The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill co-sponsored by a bipartisan group, including two Alaska senators, on Thursday to address the threat of plastic debris impacting the country’s coastline and fisheries.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), along with Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced the bill in June.
The bill, Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, builds on a previous bill, Save Our Seas Act, signed into law by the president in 2018 and addresses the increasing amount of marine debris in the ocean.
“The whole purpose (of the bill) is not only to clean up, but limit and get to the source of the marine debris and plastics that are polluting our oceans, that are polluting our fisheries,” said Sullivan, who also sits on the Committee on Environment and Public Works.
The new legislation charters a marine debris foundation to help agencies prevent, reduce, and remove marine debris; engages international groups and governments to combat the issue; improves U.S. marine debris recycling infrastructure and creates incentives for fishermen to collect marine debris and dispose of it properly. The legislation also finances various studies to collect data on the effects of marine debris.
The foundation chartered in the new legislation, works with agencies to prevent and remove marine debris. It also establishes an innovation prize to encourage technological innovation to decrease marine debris, such as the invention of biodegradable plastic bottles, which do not yet exist, the senator said.
“The vast majority of the ocean pollution and pollutants that negatively impact the Alaskan fisheries come from overseas, so this legislation has a very significant domestic component with our own recycling component and a really significant international component,” Sullivan said.
According to Sullivan, one of the major sources of marine debris is microplastics. These small plastic particles of less than 5 millimeters in length come from a variety of sources, including the breakdown of large plastic waste.
“We have these microplastics that break down but they don’t fully biodegrade and they are not only getting in our waters, but getting in our food chains,” Sullivan said.
According to experts, microplastics are ingested by a range of marine and aquatic species, potentially affecting the fertility and growth of organisms and increasing their stress levels and mortality.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, marine debris is known to negatively impact more than 800 marine and coastal species in Alaska. Marine mammals, like Steller sea lions, are often found tangled in abandoned fishing gear and other debris.
The issue “is really gathering steam,” Sullivan said. “This one is quite comprehensive. We are excited about it. We have some really good momentum. It’s going to help Alaska, Kodiak, America, and it will show the world that we are leading this as a country.”