“Our oceans are our lifeblood,” U.S. Sen Dan. Sullivan, R-Alaska, wrote in a recent My Turn. “It’s imperative that they remain sustainable.”
I felt a surge of hope after reading that statement in the opinion piece he authored last weekend. Unfortunately, the Save Our Seas Act (SOS) he was boasting about is a nothing burger.
The SOS was definitely not a controversial bill. The unanimous support it had in the Senate tells us that.
If there was bipartisan agreement that immediate action was necessary, the House would have passed the SOS last summer, too. But no action has been taken on it or the almost identical bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.
The SOS isn’t really an act at all. It’s the reauthorization, with minor amendments, of law signed by President George W. Bush in 2006. It established the Marine Debris Program (MDP) “to identify, determine sources of, assess, prevent, reduce, and remove marine debris and address the adverse impacts of marine debris on the economy of the United States, the marine environment, and navigation safety.”
Furthermore, Sullivan’s “particularly plastics” emphasis is very misleading. The word isn’t even in the SOS. And while the original law references plastics, it’s by way of reinforcing MARPOL — the 1978 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships — and the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act of 1987.
However, neither of those have been very effective at controlling the problem. According to a 2015 study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, between 4.8 and 12 metric tons of plastic gets dumped in our oceans every year. It doesn’t form an “island or blanket of trash that can be seen with satellite or aerial photographs,” writes Maggy Hunter Benson of the Smithsonian. Most is “so small as to be invisible to the human eye.”
Indeed, so small that it’s easily consumed by some shellfish. In a United Kingdom research project, scientists dissected mussels found on the coast and in grocery stores. In 100 percent of them they found microplastics or other microscopic debris.
Nothing in the SOS is going to solve that problem. Nor does it allocate funds for determining the amount of microplastics off Alaska’s shores. For all we know, we just might be eating fragments of our own trash in every meal of locally harvested clams, scallops and oysters.
The SOS won’t save our seas by ignoring ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels isn’t just warming the planet. The quarter of it that dissolves in the oceans is lowering its pH level. Small numerical changes on that logarithmic scale are significant. Scientific evidence shows the skeletal structure of coral reefs, an essential component of the food chain, is at risk. And the shells of marine molluscs will more rapidly dissolve.
In terms of mercury, the fish caught in Alaskan waters is among the safest to eat. But that may change if we don’t strengthen regulations for coal-fired power plants. They spew more mercury into the air, and ultimately the oceans, than any other industry. Yet Sullivan’s way of saving our seas was to oppose President Obama’s initiative to limit their emissions.
And now there’s evidence from laboratory tests of a possible link between the rising mercury levels in fish and climate change. Like these other threats to our oceans, the SOS is silent on that, even though it may disrupt fishery migrations around the world and inundate coastal wetlands.
You’ll find almost nothing about climate change on Sullivan’s official website. And although he once voted for an amendment declaring “the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax,” he voted against another one acknowledging human activity contributes to it during debate on the same bill.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, supported both. The first passed 98-1. “Nobody ever said voting should be easy here in the United States Senate,” she said after the second failed by one vote.
Unless, of course, they all agree. Then there’s little debate, no jockeying for position, and no political capital to expend on tradeoffs and compromises.
That’s what happened with the SOS. Reauthorizing a 12-year-old law was easy. If Sullivan deserves credit, it’s for being the champion of a bill that didn’t need one.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a regular “My Turn” to the Juneau Empire. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.