Mitigation Measures and Long-Term Changes in Marine Litter

One of the major challenges in addressing the marine plastics problem is the diverse nature of plastic products, and the many routes they can follow to enter marine systems (Pruter 1987; Ryan et al. 2009). As a result, a diversity of mitigation measures is needed to tackle the problem. Initial efforts focused on two specific user groups, shipping/fisheries and the plastics industry, at least in part because they are relatively discrete user groups, and thus are more easily addressed (at least in theory). Shipping was a major source of marine litter (Scott 1972; Horsman 1982). Dumping persistent plastic wastes from land-based sources at sea was banned under the Convention on the Prevention of Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (London Dumping Convention, promulgated in 1972; Lentz 1987), but operational wastes generated by vessels were exempt until Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL, promulagated in 1973) came into force at the end of 1988 ( Since then considerable effort has been expended to ensure there are adequate port facilities to receive wastes from ships (Coe and Rogers 1997). Current signatories to MARPOL Annex V are responsible for more than 97 % of the world's shipping tonnage, but compliance and enforcement remain significant problems (Carpenter and MacGill 2005).

Industrial pellets were another target for early mitigation measures because they were abundant in the environment, often ingested by marine birds and turtles, and only handled by a relatively small group of manufacturers and converters. As early as the 1970s it was clear that improving controls in manufacturing plants could significantly reduce the numbers of pellets entering coastal waters (Kartar et al. 1976). The loss of pellets in wastewater should fall under national water quality control measures, but in most countries the issue has been ignored in favour of chemical pollutants (Bean 1987). As a result, it was left to the plastics industry to initiate efforts to reduce losses of industrial pellets such as Operation Clean Sweep, established in the USA in 1992, and adopted in various guises by many other plastics industry organisations around the world (Redford et al. 1997).

How effective were these measures in reducing litter entering the sea? Although there were some exceptions (e.g. Merrell 1984), amounts of plastic litter at sea increased up to the 1990s, and then appeared to stabilize, whereas quantities on beaches and on the seabed have continued to increase (Barnes et al. 2009; Law et al. 2010). This could result from a decrease in the amounts of litter entering the sea (Barnes et al. 2009), but interpretation is complicated by the difficulty of monitoring marine litter loads, and our rather poor understanding of the rates of degradation and transport between habitats and regions (Ryan et al. 2009). Part of the problem is that mitigation measures may be effective in reducing the proportion of the waste stream reaching the sea, but this decrease may be insufficient to decrease the absolute amount of litter entering the sea, given the ongoing increase in plastic production (Fig. 1.1).

Interaction rates with marine biota provide one way to track the impacts of marine litter, and several studies have focused on the effects of specific mitigation initiatives. For example, the rate of entanglement in Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) at South Georgia decreased over the last two decades following active steps to prevent dumping of persistent wastes by vessels operating in the waters around the island. However, some of the decrease can be attributed to changes in seal numbers (Arnould and Croxall 1995; Waluda and Staniland 2013). A similar conclusion was reached by Boren et al. (2006) for New Zealand fur seals, where the decrease in the entanglement rate after 1997 was more likely a result of increasing seal numbers than a decrease in the amounts of litter at sea. Henderson (2001) showed no change in entanglement rates of Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi) before and after the implementation of MARPOL Annex V, nor was there a decrease in the rate at which netting washed ashore at the northwest Hawaiian Islands. Page et al. (2004) also showed no change in seal entanglement rates in southeast Australia despite efforts by government and fishing organisations to reduce the amount of litter discarded at sea. However, beach surveys in this region suggested that the implementation of MARPOL Annex V reduced the amounts of litter washed ashore (Edyvane et al. 2004). Ribic et al. (2010) showed how carefully designed beach litter surveys can detect regional differences in long-term trends in the amounts of stranded litter, with consistent trends in landand ship-based sources of litter.

Long-term studies of plastic ingestion by seabirds also indicate limited success in tackling the marine litter problem. The rapid increase in the amount of ingested plastic through the 1960s and 1970s (Harper and Fowler 1987; Moser and Lee 1992) stabilized during the 1980s and 1990s (Vlietstra and Parga 2002; Ryan 2008; Bond et al. 2013), but only studies of North Atlantic fulmars show a recent decrease in the amount of ingested plastic (van Franeker et al. 2011). Although the total amount of ingested plastic has tended to remain fairly constant over the last few decades, there has been a marked change in the composition of ingested plastic from pellets to plastic fragments (Vlietstra and Parga 2002; Ryan 2008; van Franeker et al. 2011), suggesting that efforts to reduce the numbers of pellets entering the sea have been at least partly successful. These results mirror the findings of net-samples of plastic litter at sea, which have seen a major increase in the proportion of user fragments and a corresponding decrease in industrial pellets relative to surveys conducted in the 1970s and 1980s (Moore et al. 2001; Law et al. 2010).

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