A.J. and Amy Powman love escaping to the beach for an afternoon of fun in the sun. But sometimes they dig their feet into sand and discover it doubles as a graveyard for plastic cups and sandwich bags.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Amy Powman, a Massachusetts resident who was in town for the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
Ocean litter, specifically plastic, which isn’t biodegradable, is an issue many parties — citizens, government, business, and special interest groups, among them — think should be addressed aggressively.
Yet little is being done collectively to curtail the problem.
Ocean conservationists think businesses must stop producing and selling so much single-use plastic. The Environmental Protection Agency puts the blame on other countries, and rejects suggestions of a ban on plastic.
Choking sea creatures
Since 2009, at least 1,792 marine animals swallowed or became entangled in plastic in U.S. waters, according to a report released Thursday by Oceana, a marine conservation group. Eighty-eight percent of those marine animals were either endangered or threatened species.
Florida, with coastlines on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, had more incidents than any other state. Its sea turtles, manatees and other marine life accounted for 55% of the incidents documented by the report.
Sea turtles account for 861 of the 1,792 animals (48%) that swallowed or became entangled in plastic, according to the report.
One Florida sea turtle on the Gulf coast had a plastic bag wrapped around its neck. The bag became filled with sand and scientists think the turtle either drowned from the weight of the bag or suffocated from the entanglement.
Many plastics break down into what’s called microplastics, pieces that are 5 mm or smaller. Animals eat these pieces, which exist throughout the water column, and it does terrible things to their innards.
“Looking through more than 300 cases of the way plastic is painfully going through these animals is just really a sad story,” Oceana senior scientist Kim Watson said.
Scientists think a manatee in nearby Hollywood died from ingesting plastic. They found a plastic bag, plastic straw and fishing line, along with pantyhose and string, in its stomach and colon.
Watson said she suspects Florida’s bottlenose dolphins also ingest lots of plastic, but she said it’s tougher to conduct necropsies on them because most die in the ocean and their bodies are never collected.
Blaming other countries
The plan touted by the Environmental Protection Agency — the U.S. Federal Strategy for Addressing the Global Issue of Marine Litter — focuses on building capacity for better waste and litter management, incentivizing the global recycling market, promoting research and development, and promoting marine litter removal.
The plan provides ways to clean the Pacific Ocean and waterways along the Mississippi River and in the Great Lakes region. However, it says little about cleaning marine litter in South Florida or anywhere else in Florida, especially plastic.
Yet the issue couldn’t be more important in Florida. The beaches generate millions in tourist dollars, and the warm, inviting waters of the Atlantic Ocean make it an ideal location to spot coral reefs, dolphins, manatees and other marine life.
The EPA says some of Florida’s ocean litter comes from the fishing industry.
“Not necessarily the U.S. fishing industry,” Wheeler said. The EPA also says not all the marine litter in Florida comes from Floridians, or even Americans.
“We do get litter on the East Coast from other countries as well,” Wheeler said.