A recent study from the University of California, San Diego, found that tens of thousands of tons of debris are ingested annually by fish in the Pacific Ocean. In this week's Sustainability Roundtable, we asked our experts how Asia and the United States can cooperate to tackle the problem of pollution in the Pacific Ocean. Is there a chance for collaboration on cleaning and waste management efforts?
Dr. Saleem H. Ali is professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and the director of the Institute of Environmental Diplomacy and Security. He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.
Despite the ostensible prevalence of a "law of the sea," the oceans of the world remain relatively lawless when it comes to issues of pollution enforcement. While there are international agreements on transportation of hazardous waste (such as the Basel Convention), and also the London Convention on the Prevention of marine Pollution (LC-72), enforcement resources are absent.
The good news is that LC-72 includes as members the United States and China — two of the major Pacific powers that have maximum commerce across the ocean. Yet, both countries need to show a clear commitment to implement provisions of the convention. The 1996 protocol accompanying the convention has some good provisions and follows the precautionary principle which is rare for international agreements. For example, there is a "reverse list" approach that suggests that any disposal is prohibited except for some exceptions listed in an Annex of the protocol. This is the opposite of the usual approach whereby prohibited wastes are listed and all else is allowed.
It is high time we get more Pacific rim countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia to also sign on to this convention and strengthen its enforcement — perhaps through a "Pacific Pollution Patrol." Satellite technology can be used to assist in targeting violators. Each vessel that is licensed to sail across the Pacific should also have a penalty system for crew who throw wastes overboard. This could be enforced by having an inventory of plastics and other materials brought on board and tallying them with recycled waste weight upon reaching destination.
The findings of the USD study suggest that we can no longer wait for the problem to be solved by voluntary compliance and education. Some more stringent action is needed before irreversible damage is done to the world's fisheries that are also an increasingly important economic and food resource.