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ECOLOGY WATCH : Unpretty Princess

April 21, 1993

The call of the sea is, in part, the call of purity. The pure blues of the sky and water. The clean, uncluttered line of the horizon. The salt freshness of the air. No smog yellows the sky. No graffiti soils the waves. All that garbage is left behind.

Or is it? Last week Princess Cruise Lines was hit with a $500,000 fine for dumping its garbage off Duck Key, Fla., sack after plastic sack, captured on an alert passenger's videotape. Without the videotape, the Coast Guard, which sued Princess Cruise Lines, could not have proved its charge. But, sadly, this moment in the trashing of the sea was far from unique.

Countless marine animals die each year because of plastics dumped at sea. An international treaty banned the dumping of plastics in 1988, and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 gave the Coast Guard stronger powers and money to prosecute dumpers.

But the authority of the Coast Guard extends only 200 miles out; and not all coastal authorities are even as effective as it is. As with the disposal of toxic waste on land, export to Third World waters is an ugly reality. And on the high seas, by and large, the rule is still: Anything goes . . . overboard.

In our proverbially shrinking world, the sea is too small to serve as mankind's garbage can and toilet, everybody's convenience and nobody's problem. Whether long-accepted practices can be changed in time to save the sea is an open question. Meanwhile, we applaud the public spirit of one tourist with a camcorder and of the Coast Guard that took him, and this problem, seriously.

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