Washington — Researchers say headlines like a whale dying from eating plastic bags or a viral video of a straw up a turtle's nose are galvanizing public attention on health of the oceans.
Advocates for cleaner oceans believe public concern is at an all-time high, with worries about plastics pollution as the driving force.
At least that was the view from a June 6 Washington forum marking U.S.-European scientific cooperation on oceans.
"The one issue that has grabbed every citizen around the globe's attention is plastics," said Peter Heffernan, CEO of Marine Institute Ireland. "It's been the magic moment."
Scientists and others at the event reviewed scientific concerns about plastics waste, from trash washing up on shores around the world to newer worries like how plastic is now being found in the food chain, from plankton on up to birds and fish.
Since plastics grab the public mind more forcefully than other environmental problems, like ocean dead zones, they talked about tapping into that concern to advance a whole range of marine issues.
"Ocean plastics provides us an opportunity... to advance all of ocean science," said Jon White, president and CEO of the Washington-based Consortium for Ocean Leadership.
A Smithsonian Institution scientist sees intense interest in problems from ocean plastics.
"I think plastics are one of the few things that happen to the ocean that are not out of sight, out of mind," said Nancy Knowlton, the institution's Sant Chair for Marine Science. "My sense is we are at a tipping point with plastic pollution."
The forum was organized to recognize the fifth anniversary of the Galway Statement, a 2013 European Union-United States-Canada agreement on furthering Atlantic Ocean research.
While the discussions included a wide range of issues, worries about plastics pollution featured prominently. Scientists and government officials like the EU ambassador to the United States and an assistant U.S. secretary of state talked about the research and policy agenda.