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The ocean is sending out an SOS — Congress is responding


With all of the mayhem that’s hit — the pandemic, wildfires and the related air pollution — many of us have been thinking of our oceans as a refuge, something in our environment that has not changed. In fact, our oceans have been hit hard. Because of the sudden surge in the need for single-use plastics, such as takeout containers and face masks, the beaches have been littered with more plastic than ever before. The beaches provided their visitors an escape from their homes for a few hours, and in turn, their guests left litter to drift into the sea, further exacerbating the ocean’s plastic pollution crisis. 

But there’s something inspiring happening on both coasts that gives me hope. There’s a renewed focus on ocean conservation. And what’s even more strange is that it has made its way to Washington, D.C., and has strong bipartisan political support.

In January, the Senate voted on — and unanimously passed — the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act (SOS 2.0). The unanimous passage by one of the most polarized Senates we’ve seen in history sends a clear message: the health of our ocean needs to be a priority in America’s legislative future. The House of Representatives followed suit Thursday — providing an important start in answering the ocean’s pleas to stop the proliferation of ocean plastic pollution. 

You don’t need to be a policy wonk or an environmentalist to see how crucial this bill could be to the future of our oceans.

More ambitious than the preceding bill passed in 2018, SOS 2.0 is aimed primarily at curbing plastic pollution washing up on beaches and harming wildlife — a devastating and deadly reality that I know all too well about.

The Marine Mammal Center, where I serve as CEO, is the largest marine mammal hospital in the world. It has treated over 23,000 marine mammals since 1975 and has seen devastating and deadly injuries directly attributable to plastics and trash in the ocean.

We rescue animals from over 600 miles of California coastline and Hawaii. The United States, as a whole, has 12,479 miles of coastline. The number of animals we treat, while large and growing in importance every year, is just a fraction of the marine mammals across the globe that are being harmed by these plastics. 

This bill will help address the effects of derelict fishing gear — a global issue that has impacted marine wildlife for years, often with fatal consequences. Fatal entanglement in and ingestion of marine debris by marine mammals increased by 40 percent between 1998 and 2008, with all evidence pointing toward the continuation of this trend. This bill takes the necessary and long overdue steps needed in order to reverse this trend. 

We’ve known for years that plastic pollution is a serious threat to the global health of the ocean. But the original estimates of 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our ocean each year turned out to be woefully short of the true number: 11 million metric tons

The effects of this by 2040 could be devastating: nearly 600 million tons of plastic in our oceans. And by 2050, the weight of plastics in the ocean will outweigh the weight of fish in the ocean.

 This is a global problem that requires a global solution. The SOS 2.0 would be the crucial first step in bolstering the United States’ international engagement and cooperation to address the problem of marine debris, and it directs the executive branch to prioritize ocean plastic pollution.

The United States should be leading the charge on eliminating plastic pollution in our oceans. The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act is a huge step in the right direction. Hopefully, during the end of this tumultuous year, after the House passes this legislation, the president will sign SOS 2.0.

Dr. Jeff Boehm is the chief executive officer of The Marine Mammal Center. Previously, he served as the senior vice president of Animal Health and Conservation Science at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Follow the organization on Twitter @TMMC.

Tags climate policy Congress Environment marine life ocean conservancy ocean pollution Pollution PPE ppe pollution SEA Single-use plastics

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