Marine Debris:

Interagency Committee Members Are Taking Action, but Additional Steps Could Enhance the Federal Response

GAO-19-653: Published: Sep 25, 2019. Publicly Released: Sep 25, 2019.

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Debris in the ocean—such as plastic bottles and abandoned fishing gear—is a global economic and environmental problem. Multiple U.S. federal agencies work together on the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee to address this issue.

The committee shares information on members’ activities such as education and cleanup efforts. Although it’s required to report on the activities’ effectiveness and recommend funding priorities, it does not.

We made 4 recommendations, including that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the committee chair, begin analyzing activity effectiveness and recommending funding priorities.

Beach debris

Beach debris

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Anne-Marie Fennell
(202) 512-3841
fennella@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act, as amended, (Marine Debris Act) designated six agencies as members of the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee and specifies that members shall include senior officials from certain other agencies as the Secretary of Commerce determines appropriate. Within Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) serves as the committee chair. The committee coordinates through sharing information about members' activities to address marine debris, but GAO found that NOAA has not established a process for determining committee membership for agencies not specifically designated in the act. As a result, such agencies may not be included in the biennial reports required by the act which discuss committee members' marine debris activities. NOAA officials said they plan to develop a membership process but have not established a time frame to do so. By establishing a time frame, the committee can more fully benefit from capturing all members' activities.

The committee's biennial reports provide information on members' activities such as education and cleanup, but they do not contain some information required by the Marine Debris Act. Specifically, the reports do not include (1) an analysis of the effectiveness of the committee's recommendations and strategies to address marine debris and (2) recommendations for priority funding needs. Our past work has shown that collaborative entities can better demonstrate progress if they develop a way to monitor and report the results of their collective efforts and identify and leverage resources. By doing so, the committee would be in a better position to know the extent to which it is effectively addressing marine debris and provide Congress with required information about priority funding needs.

Marine debris washed ashore on a beach

Marine debris washed ashore on a beach

Experts suggested a range of actions—from research to cleanup—the federal government could take to most effectively address marine debris. They stressed that there is not one solution to the growing problem (see figure). Committee officials noted factors to consider, such as cost, when evaluating these actions.

Why GAO Did This Study

Marine debris—waste such as discarded plastic and abandoned fishing gear and vessels in the ocean—is a global problem that poses economic and environmental challenges. The Marine Debris Act, enacted in 2006, requires the committee to coordinate a program of marine debris research and activities among federal agencies. The act also requires the committee to submit biennial reports to Congress that include certain elements such as an analysis of the effectiveness of the committee's recommendations.

GAO was asked to review federal efforts to address marine debris. This report examines (1) how the committee coordinates among federal agencies and the process for determining membership, (2) the extent to which the committee's biennial reports contain required elements, and (3) experts' suggestions on actions the federal government could take to most effectively address marine debris. GAO examined the Marine Debris Act and committee reports, compared committee practices with leading collaboration practices, interviewed federal agency officials, and interviewed a nongeneralizable sample of 14 marine debris experts selected to reflect various sectors and experiences with different types of marine debris.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations, including that NOAA establish a time frame for documenting membership and the committee develop processes to analyze the effectiveness of its efforts and identify priority funding. The agency agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Anne-Marie Fennell at (202) 512-3841 or fennella@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2020, NOAA stated that its Administrator, in consultation with interagency committee member agencies, will determine criteria and other factors for evaluating federal agency interest and will formalize and document the interagency committee's membership process. NOAA anticipates documenting the process in the committee's charter by August 31, 2020.

    Recommendation: The NOAA Administrator, in coordination with interagency committee member agencies, should establish a time frame for documenting the committee's membership process. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2020, NOAA stated that the agency, in coordination with interagency committee member agencies, will define the term "senior official" so that it can be consistently applied across all member agencies. NOAA stated it will consider seniority requirements of similar advisory committees and the ability to make decisions on behalf of an agency, among other factors, when developing the definition. NOAA plans to include the definition in the committee's charter by August 31, 2020.

    Recommendation: The NOAA Administrator, in coordination with interagency committee member agencies, should clarify what is meant by "senior official" in the Marine Debris Act, such as through revisions to its charter. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2020, NOAA stated the agency will work with interagency committee member agencies to review and update the committee's recommendations. As part of this process, the committee will develop metrics to analyze the effectiveness of the committee's recommendations and strategies. NOAA stated that the recommendations and assessment of effectiveness will be included in the committee's 2018-2019 biennial report, which NOAA expects to publish by December 31, 2020.

    Recommendation: The chair of the interagency committee, in coordination with member agencies, should develop and implement a process to analyze the effectiveness of the interagency committee's recommendations and strategies, and include the results in its biennial reports. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2020, NOAA stated that it will, in coordination with interagency committee member agencies, develop a process to identify priority funding needs which can be reflected in each agency's respective budgeting process and shared in the committee's biennial reports. NOAA expects to publish the committee's 2018-2019 biennial report by December 31, 2020.

    Recommendation: The chair of the interagency committee, in coordination with member agencies, should develop a process to identify recommendations for priority funding needs to address marine debris, and include such recommendations in its biennial reports. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee

 

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