Fighting for a Plastic-Free Ocean
By Pete Stauffer
Plastic pollution is suffocating the ocean and the animals that call it home. Researchers estimate there are now more than 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean and the number grows every day. This pollution is ravaging our marine ecosystems, entangling and choking wildlife such as seabirds, dolphins, fish and turtles. Plastic never biodegrades, it only spreads and it's now polluting every part of the ocean—from beaches, reefs and deep ocean trenches to the frigid waters of the Arctic.
Solving a problem of this magnitude will be neither easy nor simple. A variety of approaches are needed to address the threat, including public education, product innovation and industry leadership. While recycling is important, less than 10 percent of plastic consumed since 1950 has actually been recycled. As recycling delays the final disposal of the material, it is ultimately useful for reducing the amount of new plastic that is produced. The solution to the plastics crisis depends on tackling the problem at the source: We must stop consuming plastics at current rates.
The grassroots movement to stop plastic pollution is working to advance laws and policies to discourage consumption. Hundreds of U.S. cities have already taken action to curb the use of commonly littered items such as plastic checkout bags, polystyrene foam containers, plastic bottles and straws. Taking the form of either bans or fees, such policies are shifting consumer habits to keep these damaging products out of landfills, watersheds and the ocean.
Over the past decade, the number of groups working to stop plastic pollution has grown by leaps and bounds. Last year, the movement reached an important milestone with the formation of #Breakfreefromplastics, an international group of hundreds of organizations, including the Surfrider Foundation, working to stop plastic pollution for good.
"Our chapters organize hundreds of beach cleanups every year, so they see the scale of the problem first hand," said Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen. "We know cleaning beaches isn't a long-term solution so it motivates our coastal defenders to advocate for practical source reduction solutions."
In the U.S., much of the advocacy to address plastic pollution has focused on grocery checkout bags—those ubiquitous items often seen clogging storm drains or hanging from tree branches. It is estimated that Americans go through about 100 billion plastic bags a year or 360 bags for every man, woman and child in the country. Curbing the consumption of single-use plastic bags is a first step to shift consumer habits towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Even among plastic products, they are uniquely damaging. They disperse easily, choke streams and rivers, entangle wildlife, clog recycling equipment and cost significant amounts of money to clean up.
Fueled by grassroots advocacy and growing public awareness, more than 200 municipalities in the U.S. have now passed bans or fees on single-use plastic bags. These laws keep billions of plastic bags out of circulation annually and represent an important step in a broader paradigm shift towards reusables.
Unfortunately, the plastics industry is fighting back as communities increasingly reject harmful plastic products. After the nation's first statewide plastic bag ban in California was signed into law in 2014, an industry-fueled effort to overturn it led to a referendum for voters, who voted to uphold the statewide bag ban. Meanwhile, the bag policy in New York City was recently overturned by the New York State Legislature, part of a disturbing national trend of states preempting local government efforts to address plastic pollution. Industry groups spend millions to defeat anti-bag laws through lobbying legislators, filing lawsuits and hiring additional firms. Their efforts are gaining traction as more than ten states, including Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin have now passed "preemption policies" to prohibit local governments from passing ordinances to address plastic bags.
This is an alarming development, given the growing crisis of plastic pollution in the ocean. Strong leadership from local, state and federal governments is critical for the U.S. to make real progress on the issue. That's why public education and citizen advocacy is needed more than ever. Ask your legislators to take action on the issue of plastic pollution and oppose laws that prevent local municipalities from passing local laws to improve their communities. Get involved through your local Surfrider chapter and stay connected to the plastic-free movement through @Surfrider and #BreakFreeFromPlastics. The future of the ocean may depend on it.
Pete Stauffer is environmental director for the Surfrider Foundation and manages the organization's campaigns and programs to address the protection of our ocean, waves and beaches. Based in San Clemente, California, Pete supports Surfrider chapters and staff across the U.S. to advance local, state and national priorities.
The U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Tuesday saying that the Federal Environmental Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to adequately review the environmental impacts of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the fracked gas Sabal Trail pipeline, which runs more than 500 miles through Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
As ocean waters warm and acidify, corals across the globe are disappearing. Desperate to prevent the demise of these vital ecosystems, researchers have developed ways to "garden" corals, buying the oceans some much-needed time. University of Miami Rosenstiel School marine biologist Diego Lirman sat down with Josh Chamot of Nexus Media to describe the process and explain what's at stake. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is killing coral?
I wish we had an easy, straightforward answer for what's killing corals. We know there are many, many different factors influencing coral abundance, diversity, distribution and health these days, but I think the specific answer varies based on where you are.
Temperatures play a major role at global scales, and then you have all of these other, more local factors like disease, physical impacts of storms, or ship groundings.
Researcher Stephanie Schopmeyer prepares to out-plant Staghorn coral onto a Miami reef. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
We had the dredging of the Port of Miami channel a couple of years ago and that caused a lot of localized mortality due to sediment burial and sediment stress. You also have land-based sources of pollution that can damage by location and nutrient influence that causes algal overgrowth of corals.
Local factors are superimposed on regional factors directly related to global climate change. Changes in temperature, more temperature extremes, acidification of the water, changes in storm frequency and sea level rise— all are at different scales — but they all combine to cause coral mortality.
Factors vary both spatially and temporally, but the outcomes are all the same. Regardless of where you are, we've lost a tremendous amount of coral.
Nursery-raised Staghorn coral out-planted onto a reef by a citizen scientist.
In the face of all those threats, can restoration work?
Historically, restoration was developed and used for acute disturbances. A ship runs aground, and so then there's a recovery, and funds are allocated to recovering the reef structure at a given location, and then corals are planted on top of that. But as global conditions decline for coral reefs, there's now a need to scale up. So, we're not just dealing with the localized impact—we're looking at species declining throughout their range.
We need other tools at larger scales, and that's where coral reef gardening has come into play, because it works at larger scales compared to just dumping cement and rebuilding reef structures, costly endeavors that recover just a very small footprint. We're growing and planting these organisms.
Do you worry about planted coral dominating the reefs?
Initially, these techniques were developed for fast-growing corals. The genus that we're focusing on, Acropora, is threatened, so these are very important reef-building species.
When abundant, they monopolize shallow environments. They form thickets, extensive areas of high-density colonies. That's the way they used to grow, until about three to four decades ago when they got wiped out by disease and other factors. The branching corals that we're working with grow between 10 and 15 cm per branch per year, so that's very fast growth.
Through recent advances in coral aquaculture, we're now also able to grow massive species, the ones that grow very slowly. Mote Marine Lab has developed microfragmentation techniques where they can cut coral colonies very, very small and make them grow very, very fast. Although we focused on branching corals initially, now most of the programs, especially here in Florida, are expanding onto other threatened species.
Citizen scientists plant coral. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
Can these efforts solve the problem, or are they a placeholder until climate stabilizes?
You hit the nail on the head. One of the early criticisms of reef restoration was the scale issue and spending a lot of resources working on a very small footprint.
We've dealt with that now, over the past 10 years we've expanded to the point where we're growing thousands and thousands of corals—we're planting thousands and thousands of corals—so that issue of scale is no longer a valid criticism.
The other major criticism is that, even though we're planting a lot of corals, we're planting them onto environments where the same stressors that caused their initial mortality are in place. Now there is ocean acidification and increased temperatures, so things have gotten, in some cases, progressively worse.
Staghorn corals create a sustainable source of corals for use in restoration. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
That is a valid concern if we were just planting corals, but we're not just doing that. We're still concentrating on all of the other aspects of reef restoration, setting up marine protected areas to protect fish stocks and coral impacts, working to curb land-based sources of pollution, and setting up sedimentation and nutrient controls. And then, on a much larger scale, we're all trying to curb carbon emissions, trying to limit the greenhouse impacts and acidification impacts. All these tools just help us buy time.
We're also doing a lot of genomics work to see how corals can increase their resilience. A colleague of mine here at the Rosenstiel School at University of Miami, Andrew Baker, is stress-hardening corals. He works on coral symbiosis, and he found that by applying a little bit of non-lethal stress, he can make corals shuffle their Zooxanthellae, which are the endosymbiotic microalgae that provide energy to the corals. In that process, they're able to uptake Zooxanthellae that are more thermally tolerant. So, through the forced shuffling of symbionts, you may be able to buy these corals one or two degrees of tolerance, so that they become more tolerant to bleaching in future years. That is cutting-edge science.
We're trying to actually find out what makes corals survive, and trying to beef up their defenses and their resilience over time. And that's because we have access to all these coral genotypes through the active propagation from coral gardening.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
By Karen Perry Stillerman
This job has responsibility for scientific integrity at the USDA, as well as oversight of the department's various research arms and multi-billion dollar annual investments in agricultural research and education that are essential to farmers and eaters alike.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club lodged formal comments with the federal government Monday opposing a massive gas fracking project that spans 220 square miles of public land in Wyoming south of Yellowstone National Park.
The Normally Pressured Lance gas field would destroy wildlife habitat and worsen ozone pollution, a major cause of childhood asthma, in areas already suffering from extreme air pollution.
Sierra received complete surveys from a record-breaking 227 schools—in 36 states, the District of Columbia, and for the first time ever, Canada.
By Andy Rowell
The decades-long struggle for social and environmental justice in the Niger Delta continues, largely unseen by the wider world.
On Aug. 11, hundreds of people from the Niger Delta stormed the Belema flow station gas plant owned by Shell in the Rivers State region of the Delta. The plant transports crude oil to the Bonny Light export terminal, from where it is shipped overseas.
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said in a statement the Interior Department has directed it to cease its study on the potential health risks for people living near surface coal mines in Central Appalachia.
The Interior Department, which committed more than $1 million to the study last year, has begun an agency-wide review of grants over $100,000 because of the "Department's changing budget situation."