Letter to the Editor
05 January 2014 | Majuro
"It's Our Culture"
The fishing fleet anchored in Majuro lagoon suggests that the tuna fishing industry is a significant part of the RMI economy. Foreign vessels travel far to share and pay taxes on this bounty. If the tuna fishing industry is so important, why is there such blatant disrespect for the environment that tuna and other commercial species depend upon? Why is there such blatant disregard for the rubbish policies put into place by the local governments of small island nations like Kiribati and the Marshall Islands? When I asked an I-Kiribati man about it recently, he said simply: "it's our culture." Traveling around the south pacific for two years now, I have seen and understood how dropping a fruit peeling, coconut husk, fish offal, etc. does no harm to the environment. To the contrary; it feeds the hermit crabs, returns some of the nutrients to the soil, etc. This method of waste management has worked for eons. But it does not transfer to modern materials. Simply dropping your pop can, plastic beverage or fast food container does not provide nutrients to the soil, plants or animals on the atoll. Instead, this garbage is washed or blown into the sea. From there, the high tide floats it all away and you don't have to think about it again. Or do you?
In the middle of the North Pacific lies a gigantic swirling mass of plastic trash. Twice the size of Texas, this floating gyre contains billions of pieces of man-made plastic waste - a hundred million pounds of human negligence. Discarded plastic containers do not biodegrade, but instead slowly break into smaller and smaller pieces. These particles often closely resemble fish eggs and are mistakenly eaten by sea life. The result: seabirds and especially small fish--those at the base of the ocean food chain - die of starvation. When the baitfishes are no longer present, the ocean cannot support the predators that we humans so like to eat - predators such as tuna.
From the mooring field, I have recently been utterly appalled at what the tide has swept by. In addition to the multitude of plastic containers, Styrofoam cups and food containers float merrily by. There are soiled baby diapers and whole stuffed trash bags. Ironically, the source appears to be right next to the police station and directly behind an official RMI government office building. When I asked two Marshall Island Police Officers at the Criminal Investigation Division if dumping trash in the lagoon was legal, they replied: "It is illegal, but people don't obey the rules...you might want to talk to those EPA guys." Inquiring further about the refuse options available in Majuro, I learned that refuse bins and weekly collection are provided free of charge. Why then would anyone elect to opt out of that program and chose to illegally dump their trash into the lagoon?
Enquiring about the prolific use of Styrofoam containers here, I learned that there are laws on the books that ban their use in the Marshall Islands. PCB-laced Styrofoam has long been identified as a major threat to any ecosystem and is banned for use in many places. In the 1970's, even McDonalds stopped using Styrofoam containers and went back to paper. The streets of Majuro are lined with Styrofoam "clamshells" and cups. They simply blow into the lagoon and sail away. If the EPA has banned the use of Styrofoam in the Marshall Islands, why do all the major grocery stores continue to stock it on their shelves? A quick look around revealed that Payless, Formosa, Cost U Less and Island Pride (K and K) all stock Styrofoam containers in bulk. EZ Price was the only major store I found that has elected to obey the rule and be more environmentally responsible. Why is it acceptable for these businesses to blatantly ignore the law when there are environmentally friendly alternatives such as recycled cardboard or paper?
During a recent visit to Enemanet, we stopped at one of the small islets to look for shells on the ocean side. Just above the high tide line was the plastic dump I've learned to expect. Not from local villagers, but blown there directly from town by the wind. The thousands of discarded containers we found on this small islet likely represent just a snapshot of every beach or islet downwind of Majuro and beyond.
By leaving trash for the tide to take away, you are breaking the law, but you are also literally dumping your trash onto the front yard of another Marshallese property owner. Those containers that do make it out of the lagoon will continue to float until they either wash up on the beaches of another island nation downwind of the Marshalls, or eventually join the north pacific gyre. If we are going to pass laws, then laws should have some teeth and be enforced with stiff fines. If someone files a complaint with the local police or EPA, that complaint should be investigated. Only then will laws achieve their objective.
We can no longer behave as if we live on an isolated island in the middle of nowhere and forget about the rest of the world. For is it not true that we all live on this blue planet together? The consequences of our actions not only affect the ecosystems that we depend on to survive, but our neighbors both near and far. If we expect to have any kind of future for the tuna fishing industry, or future at all, we have to stop using the ocean as a landfill. The two uses are incompatible. Educators, teach the children. Church leaders, lead your congregations. Community leaders, lead by example. It's time for this "culture" to change.