Plastic bag on the bottom of the ocean. Photo from NOAA library

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You may not yet have heard the term “blue economy,” but you probably will soon enough.

“Blue economy” refers not to a dismal recession period, nor a Democratic Party view that contrasts with the Republicans.

Although definitions vary, the one by the World Bank defines it as the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem.”

This concept highlights the importance of the marine industry to local and international economies and societies’ productive sectors, which are crucial for a continent’s sustainable development. These sectors include fisheries, aquaculture, transport, energy, trade and tourism as well as extractive industries.

With better stewardship healthy oceans create jobs and have an overall positive psychological effect that encourages people to enjoy them.  By contrast, a bad blue economy can be costly to many businesses.

Poor water quality and trash in the waters and on the beaches quash a tourist-based community. Likewise, fish kills for both commercial and recreational fishing industries.

Perhaps the greatest threat to a healthy blue economy is plastics. Trash-strewn on beaches and in coastal waters may prevent visitors from returning. But more importantly, marine plastic pollution is having a devastating impact on the ocean’s ecosystem.

Necropsies of whales washed onto beaches have often revealed their stomachs were filled with plastic. Likewise, sea turtles have been greatly harmed after swallowing a plastic six-pack holder thinking it was a jellyfish. One estimate showed 90 percent of seabirds have some level of plastic in their bodies. Fish are also affected as many studies have found elements of plastic in their systems.

Plastic is ubiquitous because it is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, strong and inexpensive. However, it very slow to degrade and is a major component of litter.

Globally, one estimate is up to 12.7 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year.

We all need to help stem the tide. Fortunately, many businesses, including some on Ocracoke, have turned to alternative biodegradable packaging. Restaurants are likewise offering nonplastic straws or asking their diners whether they want a straw rather than simply assuming diners want them. People are recycling–an important, but challenging topic for another commentary.

One-way visitors and residents of the Outer Banks can help is, first: never litter. And, second, if you find a bottle or other items pick them up and dispose of them properly.

Plastic found in the middle of dunes probably got there from overwash of a major storm.  The next major storm may very well take it back to sea.

Back in 1953, a consortium of American businesses founded the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, which exponentially expanded in the 1960s. Advocates included First Lady Ladybird Johnson, wife of president Lyndon B. Johnson.

The campaign and its slogan “Don’t be a litterbug” succeeded in changing people’s mentality of just tossing trash from car windows. Even though roadside litter remains a problem, it is much better these days.

There is much more to cover regarding our marine/coastal plastic crisis, but every individual’s effort not be a litterbug both on land and at sea and reduce, will improve our blue economy.

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