Marine litter is a pollution problem that affects all of our planet’s oceans. Because it is one of the descriptors of good environmental status in the European Commission’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), the problem of marine litter has become more urgent in Europe.
A joint workshop on marine litter was hosted at the ICES Secretariat 2–4 November. Fifteen participants representing a host of different organizations – such as the European Commission, the Joint Research Centre, MEDPOL , and the Black Sea Secretariat, as well as experts from outside the ICES area – discussed aspects of monitoring marine litter. One of the meeting’s major outcomes was a review of existing data.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines marine debris or litter as “...any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment.” (UNEP, 2005) Not only is marine debris an eyesore on beaches but it has many more potentially negative ecosystem impacts, both on the coast and at sea, where the pollution can entangle or be ingested by wildlife such as marine mammals, reptiles, fish, and birds. With little known about the long-term effects of plastic degradation, the potential for toxic accumulation, and greater concentrations of microplastics in the marine environment, enhanced monitoring and mitigation measures will be required to turn the tide on the problem of marine litter.
One of the new regulatory tools to help address this marine and coastal pollution problem is the MSFD which aims to achieve “good environmental status” in European marine waters by 2020. Good environmental status, as outlined by the European Commission Directive, has 11 descriptors. “Properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environments” defines descriptor 10. This marine litter descriptor requires Member States to collect data describing trends in the amounts of litter washed up on coasts, suspended in the water column, and deposited on the seabed, trends in the amounts of microplastics, as well as impacts on marine life.
One case that highlights the pervasiveness of the problem, as well as the need for further research and monitoring, is that of lighters, bottle caps, and other plastic objects found in the stomachs of albatross chicks, as documented by Chris Jordan in his compelling photographic series of the Pacific Ocean, “Midway: Message from the Gyre” (2009).
Visit Chris's gallery to view more pictures and for more information on the project.