November 21, 2017

Closing the Saltwater Gap

To put it bluntly, our oceans are in peril. From the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to the Arctic ice sheet to remote beaches on Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific, there is no longer a place in our oceans untouched by the hand of man. A few numbers quantify the harm humans have caused: The oceans are acidifying at a rate faster than any other time in the past 50 million years. Around 8 million metric tons of plastic, or five grocery bags of debris for each foot of shoreline in the world, flow into the ocean from land each year. Over the last 20 years, the oceans have absorbed excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere equivalent to the energy of four Hiroshima-style atomic bombs exploding in the sea every second. 

But instead of just describing the tremendous scope of the problem, I’d like to focus on solutions. 

Last year, I wrote in Sea Technology magazine about the three major priorities of the bipartisan Senate Oceans Caucus: pirate fishing, marine debris, and ocean data and monitoring. Since then, seven more Republican senators have joined our caucus, growing it to 30 members. The caucus has achieved significant progress on positioning the United States as a leader in the fight against illegal fishing around the world. In 2014, we led the Senate ratification of four anti-pirate fishing treaties, including the Port State Measures Agreement, which came into full effect last June after the 25th country signed on. The Senate has passed legislation to implement the other three treaties, focused on high-seas fishing in the North Pacific, South Pacific and Northwest Atlantic Oceans. The caucus will continue to support these treaties and other efforts to protect legal and environmentally sound fishing efforts, including the promotion of advanced enforcement technologies such as satellite- and drone-based operations. 

We are now turning the caucus’s attention to marine debris. Though the United States is not the greatest contributor of plastic into the oceans, we share responsibility. As the world’s economic powerhouse, our trade practices and treaties can make a big difference. Trade policy can bolster technical solutions to improve waste infrastructure in developing countries. The U.S. should also promote research and development of innovative materials that can displace dependence on plastics and support programs that reward fishermen for properly disposing of gear and collecting derelict nets and traps to prevent entanglements. No single solution will be the answer; only through an all-hands-on-deck approach can we curtail the seemingly unabated flow of our plastic garbage into the sea. 

There are two other ideas I think the broader ocean community should get behind. One is an Advanced Research Projects Agency for the oceans. ARPA-O would follow in the footsteps of ARPA-E under the Department of Energy and DARPA in the defense world to accelerate the development of advanced ocean technologies. I envision an agency that could develop more accurate and cost-effective sensors to be used by scientists and fishermen alike to monitor ocean conditions; drones, gliders and other autonomous vehicles to help enforce fishing regulations on the high seas; and plastic alternatives that would biodegrade in the oceans. Accelerating the development of marine technology would pay major dividends for ocean scientists, fishermen, coastal communities and private businesses. 

The second idea is a permanent national fund for coasts and oceans. The United States holds more territory under saltwater than on dry land, but efforts to protect our oceans and coasts are severely underfunded. One grant program, the National Ocean Service’s Regional Coastal Resilience Grants, received 132 qualified applications requesting a total of $105 million during its first application period in fiscal year 2015, when a total of $4.5 million was available for grants. That puts the available funding at about 4 percent of the actual need. And that is just for one grant. 

Our understanding of the ocean has advanced greatly in the past century, but, as anyone who has lived or worked on or by the sea knows, the rate of change is accelerating and research struggles to keep pace. 

Last December, I was successful in passing the National Oceans and Coastal Security Act, which authorized for the first time a dedicated fund for oceans research, restoration and education grants. Now, we need to fund it, and I’d like to see it funded on par with the Land and Water Conservation Fund to ensure our oceans and coasts are receiving the same attention and investment as our upland and freshwater resources. 

Momentum is building around the globe to take real action to protect and preserve our oceans. At the Our Ocean Conference in September, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, representatives from more than 90 countries came together in Washington, D.C., to pledge more than $5.24 billion in new commitments to conserve ocean and coastal resources. 

We need to harness this momentum into understanding, protecting and restoring our marine environment. We’re already way behind when it comes to our oceans and coasts. The time to act is now. 

By: Sheldon Whitehouse