By: Sarah Opfer
Great Lakes Day is this week in Washington, D.C., an annual event when stakeholders from the region come to the nation’s capital to talk about Great Lakes issues and priorities for protecting them. Here at NOAA, we’ve been hard at work developing the first-ever marine debris action plan for the Lakes, so this seems like an appropriate time to talk about how marine debris is impacting these enormous, salt-free natural resources.
The major issues we’ve identified in the Great Lakes are land-based debris (litter), abandoned monofilament fishing line, and sawmill debris from historic sawmills. You also may have heard in the news recently that a study by a team of researchers from 5 Gyres and SUNY Fredonia found high concentrations of microplastics, primarily “microbeads” from cosmetics, in the Great Lakes.
In 2012, volunteers with the Adopt-a-Beach™ program in the Great Lakes collected 42,351 pounds of trash and other debris from the coastal areas they visited. This debris poses very real entanglement or ingestion threats to the seagulls, great blue heron, walleye, and perch that live in and depend on the lakes. The Lakes are also a popular recreation and tourist destination and sustain an approximate $4 billion recreational fishing industry – that means marine debris puts the economy at risk, too.
By definition, the word “marine” refers to the sea, so it’s not surprising that there’s some confusion when we talk about marine debris and the Great Lakes. Let’s clear up this collective “huh?” before we move on:
The legal, written-into-law definition of marine debris is, “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.” So while we know that the Great Lakes are not “marine,” this is the term we operate under. Semantics aside, the debris problem in the Lakes is still very real, and we are working toward solutions every day.
Last month, the NOAA Marine Debris Program wrapped up its final workshop to develop a plan to address litter and other land-based debris, along with partners Alliance for the Great Lakes and Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve. This action-oriented plan brings federal, state, and local stakeholders together under common goals to keep this debris out of the Great Lakes. The plan is still a draft, but we’ll be working hard over the next few months to finalize all the input and get started on the actions.
We’ll be sure to keep you in the loop, but in the meantime, on these Great Lakes Days, recommit to reducing your waste, reusing what you can, and recycling. Keep the Great Lakes clean and healthy.