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Miyoko Sakashita Headshot

Garbage-infested Oceans Need Superfund Help

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At first glance the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are a tropical paradise. Designated a national marine monument in 2006, this 1,200-mile chain of scattered islands and atolls is home to more than 7,000 marine species, one quarter of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

But look more closely, and you'll see that beneath the shimmering tropical waters, the coral reefs, marine mammals and sea turtles that call this island chain home are in trouble.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have become an ocean dumping ground for the world's litter. Thousands of tons of plastic debris -- from grocery bags to soda bottles to fishing gear -- contaminate the waters, ensnaring endangered Hawaiian monk seals and choking sea turtles who mistake plastic bags for jellyfish.

It's a frightening, ugly problem that deserves a solution big enough to make a difference. That's why the group I work for, the Center for Biological Diversity, just petitioned to have the islands named the nation's next Superfund site. Our petition also includes the U.S. portion of the giant Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of garbage in the Pacific Ocean that's larger than Texas.

The EPA's Superfund program is designed to tackle the nation's dirtiest places. Given the scope and scale of the plastic pollution in northwest Hawaii, there's no better tool than Superfund to get the cleanup started.

Plastic takes a tragic toll on our sea life. Some wildlife are entangled and drowned; others are strangled or suffer from lacerations and infection. Still others starve after consuming plastic because it creates false feelings of satiation. Nearly all Laysan Albatross chicks in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, for instance -- 97.5 percent -- have plastic in their stomachs, fed to them by their parents who believe the plastics are food.

In addition the toxic chemicals added to plastic, like BPA, accumulate in the bodies of animals that consume the floating debris.

2012-12-13-greenisland_debris.jpgPlastic pollution in our oceans is a global crisis, but the location of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands makes the problem especially severe. Ocean currents in the North Pacific collect debris in cyclical gyres, most famously in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. One of these convergence zones passes through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, accumulating debris that is then deposited on reef ecosystems.

The scale of the accumulation is truly massive; every year, 52 metric tons of discarded fishing gear alone, such as plastic netting and monofilament, are recovered from the islands.

While hundreds of tons of plastic garbage have been removed from the area, much more remains. We've ignored this problem for decades; that has to end before this special place is ruined forever.

Superfund empowers the EPA to clean up areas that pose a threat to a healthy environment, and enables the agency to design remediation that may curb the stream of plastic into our waters.

EPA should utilize this law to begin the process of cleaning up one of our most precious national treasures. Plastic bags, bottle caps and discarded fishing line don't belong there, and the seals, turtles, birds and fish want their paradise back.

Emily Jeffers contributed to this post. Photo of plastic littering remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Kure Atoll, courtesy of NOAA.

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