Oceans hit the headlines

Karen Varndell 2008/Marine Photobank

Karen Varndell 2008/Marine Photobank

June has been declared the ‘Month of the Ocean’ by the media after a number of key events in marine conservation have taken place in the last few weeks.

8 June: World Oceans Day
16–19 June: New York, the United Nations held a meeting on its work to fulfil the RIO+20 commitment on the high seas
16–17 June: United States Secretary of State John Kerry hosted Our Oceans 2014 a two-day conference in Washington
23 June: United Nations Environment Assembly issued two reports on widespread plastic waste threatening marine life
24 June: The Global Ocean Commission launched its research findings with a proposal for action

Last Monday the United Nations Environment Programme, as well as the NGOs Global Ocean Commission and Plastic Disclosure Project, released reports on marine debris and its environmental impact on marine life.

Plastic waste in oceans is causing $13 billion of damage each year, according to the UNEP report, and that figure could be much higher. Worldwide plastic production is projected to reach 33 billion tons by 2050, and plastic makes up 80% of litter on oceans and shorelines. "Plastics undoubtedly play a crucial role in modern life, but the environmental impacts of the way we use them cannot be ignored," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a press release.

Ten to 20 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year from litter, runoff from poorly managed landfills, and other sources. Once it's in the water, plastic does not degrade but instead breaks into smaller pieces and swirls in massive ocean gyres, creating soupy surfaces peppered with the material.

Scientists are especially worried about the growing prevalence of tiny microplastics which are smaller than 5 millimeters. These include microbeads, which are used in toothpaste, gels, facial cleansers and other consumer goods. Microplastics aren't filtered by sewage treatment plants, and can be ingested by marine animals with deadly effect.

Recommendations contained in these reports include that companies monitor their plastic use and publish the results in annual reports; and commit to reducing the environmental impact of plastic through clear targets, deadlines and efficiency and recycling innovations.

It has been quite a month…and it would be good to think that 2014 will be declared the ‘Year of the Ocean’.