NEWPORT, R.I. — The anglers in the room know the situation — the line tightens and, for a split second, you think you’ve got a fish on.
But you instantly realize it’s some inanimate object. Chances are, it’s a piece of plastic. The garbage, referred to as “leakage,” is a growing problem in the ocean, according to sailors who travel the world’s most obscure waterways.
For every three tons of fish in the ocean, there will be a ton of plastic within a decade if the current trajectory continues, advocates say.
As a result, sailors in what many call the world’s most grueling race, the Volvo Ocean Race, are coming to port stops with a plea to clean up the oceans. The Volvo Ocean Race Ocean Summit is part of an initiative to prompt individuals to act with legislators and the private and nonprofit sectors to effect change.
Speakers in Newport on Friday ranged from Rhode Island political leaders such as Republican U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo to Lisa Emelia Svensson, Swedon’s ambassador for ocean, seas and freshwater, and Henry Stenson, executive vice president of corporate communication and sustainability for the Volvo Penta Group.
Rhode Island native and Team Alvimedica skipper Charlie Enright and Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad showed a video that Volvo Ocean Race sailors made and spoke to the growing amount of trash they’ve encountered in their races around the globe — both near land and in the most remote parts of the ocean.
“The route of this race has changed for lot of different reasons. That gives us an opportunity to see a lot more of this debris,” Frostad told a room of about 250 legislators, dignitaries, media and advocates at the Volvo Pavilion at Fort Adams State Park on Friday.
“I think the most surprising thing for me is the amount of debris we’ve seen so far from land,” team SCA crewmember Annie Lush says in the video.
Dee Caffari, a sailor with the all-female SCA Volvo Ocean Race team, said the amount of waste she has seen increase in her “playground” is saddening.
“The Malacca Strait is filled with polystyrene,” Caffari said. “Every flat-screen TV looked like it had been unpacked in the Strait.”
It was there that one sailor marveled at a seal playing nearby. When the crew took a closer look through binoculars, “the sad thing was that the seal there was playing with a plastic bag,” Caffari said.
In 2010, 8 million metric tons of plastic went into the ocean, said Sandra Whitehouse, senior policy adviser to the Ocean Conservancy.
The Malacca Strait is an area of particular concern because rapidly developing nations — namely China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, which account for 57 percent of the ocean’s plastic input — have not implemented management systems to keep pace with the growing amount of waste.
“Sometimes we think less-developed countries don’t care, but they do care,” Frostad said. “They just don’t have the means to do it.”
“There are no single solutions. We have to tailor solutions for individual countries,” Whitehouse said. “If we’re going to avoid this doubling of plastic in the next 10 years, we’re going to need to drive down this curve.”
United Nations Ambassador Eden Charles, of Trinidad and Tobago, was so moved by the presentation that he invited Enright and Frostad to address a U.N. convention later this year on the growing problem of trash in the oceans.
“Our hope is that as the Volvo Ocean Race goes from port to port, the level of enthusiasm and engagement generated for the race itself can be turned into change, and into action to solving these problems,” said keynote speaker Catherine Novelli, undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment for the U.S. State Department.
“I’m a passionate advocate for the ocean,” Novelli said. “It’s not unfair to say we depend on the ocean for our very existence, and you all know that more than anyone. It generates half the oxygen we breathe. It’s a source of inspiration, beauty and recreation. Humanity is connected to the ocean. The human body itself is over half water. Our fate is inextricably tied to the ocean’s fate.”
“We’ve very privileged to do what we do, sail around the world for a living,” Enright said Friday. “Just like people are part of the problem, we need to be part of the solution.”
Volvo Penta sponsored Trade Only Today to cover the Newport stopover.