May 2019 (12:6)

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Editor’s note: The deluge of popular articles and reports on marine plastic continues, but here at The Skimmer, we became curious about one important area where we weren’t seeing as much information – how marine plastic pollution is affecting ocean users and the Blue Economy. We know that marine plastic is pretty much everywhere in the ocean and can have horrific effects on individual marine organisms – think whales and seabirds with bellies full of plastic – but that the research is just not there to fully assess the severity of marine ecosystem-level impacts.

But aside from the unpleasant views of trash-strewn beaches and coastal waters, how are people, cities, and countries affected? One important reason to dig into this area and have this information readily available is that money talks. If the harm to marine life doesn’t convince decision makers to make difficult changes to address marine plastic pollution, maybe understanding the economic and social impacts can.

So big picture, what is marine plastic pollution costing us?

  • Before we dive into numbers, it is important to understand that two fundamental mismatches are at the heart of marine plastic pollution problem:
    1. When we use plastic, we are using an incredibly durable material for a lot of very short-term uses. Plastic items can take decades and centuries to degrade in the ocean (and then break up into even smaller plastic pieces). Our major use of plastics (36% of plastic use) is for packaging, however, which has an average useful life of 6 months or less.
    2. Marine plastic pollution is the result of a failure in economic markets. Specifically, the price of making and using things made out of plastic does not reflect the full cost of disposing of that plastic. Instead, that cost is passed on to other entities, often coastal municipalities and ocean users.
  • So what does marine plastic pollution cost society? By one estimate, at least US$13 billion a year. This estimate was derived by estimating what it would cost companies that produce consumer goods to “internalize” the costs associated with their current practices (e.g., pay for cleanup of plastic waste). $13 billion a year is likely to be a significant underestimate too because there is so little information on the impacts of plastic waste (e.g., for microplastics) and it doesn’t include costs such as the transport of invasive marine species attached to plastics in the ocean.
  • Moreover, this US$13 billion for marine plastic pollution is just a fraction of the overall cost to society of the production of plastic consumer goods (which is estimated to be at least US$75 billion a year). Other major costs to society from producing plastics include the costs associated with air pollution from incinerating plastic, and greenhouse gas emissions from extracting and processing raw materials. [To put this in perspective, estimates of the value of the global plastics market range from ~ US$650 billion to US$1.2 trillion.]
  • Another effort to value the social and economic impacts of marine plastic pollution looks at how it affects marine ecosystem services. Researchers found that marine plastic has a negative impact on most ecosystem services, including fisheries, aquaculture, climate regulation, pest and disease control, heritage values, and recreation. Their back-of-the-envelope calculation is that marine plastic pollution has reduced marine ecosystem service delivery by at least 1-5%, for an annual loss of US$500-2500 billion to society. (This amounts to somewhere between US$3300 and $33,000 per ton of marine plastic pollution.) This estimate does not even include the social and economic costs to tourism, fisheries, shipping, and human health that we discuss below.

Okay, so that’s the big picture. What about various sectors? How are they affected?

  • As we dig into the impacts of marine plastic pollution on different sectors of the Blue Economy, it is important to make it clear that we are really only beginning to understand the costs associated with marine plastic pollution. There is more research on the impacts to coastal communities, tourism, and fisheries than other sectors, but even in these areas, there are still big gaps in our understanding.
  • It is also important to understand that there are different types of costs, and we are much farther along at quantifying some than others. Three types of costs include:
    • Actual expenditures that people or groups in a sector need to make to prevent or recover from damage, e.g., the costs of cleaning up beaches, the costs of fixing vessels, the costs repairing fishing gear damaged by plastic marine debris, and the costs of medical care for marine-debris related accidents or illnesses. These costs are typically the easiest to quantify.
    • Losses of output or revenue due to interactions with marine plastic pollution, e.g., the revenue from fish that couldn’t be caught because a net was full of debris or the spending of potential beachgoers who decided not to go to the beach because of litter.
    • Welfare costs that include human health impacts and loss of ecosystem services such as aesthetics or recreation. These costs are typically the hardest to quantify.
  • So let’s dive in by looking at the costs of marine plastic pollution to coastal communities, which typically bear the brunt of the expense of cleaning up coastlines and disposing of waste.
    • In the UK, coastal municipalities spend ~ US$24 million a year to remove beach litter, with most of this in labor costs.[1]
    • The Netherlands and Belgium spend over US$13 million annually to remove beach litter.
    • Communities along the West Coast of the US spend ~ US$13 a year per resident on beach and waterway cleanup, street sweeping, installation of storm-water capture devices, storm drain cleaning and maintenance, manual cleanup of litter, and public anti-littering campaigns to clean up and prevent marine plastic pollution.
    • A province in Sweden with a population of ~ 300,000 spends over US$1.5 million a year on cleaning its beaches.
    • A district in Peru with ~ 250,000 residents estimates that it would have to spend more than twice its annual budget for cleaning all public areas (~ US$200,000) to clean its coastline.
  • In addition to the costs of cleanup, plastic waste presents a host of other problems for coastal (and inland) communities. For starters, plastic waste clogs storm drains, causing flooding. For instance, Bangkok removes ~ 2,000 tons of waste – much of it plastic bags – out of its drainage channels daily to prevent flooding. And similar problems plague cities the world over, from Bangladesh to Boston. In addition, plastic waste holds water and creates habitat for mosquitos; incineration of plastic waste creates air pollution; and massive garbage dumps – created in large part and then made unstable by plastic waste – are prone to collapse, killing nearby residents.
  • One of the reasons that coastal communities go to the trouble of cleaning up marine litter (in addition to not wanting their storm drains clogged and not liking mosquitos) is that tourists and recreational users of coastlines dislike litter and will avoid areas that are littered or that they anticipate will be littered. For instance, a study conducted in Cape Town, South Africa, found that 2 large pieces of marine debris per meter of beach would keep 85% of tourists from going to a beach. In Brazil, more than 85% of beachgoers said that they would avoid a beach if there were more than 15 pieces of litter per square meter.
  • A variety of studies have estimated the potential financial impact of reduced tourism due to marine litter.
  • The iconic tropical tourist destination of Bali has become an unfortunate poster child for the problems that marine plastic pollution can cause. In Bali, hundreds of workers clean tons of marine debris off beaches daily, with some hotels resorting to burying the trash in the sand to keep it out of view. A stretch of beach on the island’s western coast has been declared an emergency zone due to the amount of plastic washing up there, and the island recently banned single-use plastics to help deal with the problem.

Wow, that all sounds pretty unfortunate. What other industries are affected?

And what about the Blue Economy’s most valuable resource – its people?

Anything else?

So what can we do about marine plastic pollution? Stay tuned for a quick overview of what we know works (or should work) to reduce marine plastic pollution in next month’s Skimmer!


[1] Some of the following estimates are for beach litter rather than just plastic litter, but plastic comprises a large percentage of beach litter. It is estimated that ~ 60-80% of marine debris is plastic.


Image 1: Coastal Trash, Baseco, Manila. Taken by Adam Cohn, 2014. Obtained via Flickr

Image 2: National Park Service cleaning up a beach. Obtained via:

Image 3: Youtube video screenshot of a storm drain clogged with plastic bags in Miami Beach. Obtained via:

Image 4: Trash littering the Jimbaran beach on Bali. 2014. Taken by Killerturnip. Obtained via Flickr

Image 5: A sea turtle entangled in a discarded fishing net. 2012. Obtained via Wikimedia Commons

Image 6: A dead albatross chick with an exposed belly showing all the plastic garbage it has ingested. Taken by Claire Fackler, 2014. Obtained via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: In this interview, Val Stori, the project director for the Clean Energy Group and Clean Energy States Alliance, discusses US offshore wind energy under the Trump administration and new developments in the offshore wind industry. She can be contacted at val [at]

The Skimmer: How have offshore wind energy policies in the US changed (or not changed) under the Trump presidential administration?

Stori: Under the Trump administration, the Department of Interior and its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) have taken steps that will enable the further development of offshore wind energy in the US.

One of the first changes to offshore wind under the Trump administration has been making permitting for offshore wind projects easier. BOEM may now use a ‘design envelope approach’ in Construction and Operations Plans (COPs). This streamlines the review and permitting of infrastructure projects and allows developers more flexibility to make last-minute project design decisions without triggering another environmental review.

In addition, BOEM is continuing to identify areas for wind energy and in December 2018 held an auction for three lease areas off the coast of Massachusetts. Winning bids were nearly $135 million each – the highest bid prices to date for wind lease areas.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has also made significant investments in offshore wind R&D initiatives. DOE contributed $20.5 million to the Offshore Wind R&D Consortium, which is led by the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) and includes project developers, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, state agencies, and technical consulting groups. DOE also contributed $28 million for floating wind R&D through its ATLANTIS program, and recently announced $17 million in funding for offshore wind test facilities and innovative technologies to reduce costs.

The Skimmer: How well do you feel US regulators and the US offshore wind energy industry have been doing coordinating with other industries such as fishing and shipping?

Stori: Communications and outreach are improving as regulators, the industry, and other stakeholders learn from each state’s and each project’s experience. I think the Rhode Island Special Area Management Plan process and the Block Island Wind project did a great job and are a good model for how to involve a broad range of stakeholders, including the fishing industry.

NYSERDA’s Environmental and Commercial Fisheries Working Groups are two other examples of good collaboration between policy makers and the fishing industry. The NYSERDA working groups are working on best management practices (BMPs) to minimize impacts on fish and fisheries and include stakeholder engagement in the working group. For example, the groups are considering BMPs such as appointing a Fishing Liaison and collaborating on monitoring to develop baseline data.

The US Coast Guard is involved in BOEM leasing from very early in the process. More could be done to inform and include the states on the Coast Guard and the Navy’s role in identifying lease areas and permitting of offshore wind projects.

The Skimmer: What big developments, if any, have you seen in the offshore wind sector in the past few years in the US (and/or the rest of the world)?

Stori: In the US specifically, we have seen the first turbines in the water and historic wind lease auctions. New York and New Jersey have the largest offshore wind procurement targets – 2400 MW and 3600 MW by 2030 respectively. And now, New York has a 9000 MW target by 2035!

We’ve also seen contract pricing come in much lower than expected the 800 MW Vineyard Wind project in Massachusetts came in at a levelized $84/MWh, and in Rhode Island, Orsted signed a 20-year contract with National Grid at $98/MWh from its 400 MW Revolution Wind project.

In Europe we’ve seen zero-subsidy and near zero-subsidy bids for offshore wind in Germany and the Netherlands.

And this summer, General Electric will be installing the world’s largest turbine – the Haliade-X 12-MW prototype turbine – in the Netherlands! Larger turbines continue to reduce the cost of offshore wind.

The Skimmer: And have you seen any developments in the past few years that have increased or decreased the potential environmental impact of offshore wind farms?

Stori: Bigger turbines and larger capacity factors could result in fewer turbines in the water, which would reduce drilling and other impacts on ocean wildlife such as whales.

It remains to be seen what impact floating offshore wind turbines will have on wildlife. Floating foundations are generally considered to have less environmental impact than fixed-bottom foundations because there is less seabed drilling and activity during installation. There are three main floating wind foundation types and three common mooring systems, all which minimally disrupt the seabed. The impacts of a network of mooring lines on wildlife remain to be seen.

Likewise, I’m not sure that there has been a full environmental comparison of shared offshore transmission networks versus project-by-project transmission routes, and this would be helpful for assessing impacts.


Image: Offshore wind turbines at Barrow Offshore Wind off Walney Island in the Irish Sea (2012). Image obtained via Wikimedia Commons

By Alf Håkon Hoel

Editor’s note: Alf Håkon Hoel is a professor at UiT – the Arctic University of Norway. He can be contacted at alf.hakon.hoel [at]

A valuable development in international oceans governance is the growing importance of regional cooperation. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are currently about 60 international organizations that deal with regional oceans governance. The increase in the number of these organizations is partly driven by the regional nature of many of the challenges confronting the oceans, as is the case for the Arctic. Other important drivers are the provisions on regional cooperation in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement.

The organizations identified by the FAO are a diverse group. Some, such as the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), deal with science; others such as the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) deal with fisheries management; while others such as the North Atlantic marine environment organization OSPAR deal with the marine environment.

Regional cooperation in fisheries

In fisheries there are currently about 20 regional bodies with mandates to establish legally binding management measures. Roughly 140 states are members of one or more of these bodies. Two major developments relevant to regional cooperation in fisheries have taken place over the past two decades, namely:

  • New bodies have been established for areas where none previously existed.
  • Existing organizations have modernized their statutes according to the standards laid out in the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, including a precautionary approach to management and enhanced cooperation on enforcement of regulations.

Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) fall into one of three categories:

  1. One of the five international tuna organizations established under the Law of the Sea Convention provisions for highly migratory species.
  2. General RFMOs which manage straddling fish stocks that exist both in waters under national jurisdiction and in the high seas beyond the national Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
  3. Specialized organizations addressing specific functions such as science or specific species such as salmon.[1]

How well is regional fisheries management working?

The performance of the RFMOs is mixed and often subject to debate. A number of fisheries managed by RFMOs target stocks that are overexploited, and it could be argued that the regional organizations are not implementing the standards of the UN Fish Stocks Agreement in these cases. It could also be argued, however, that these organizations are no better than their members allow them to be and that criticism should also be addressed to the governments that are resisting adequate management measures and their enforcement.

In recent years the RFMOs have conducted performance reviews yielding recommendations for improvement. These reviews are crucial for strengthening the performance of these organizations and their role in oceans governance overall. Also, the international cooperation within these organizations contributes to a better understanding of the need for sustainable management of resources and mutual understanding of the challenges each country is facing.

The future for regional cooperation

Looking more broadly, it is clear that regional cooperation will be increasingly important in the years ahead, not only for fisheries but for general oceans governance and other topics. This is evident in the Arctic, where a number of new regional agreements have emerged in less than a decade addressing search and rescue, oil spill prevention, international cooperation in science (all negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council), shipping (under the Polar Code of the International Maritime Organization), coast guard cooperation, and fisheries management.

Finally, regional cooperation in oceans governance is now a global issue, particularly in the ongoing negotiations of a UN treaty addressing conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The role of regional bodies is open to discussion, with some actors arguing for more global governance and others favoring regional solutions that build on the existing international framework based on the Law of the Sea Convention.

For us in the High North, the regional model is much to be preferred.

[1] As an example of what regional cooperation looks like for a nation, Norway is party to a number of such RFMOs. In the tuna group, Norway participates in the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the world´s largest regional fisheries organization. In the group of general regional organizations, Norway is party to four: The Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), the Southeast Atlantic Fisheries Organization (SEAFO), and the Commission for the Conservation of the Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). In the third group of specialized organizations, Norway participates in the North Atlantic Marine Mammals Commission (NAMMCO) and the North Atlantic Salmon Organization (NASCO). In addition, Norway is a member of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) which provides scientific advice for management to the coastal states and to regional organizations. Norway is also a signatory to the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean which is not yet in force.