Photo: Ainoha Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race
NEWPORT, R.I. (May 15, 2015) – The Ocean Summit on Marine Debris at the Volvo Ocean Race Newport Stopover sounded a call to arms in an effort to clean the oceans of plastic and other marine debris.
The Ocean Summit was sponsored by the Volvo Group, the Embassy of Sweden, the U.S. State Department, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sail Newport, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and operating affordable public sailing instruction and attracting new sailors to the sport.
Professor Dennis Nixon of the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography and a director of the Rhode Island Sea Grant, emceed the summit. Speakers included Henrik Sténson, Executive Vice President Corporate Communication & Sustainability Affairs, Volvo Group, Björn Lyrvall, the Swedish Ambassador to the U.S., Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Dr. Sandra Whitehouse, Senior Policy Advisor to the Ocean Conservancy, Catherine Novelli, Undersecretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment at the U.S. Department of State, Dr. Lisa Emelia Svensson, Sweden’s Ambassador for Ocean, Seas and Freshwater, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, Wendy Schmidt, President, The Schmidt Family Foundation, Daniel Wild, Head of Sustainability Investing Research and Development, and Kersti Strandqvist, Senior Vice President for Sustainability, SCA.
The Volvo Ocean Race is in a unique position to affect change. It visits 11 countries on five continents and traverses four of the world’s oceans. Sailors in this edition of the race, which has been contested since 1973-’74, have said that they’ve seen more debris this race than ever before. Some of it wraps around the underwater appendages and slows the boats, forcing the crew to stop and back down or send someone overboard to clear it.
“The sailors are our canaries in a coal mine,” said Nixon, “They spend nine months at sea racing around the world, seeing things that landlubbers don’t get to see. We need to work together internationally to figure out the mechanisms to reduce waste.”
Knut Frostad, CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race, and Charlie Enright, skipper of Team Alvimedica, both related personal experiences of debris in the oceans. Enright spoke of the density of trash in the Malacca Strait, which separates the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia. The fleet passed through the strait last January en route to China from the UAE.
“At the narrowest part it seemed there was enough trash that you could walk from one point of land to the other,” said Enright. “We saw wooden pallets, fishing nets, tires, coolers and many plastics. It was alarming.”
Southeast Asia is recognized as a problematic area due to the global population boom. Nixon said that in his 40-year working career the global population has doubled. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka have been noted as accounting for 57 percent of all plastics disposed in the ocean.
As an example, a resident of Indonesia dumps 17.2 kilograms of plastic waste into the ocean per year, whereas a resident of Sweden or the U.S. dumps between .4 and 2.5 kilograms per year, respectively.
In 2013, there were 130 million tons of plastics in the ocean. Based on current rates, in 2025 that total is forecast to increase to 250 million tons, or 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of finfish.
According to Dr. Whitehouse, the ecological impacts could be devastating. Sea turtles get entangled in fishing nets. Seals can’t open their mouths because of plastic rings stuck on their snouts. The shores of Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean are littered with the corpses of young albatross who’ve died from ingesting too much plastic. The effects reach down to plankton, the base of the food chain.
“There’s no single solution,” said Dr. Whitehouse. “We have to tailor solutions to individual countries.”
In the U.S., Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has been instrumental in forming the Senate Oceans Caucus with Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Senator Whitehouse has been vocal in his warnings of climate change, constantly speaking on the senate floor about warming oceans, rising sea levels and eroding coastlines.
“It’s a privilege to have a life that links with the oceans, but in every corner of the oceans alarms are ringing,” said Senator Whitehouse. “In the Arctic ice shelves are eroding. In the Caribbean coral reefs are bleached or dying. Whales that wash ashore are so full of poison that they would violate toxic waste laws if you disposed of them at the local dump. Water temperatures in Narragansett Bay have increased 3-4 degrees in one generation. We’re bearing witness, we have to pay attention.”
Governor Raimondo said that all Rhode Islanders are responsible for the health of Narragansett Bay and the ocean, and noted the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management as a great partner in the role of protecting the oceans.
“Marine debris isn’t just a sailors’ problem, it’s everyone’s problem,” said Raimondo. “Narragansett Bay and the ocean are core to Rhode Island’s culture and economy, and we have a responsibility to protect it. I’m working with the Rhode Island General Assembly to pass a clean energy infrastructure bank to keep our environment cleaner and healthier.”