The True Cost of Marine Litter

When I talk about the cost or impacts of marine debris, very often I focus on the impacts on the ocean and marine animals. This is the bias of a marine biologist. The fact that this material is killing turtles, manatees and birds, is enough to make me angry.  But for many, the simple fact that animals are dying is not enough to change their every day behavior. I get that. I was told that drinking coffee might stunt my growth, and yet I sit here (a proud 5 foot, 1 inch tall) drinking  a second cup of heavenly dark brew.

Beyond an AP class in high school, I have no background in economics. In fact I have a shamefully poor understanding of how the whole money thing works in general, beyond the fact that it drives behavior, and apparently the world.  I endeavored to find out how this might help me in my fight against marine litter. This is what I found.

Marine debris has very serious and expensive implications for the world. Impacts include damages to fish and shellfish, damage to birds, mammals, and sea turtles, damage to public health, damage to beach use, and damage to property value. It turns out that marine litter could cost an economy billions of dollars in lost revenue.  In Miami, these fall into four distinct categories.

Photo Credit:

Tourism: The city of Miami welcomed more than 15 million visitors in 2016. They come to lounge on white sand beaches, snorkel on coral reefs with turtles and manatees, and soak up the sun. Dirty beaches, or even the perception of pollution can seriously damage an areas attractiveness. During a pollution event in New York, an estimated $1,554 million was lost due to decreased beach use, loss of beach fees and a general loss of tourism.  The impact of debris on wildlife could be factored directly into this category. It is difficult to quantify the economic impacts of losing iconic animals such as manatees, turtles, and sharks. Nevertheless, shark diving trips in the Bahamas contribute up to $800 million to the local economy. Loss of these sharks represent a serious threat to the economy (few studies have looked specifically at how sharks are interacting with marine litter. The biggest threat to their survival is fishing and finning). I could not find any literature on the economics of manatee/turtle tourism.

Fishing: The commercial fish landing in Miami-Dade county was over $5 million in 2014. Lost lines, and other marine debris can seriously damage fisheries by ghost fishing. Though the impact of ghost fishing differs widely across fisheries, it can has been observed as high as 30% loss in Greenland halibut, and equating to $744,000 a year in the Dungeness crab fishery in Washington.

Human Health: Along with fisheries impacts, the implication of polluted waters can lead to fears about seafood safety, which can impact seafood restaurants as well as fishermen. A gastroenteritis scare in hard clams in NY (1984), led to a loss of $3.82 million in sales. Quantifying the health impacts directly related to seafood consumption is nearly impossible, but a recent study suggests that the average seafood consumer ingests up to 11,000 pieces of plastic every year, along with the closely associated toxins (like PCBs, PBDEs, PAH’s, etc).

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

Shipping: The port of Miami is the 11th largest cargo port in the United States, and represents $18 billion in the Miami economy. Though I could not find numbers describing the cost locally, in the Asian Pacific, an estimated $279 million of damage are insured by marine debris on the shipping industry.



Read the main paper on economic impact of marine pollution here

Learn more about ghost fishing here

Read the APEC report on the impacts on shipping here

More about sharks here



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