Marine Debris Merits Global Action

By Dave Cooley, GHPB

The world’s waterways, seas, and oceans are filled with items that do not belong there. Huge amounts of discarded trash enter the marine environment every day ranging from plastics to clumps of tangled monofilament fishing lines, collectively referred to as “marine debris”. Concern over the rising tide of marine debris is shared by many groups globally and recently became the focus of hearing by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on September 26, 2018.

Marine debris on the beach. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Entitled, “Cleaning Up the Oceans: How to Reduce the Impact of Man-Made Trash on the Environment, Wildlife, and Human Health”, the panelists included representatives from the National Geographic Society, the American Chemistry Council, Coca-Cola North Americas and the Sea Education Association. Input also came from senators Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), sponsors of the Save Our Seas (SOS) Act (S. 3508), which passed both chambers at the end of September. Sullivan and Whitehouse shared how they plan to continue their work in combatting marine debris with a follow-up bill. The SOS Act reauthorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program while also calling on the State Department and other federal agencies to promote international action to reduce marine debris.

The increasing level of marine debris is dangerous to wildlife as it can severely injure or even kill marine wildlife through entanglement or ingestion, as well as ultimately endanger human health. It creates a negative economic influence for tourists and residents along shoreline communities, and can sink or damage habitats that hamper commercial and recreational fishing activities. Marine debris also affects the shipping business as it can foul a ship’s propulsion system, become entangled with the rudder and affect steering, or clog water intakes that impact the ship’s engine cooling system.

Impacts to the Texas Coast

Everything is bigger in Texas! Unfortunately, that also applies to the quantity of marine debris that accumulates along the Texas Coast, which is more debris than any other state in the nation – and it’s mostly plastic! Everything from bottles, cups, and straws to plastic rope, jugs, crates, and fishing line gets caught in the currents.

While most marine debris originates locally and is carried downstream by bayous and rivers that empty into the Gulf of Mexico, ocean currents also influence the deposition of debris. Near shore and offshore currents create a force that contributes to collecting debris along the bend of the Texas coastline between Corpus Christi and Houston. In Texas, this current is known as the Longshore Current. It travels along the shoreline from the Mississippi River Delta to the Rio Grande. Along the middle Texas Coast, where the coastline bends, a convergence zone is created that traps debris.

Houston Collaborates for Marine Debris Clean Up

Did you know cigarette butts are the most common debris? Photo courtesy of NOAA

Metropolitan Houston, as a key port city, also has issues with marine debris. The Houston area storm water drainage system is designed so that the rainfall run-off, as well as any trash or debris collected on the way, moves down slope to a curb catch basin that empties into an underground storm sewer system that discharges into the city’s bayous. This tidal wave of trash then flows through Houston’s many bayous, ending up as floating marine debris at the Turning Basin as well as along the upper Ship Channel where several other bayous discharge into that waterway. The debris field then flows downstream on its way to Galveston Bay, the largest estuary on the Texas coast.

This recurring presence of trash, debris, and pollutants degrades water quality and negatively impacts the ecosystem. Inappropriately discarded litter includes soda cans and plastic soda bottles, plastic bags, plastic foam cups, plastic “six-pack” collars, disposable diapers, and other pieces of floating litter from the streets and roads that inadvertently enter into the local drainage system. Most of this litter has a bio-degradable lifespan of around 500 years. In addition, the appearance of litter creates a less appealing image of the city for both residents and visitors desiring to enjoy the pleasures of Houston’s beauty.

In late 2002, the Port of Houston Authority, Harris County, Buffalo Bayou Partnership, and the Harris County Flood Control District combined efforts to address this issue. The result was the purchase of a trash skimmer, branded as a TrashCat™ model from United Marine International, for $240,000. The skimmer vessel arrived in June 2003 and during the commissioning ceremony the skimmer vessel was named “Mighty Tidy.” Skimmer operations commenced immediately and activity was generally focused at the Turning Basin and upper Ship Channel. The “Mighty Tidy” was actively involved in trash clean-up until September 2008 when it lost an encounter with Hurricane Ike.

In the post “Mighty Tidy” era, the clean-up of marine debris from Buffalo Bayou, including the Turning Basin and upper ship channel, continues as the “Clean and Green Program”. It currently operates the custom built “BIO-VAC”, a heavy-duty vessel that is equipped to vacuum floatable trash from the local bayous and waterways. For example, in 2017, over 2,000 cubic yards of trash and debris were removed from Buffalo Bayou, its tributaries, and the port of Houston.

Resolving the issue of marine debris requires a unified effort throughout the world; everyone must do their part. This includes all the coastal cities, ports, harbors, waterfront facilities, and most important, all the citizens of the world must join this effort to completely eliminate litter. The soda bottle innocently left on a park lawn during one sunny day can quickly become an element of marine debris. All it takes is a pop-up thunderstorm. The rain will wash the soda bottle down to the curb, where the run-off will carry it to the storm sewer, which drains into the local bayou, or creek, or river, which then drains into a local estuary and ultimately ends up in the ocean. From there it will travel to. . .

  • Date October 22, 2018
  • Tags 2018 October