Coming together to clean up our oceans

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The Gulf of Alaska. ©Hastings A Franks/

Editors’ note: In October, US President Donald Trump signed into law the Save Our Seas (SOS) Act of 2018. This law, authored by Senators Dan Sullivan and Sheldon Whitehouse, passed Congress with strong bipartisan support and seeks to address dumping of trash and debris in the oceans and the Great Lakes. It also extends the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program through 2022 and authorizes NOAA to declare “severe marine debris events.” Senators Sullivan and Whitehouse co-authored this blog for UNDP in honor of World Oceans Day. 8 June.

Washington — Every day, in nearly every news outlet across the country, headlines feature the things on which we, in the US Congress, disagree. It’s true that we represent a big and diverse country, where rigorous debate is common and healthy. But those headlines don’t tell the whole story. There are many times when we have come together. For instance, how we — a Republican from Alaska and a Democrat from Rhode Island — have worked to rid our oceans of marine debris is a great example of how we have put aside politics and addressed a critical environmental issue.

Ocean debris hits Alaska particularly hard. Alaska has more coastline than the entire lower 48 states combined, and its fisheries — among the best-managed in the world — are vital to the state and to our country. Massive amounts of marine debris washing up on our shores threaten not only fisheries in Alaska, but the health of oceans and communities across the country, including Rhode Island.

That’s why we, as members of the Senate Commerce and Environment and Public Works committees, banded together. While serving as Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife, we held a bipartisan hearing on marine debris. We introduced the Save Our Seas (SOS) Act shortly after the hearing.

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Massive amounts of marine debris washing up on our shores threaten not only fisheries in Alaska, but the health of oceans and communities across the country, including Rhode Island. ©Ano Kato/

SOS gives NOAA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the tools to assist in marine debris clean-up, response and research, and encourages the administration to engage in negotiations with nations responsible for depositing the vast majority of debris into the oceans. We’re happy to say that SOS is now law and already, the newly negotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which is replacing NAFTA, has a provision in it dealing with marine debris.

Along the way, we have developed a strong friendship. It might seem like an odd pairing — one of us is a conservative, one a progressive Democrat. Rhode Island is the smallest state in the country. Alaska is the largest, a fact that we rib each other over continually.

But we do share a passion on an environmental issue that is threatening our oceans, and one we know we can solve.

We know where the majority of the waste comes from China, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Importantly, we also have tremendous momentum with all key stakeholders: the executive branch, Congress, the environmental community, and industry groups all pulling on the same oar. In fact, a newly formed consortium of major international companies, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, recently committed US$1.5 billion to help address the global marine debris crisis.

We are far from done. We’re currently working on SOS 2.0, which will provide more resources to fixing this problem, but also provide incentives to the private sector to come up with innovative solutions to combat marine debris.

So stay tuned for more on that. Working together, we will clean up our oceans and save our seas. We have momentum. We have passion. And we know it’s the right thing to do.

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Rocky Beavertail, Jamestown, Rhode Island ©Patrick Ruff

Senator Dan Sullivan is a first-term Republican Senator from Alaska. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a third-term Democratic Senator from Rhode Island.

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