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La Jolla native launches OpenOceans app to provide mapping tool for plastic pollution

A screenshot from the OpenOceans Global plastic pollution map shows Imperial Beach.
(Courtesy of OpenOceans Global)

After a childhood in La Jolla and an education at La Jolla High School that left him with an appreciation for the ocean, self-described “ocean guy” Carl Nettleton has spent most of his adult life working to protect it.

Most recently, his nonprofit OpenOceans Global launched an app July 10 that enables users to report accumulations of plastic debris on beaches and get that information to organizations that are working to address the problem.

Users of OpenOceans’ online map and survey (openoceans.org/trash-survey) can mark the location of a plastic-fouled beach, upload an image and provide additional information about that section of coastline. If known, users can provide the source of the plastic and what is being done to mitigate the problem.

“I grew up in La Jolla and the ocean has always been part of my life,” said Nettleton, who now lives in University City. While he wanted to do his part to help stop ocean pollution, Nettleton said he recognized how daunting a task that can be.

“I launched OpenOceans Global in 2007, but we soon saw how big the problem was, so we refined our mission down to focusing on ocean macro-plastics because it is something visible and tangible,” he said. “We’re trying to map the beaches of the world fouled by ocean plastic and link that with people that can do something about it.”

To get there, Nettleton drew on his experiences to find the perfect vehicle.

As president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation-Pacific Region and executive director of the San Diego Oceans Foundation in the 1980s and ‘90s, he created coalitions among industry representatives, government agencies, educational institutions and political leaders to work on solutions to ocean issues.

He later moved on to a job with the city of San Diego, where he helped map construction projects and collected input from affected parties.

“We created and used a GIS [geographic information system] map for people with different interests to provide information,” he said. “We built a community by sharing information, and I thought if I could replicate that process in the ocean world, I could do something important.”

La Jolla native Carl Nettleton is the founder of OpenOceans Global.
(Courtesy of Carl Nettleton)

The result is the OpenOceans Global app, which is accessed through the organization’s website rather than as a downloadable application.

“We hope to create an ocean plastic [advocacy] community,” Nettleton said. “The challenge is that ongoing efforts to reduce plastic in the ocean … are going to take a long time. There are upstream solutions, which is a reduction in the amount of plastic produced along with a reduction in consumer use of plastic, particularly single-use plastic.

“The second strategy involves downstream solutions, which include recycling, reusing plastic and developing a circular plastic economy. A global effort headed by the United Nations Environment Programme also seeks to develop an international plastic treaty within the next two years.

“We don’t believe the solutions being acted on now is enough to stem the flow of plastic. We need to look at where the most plastic is coming in and stop it, while those efforts are being implemented. … That will get us where we want to be.”

He said extra emphasis was placed on uploading photos and mapping locations because “the public and decision makers don’t understand how bad the problem is” and often see it as an issue elsewhere. “They have to see it first, so that’s why we have the map.”

In Southern California, the map — viewable at openoceans.org/plastic-trash — lists Imperial Beach in San Diego County and Seal Beach in Orange County as “coastal areas pervasively fouled by plastic.”

Nettleton has been writing about plastic in the ocean since the 1980s.

“The message then was recycle, reuse and don’t let plastic get in the ocean. So the same message has been out there for decades and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “There is urgency to do this in a new way.” ◆