducing marine debris impacts (Farr, 2008). This program plays a huge part in providing funding for projects around the country, and increases visibility of efforts within NOAA Awareness and education are vital for our future, and thankfully, programs like NOAA’s Marine Debris Prevention and Removal Program and the IMDCC are aimed just that (Marine Debris, 2014)


Thousands of pounds of garbage and plastic are out there in floating gyres and resting on the sea floor waiting to be ingested by marine life. This material will not simply go away, and I believe that since humans are the only liable species, we are morally obligated to take responsibility for this tragedy. In the meantime, the law enforcement forces that we do have available, further education to increase awareness, and conservative interpretation of the acts supporting cleaner oceans must be in use. Every offense made on the oceans, or by discharge into the oceans should be taken completely seriously.. The ocean is sick and we need to take better care of it.


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