Cleaning Up the Ocean Requires Better Interagency Cooperation

You may have noticed the recent diminishing availability of plastic straws in your favorite restaurants and supermarkets. An increasing number of state and local governments are replacing plastic straws with paper straws or other non-plastic alternatives, such as steel, in order to extend the straw’s lifetime beyond a single use. You may have also noticed more photos of sea life caught in marine debris showing up online and in advertisements. These actions reflect the recent public interest in marine debris (primarily plastics) and its growing effects on our oceans and marine life.

The marine debris issue is extremely complex because it is a global problem “originating from multiple sources and types of materials, entering the marine environment in a variety of ways,” making no one solution viable. However, simply banning plastic straws and posting pictures of vulnerable sea life will not clean up our oceans overnight. In order to create successful solutions, the public and Congress need to understand the basics of marine science, the truth about the costs of cleaning up marine debris, and be informed of any current activities stakeholders are undertaking to combat the problem.

Who is Responsible for Addressing the Marine Debris Problem?

One such group is the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee (IMDCC), the multi-agency body in charge of information-sharing and assessment of the federal government’s activities in resolving marine debris issues. Established in 2006 by the  Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act (Marine Debris Act), the IMDCC and its members meet quarterly to coordinate marine debris activities and “make recommendations for research priorities, monitoring techniques, educational programs, and regulatory action,” which are then compiled into biennial reports to Congress. The IMDCC includes federal entities, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy and the environmental and ocean divisions of the Departments of Justice (DOJ), Interior (DOI), and State (DOS).

As is common for interagency groups, the IMDCC is not always held accountable for performing the duties required under the Marine Debris Act. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in September 2019 analyzing IMDCC’s activities and made four major recommendations. Most relevant are the recommendations to establish metrics for analyzing “the effectiveness of the committee’s recommendations” and strategies to assess “priority funding needs.” Although there are many stakeholders ‑‑ including federal agencies, state/local governments, international parties, and nongovernmental agencies‑‑ GAO’s past work suggests that interagency groups that establish monitoring and reporting mechanisms and share resources are more likely to accurately present a comprehensive picture of their achievements.

More specifically, GAO found that (1) the IMDCC reports did not include all of the required elements mandated under the Marine Debris Act, (2) the committee chair failed to provide a membership process for appointing members not listed in the Marine Debris Act (but who are relevant in the space), and (3) the committee fell short of full coordination (acting instead merely for information-sharing). Further, because the reports lacked the requisite information, not all relevant entities were accounted for, and IMDCC reports were not comprehensive of all the activities being conducted to combat marine debris issues. In turn, Congress was left without the tools needed to make informed decisions.

Accountability Across Interagency Groups

The issues the IMDCC faces are not unique. Other interagency groups have comparable struggles, and GAO provided them with similar recommendations in a 2014 report, which included establishing clear project time frames and procedures for assessing priority funding and routinely measuring their activities’ effectiveness. As with the case of marine debris and the IMDCC, interagency groups need to leverage relevant resources, create mechanisms for assessing activities and reporting achievements, and make information sources and metrics mechanisms transparent to the federal government in order to fulfill their respective purposes. Support from agency leaders is also essential to furthering the activities of any interagency group — a consistent theme of promoting accountability within the federal government. Further, the alternative of less oversight and accountability is not acceptable, as it impedes agency progress, the efficient use of resources, and compliance with congressional intent.