By: Dr. Holly A. Bamford Ph.D., current Acting Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Management with NOAA and original NOAA Marine Debris Program Director
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the NOAA Marine Debris Program. We are proud of our accomplishments and looking forward to the next ten years! Stay tuned this week and throughout the year as we look back on the beginnings of our program.
It’s hard to believe that it has been ten years since the passing of the Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act (renamed “The Marine Debris Act” in 2012), which effectively authorized the creation of the NOAA Marine Debris Program. In truth, the fight against marine debris started long before that.
The issue first came to public attention back in the late 1970s, when environmentalists expressed concern about the marine litter washing up on beaches. The most notable outreach campaign at the time was the cutting of 6-pack rings so marine life would not get entangled. However, it was not until the 1980s, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, that the federal government took a coordinated approach to addressing marine debris. Needles and other medical waste had begun to wash ashore on beaches in New Jersey and New York and people were afraid. As New Jersey beachgoers skipped their usual trips to the shore, northeast state governments and agencies were concerned not just about the obvious health risks, but also about the sharp drop in tourism income. The issue was of such concern that President Reagan created an interagency task force to review the problem. NOAA chaired the task force made up of 13 federal departments and agencies. Soon after, NOAA put aside one million dollars to fund a basic program focused on the marine debris issue, to be run by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Over time, that program’s funding started to decline as resources were needed to address other critical fisheries management issues.
Although the marine debris problem continued to stay in the public’s mind, the urgency died down and funding for marine debris efforts began to drop. However, in 2005, fueled in part by the heightening debris issue in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Senators Inouye (Hawaii) and Stevens (Alaska) introduced legislation for the Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act, as well as a five million dollar Congressional earmark (a provision at the time that directed approved funds to specific projects) for marine debris efforts. The funding passed and went to support a new program in the NOAA National Ocean Service: the NOAA Marine Debris Program.
Although the NOAA Marine Debris Program was not an official program yet, we chose to treat it as such. I was brought on board to act as the director of this group on a short-term basis. Five other team members, Nir Barnea, Sarah Morrison, Kris McElwee, Donna Lawson, and Kevin Kirsch, were the first to join me. There was a lot of uncertainty at that time; all we had was a concept—an earmark and draft legislation—with no guarantee for the future. However, we all felt that this was an opportunity for NOAA to build a program that made a difference in an important issue.
Starting out, my goals were first to get the program authorized, given steady appropriations, and then made into a division to be fully integrated into the NOAA network. Efforts in the early days were focused on accomplishing these goals by working to fully understand the issues, establish partnerships, build a vision for the program, and conduct outreach that would allow that vision and the marine debris issue to be heard. Acting as a program before we were even authorized allowed Congress to see the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s true potential. Due in a large part to advocating for our cause, the Marine Debris Act was signed in 2006, and the accomplishment of our other goals soon followed.
Although I was originally brought on for a four-month appointment, I was with the Marine Debris Program for over four years. As the program’s first director, and then from other positions within NOAA, I have enjoyed seeing it grow throughout the years, both in size and strength. So much dedication and passion has been put into the program and I am proud to have been a part of starting it. I look forward to seeing all that the Marine Debris Program can accomplish over the next ten years.