Tag Archives: marine pollution

Plastics in Seas as New Tiny Ecosystems

The malign effect of floating plastic debris on seabirds, turtles and other sea creatures is well known. But, as Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler have discovered, plastic debris also provides a new habitat for organisms small enough to take advantage of it.  The two researchers collected pieces of plastic from various sites in the North Atlantic. They then examined each using DNA analysis, and also an electron microscope, to see what was living on it. Lots of things were. Altogether, they discovered about 50 species of single-celled plant, animal and bacterial life. Each bit of debris was, in effect, a tiny ecosystem….Plastics are energy-rich substances, which is why many of them burn so readily. Any organism that could unlock and use that energy would do well….Less encouragingly, Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler also found cholera-like bacteria in their tiny floating ecosystems. Both fish and seabirds act as vectors for cholera (the former bring it into human settlements when caught by fishermen, the latter when resting ashore or nesting), so anywhere that such creatures might pick up cholera bugs is something worth keeping an eye on.

The researchers paint an intriguing picture of the adaptability of nature, and provide another piece of the jigsaw that is the Anthropocene. Conservationists intent on preserving charismatic megafauna have reason to lament the spread of plastics through the ocean. But those interested in smaller critters have been given a whole, new sphere—the plastisphere—to study.

Marine ecology: Welcome to the plastisphere, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 7

How the Shipping Industry Gets its Way: pollution from ships

Do not give the regulated power over the regulators, unless you want consumers to lose out and producers to game the system. ..That lesson has been learned in many places around the world. National regulators are increasingly independent of the firms they regulate. But international ones still have further to go—and none further than the specialised agencies of the United Nations, such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for shipping where the interests of the shipping industry are upheld d in several ways. The first is the distribution of voting rights between countries. At the IMO, for example, Panama and Liberia, with populations of just 4m and 4.8m respectively, can automatically get seats on its decision-making body as they have the world’s biggest merchant fleets.

The second is the assignment of those voting rights by individual countries. Remarkably, many governments have handed voting rights to private-sector firms… At the IMO least 17 countries have assigned their voting rights to flag registries operated by private firms, reckons Transparency International, an anti-corruption group; that adds up to about a tenth of delegates. At an IMO environmental-committee meeting in 2017, almost a third of countries were represented, at least in part, by business interests.

The third way in which producer interests are protected is through a spectacular lack of transparency. The agenda of the IMO’s council in November 2018 in London is available only to those with a password. Journalists are forbidden to report what delegates say or how they vote. There are no rules on the suitability or conflict of interests of delegates. In 2014 St Lucia appointed a Saudi billionaire without previous shipping experience as its IMO representative; a court in London judged in 2016 that the appointment was obtained in order to gain diplomatic immunity against divorce proceedings. There are no limits on the amount of gifts that can be showered on representatives. Goodies put on top of desks at an IMO assembly meeting last year were so heavy that they broke 137 sets of headphones underneath.

Such swampiness matters. The IMO is responsible for limiting emissions from ships, which were excluded from the Paris climate deal.   Some countries are interested in reform. At the imo council meeting this week Australia proposed allowing journalists to report on its meetings as a first step. The Marshall Islands has taken back some of its votes from the private firm that runs its flag registry. But more radical change is needed. Countries should send civil servants, not private actors, as their representatives. The un’s rules on conflicts of interest should be imposed. And voting rights should be allocated with the interests of consumers in mind. These lessons have been widely absorbed within borders. They ought to cross them, too

Excerpts from UN Regulatory Bodies: Agency Problems, Economist, Nov. 24, 2018, at 15

Cleaning Up Dirty Shipping

Making shipping cleaner is made more urgent by the decision of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the United Nations body responsible for the world’s shipping, to reduce the amount of sulphur allowed in bunker fuel from 3.5% to 0.5% by 2020. Sulphur is nasty stuff. When burned, it forms sulphates, which cause acid rain and pollute the air. A paper published in February 2017 in Nature Communications, by Mikhail Sofiev of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, found that the imo’s new rule could stop between 139,000 and 396,000 premature deaths a year.

The trouble is that sulphates also scatter sunlight and help to form and thicken clouds, which reflect solar radiation away from Earth. As a result, shipping is thought to reduce rather than increase man-made global warming—by 7% throughout the 20th century, according to one study. Dr Sofiev’s research showed that this cooling effect could fall by 80% after 2020, with the new low-sulphur standard in place…

The obvious way to offset the loss of sulphur-related cooling is by steep cuts to shipping’s planet-cooking carbon-dioxide emissions. The IMO wants these to fall by half, compared with 2008 levels, by 2050, regardless of how many vessels then ply the seas. But unlike desulphurisation, which is both imminent and legally binding, the CO2 target looks fuzzy and lacks any enforcement mechanism. An attempt to begin fleshing it out, at a meeting of  IMO member states which concluded in London on October 26, 2018 foundered.

One way to cut fuel consumption is to reduce drag by redesigning hulls and propellers. This is happening. In the past five or so years many ships’ propellers have been fitted with tip fins analogous to the turbulence-reducing upturned winglets on aeroplanes.  Further percentage points can be shaved away by smoothing hulls. This means, in particular, stopping barnacles and other creatures growing on them. Tin-based antifouling paints are now banned as toxic to sea life, so paintmakers are returning to an 18th-century solution to the fouling problem—copper.   Hulls can be scraped smooth, too, but restrictions on littering waters with paint chips and species from foreign parts have made such cleaning problematic. This may change, though, thanks to an underwater drone described by its Norwegian maker, ecosubsea, as “a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a lawnmower”. Rather than scour hulls with a metal brush, ecosubsea’s robots blast water at an angle almost parallel with the hull’s surface, which mostly spares paint from abrasion but hits marine growth perpendicularly, and thus hard. 

Many have hopes of returning to wind propulsion, and engineers have devised various modern versions of the sail. None has yet succeeded. A system developed by SkySails, a firm in Hamburg, for example, relied on kites to pull ships along. It was installed on five ships from 2008-11, but proved fiddly to use and maintain…

Some hope to cut marine emissions by employing batteries and electric motors. For transoceanic shipping this looks a long-shot. But local shipping might benefit. Norway, for instance, has started to introduce battery-powered ferries. And a Dutch company called Port-Liner is building electric canal barges for transporting shipping containers. The technology is expensive. Without taxpayer subsidy it would hardly be a runner—a fact also true of the Norwegian ferries.

The problem of shifting emissions around rather than eliminating them also applies to the idea of powering ocean-going vessels using fuel-cells. These generate electricity by reacting hydrogen and oxygen together. Given that electric propulsion more usually disguises emissions than eliminates them, some suggest the most practical approach to reducing shipping’s contribution to global warming is to switch to low-carbon fuel systems rather than conducting a futile search for no-carbon fuels. One alternative is diesel-electric propulsion.  Liquefied natural gas (lng) is another option. 

Excerpts  from Marine Technology of the Future: In Need for a Cean Up, Economist,  Nov. 3, 2018, at 75

Future of Green Life Depends on a Toilet

Innovator Cranfield University, U.K.: Putting down the toilet lid activates a dry flush. The motion turns a set of gears that drop feces and urine into a pan, where they are separated and either combusted into ash that can be thrown away or filtered into clean water that could be used to water plants, for instance, though not drinking. It was one of the few completely standalone toilets at the expo, able to function without links to water, sewer or electric lines.

The Innovator: Helbling Group, Switzerland: Helbling’s self-contained toilet system
Similar to other models, this toilet is a mostly self-contained system that transforms waste into clean water and a form of charcoal. But its makers, who were contracted by the Gates Foundation to develop this model, also had modern design in mind: A sleek, black-and-white prototype includes a touchpad for the flush and a container that can be detached to dump out excess water. While it doesn’t have to connect to water or sewer lines, one limit is that the model still needs electricity from an outside source

Sedron Technologies makes the Janicki Omni Processor, a small-scale waste-treatment plant that can filter wet fecal matter so thoroughly that the resulting water is not only free of bacteria and viruses but also safe for drinking. At its highest capacity the plant can manage waste for up to 500,000 people, the same range as two other plants featured at the expo. A trial has been running in Dakar, Senegal, over the past three years to identify and fix technical problems.

Excerpts  from Flush With Ideas: Bill Gates Pursues the Toilet of the Future, WSJ, Nov. 9, 2018


The 500 Cases of Marine Pollution

An international law enforcement operation against maritime pollution has revealed hundreds of violations and exposed serious cases of contamination worldwide.  Codenamed 30 Days at Sea, the month-long (1-31 October) operation saw some 276 law enforcement and environmental agencies across 58 countries detect more than 500 offences, including illegal discharges of oil and garbage from vessels, shipbreaking, breaches of ship emissions regulations, and pollution on rivers and land-based runoff to the sea.  More than 5200 inspections have resulted in at least 185 investigations, with arrests and prosecutions anticipated.

“Criminals believe marine pollution is a low-risk crime with no real victims.  This is a mistake and one which INTERPOL and our partners are addressing as demonstrated by this operation,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.  Cases of serious contamination included the dumping of animal farm waste in Philippine coastal waters where local communities collect shellfish and children play.  In Germany, a vessel discharged 600 litres of palm oil into the sea. Ghana uncovered gallons of waste oil in large bottles thought to be illegally dumped at sea.  Authorities prevented an environmental disaster in Albania by securing waters around a sinking vessel containing some 500 litres of oil. Similarly, the pollution threat resulting from the collision of two ships in French waters was contained thanks to preventive action during the operation.

Innovative technologies permitted authorities to detect offences, including the use of satellite images (in Argentina and Sweden), aerial surveillance (Canada and Italy), drones (Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan) and night vision cameras.

Excerpt from Marine pollution crime: first global multi-agency operation, Interpol Press Release, Nov. 13, 2018


Who Owns the Genes in the Seas?

It’s an eye-catching statistic: A single company, the multinational chemical giant BASF, owns nearly half of the patents issued on 13,000 DNA sequences from marine organisms. That number is now helping fuel high-stakes global negotiations on a contentious question: how to fairly regulate the growing exploitation of genes collected in the open ocean, beyond any nation’s jurisdiction.

The negotiations that took place at the UN in September 2018 aim, inter alia, to replace today’s free-for-all scramble for marine genetic resources with a more orderly and perhaps more just regime.  Many developed nations and industry groups are adamant that any new rules should not complicate efforts to discover and patent marine genes that may help create better chemicals, cosmetics, and crops. But many developing nations want rules that will ensure they, too, share in any benefits. Scientists are also watching. A regulatory regime that is too burdensome could have “a negative impact” on scientists engaged in “noncommercial ocean research,” warns Robert Blasiak, a marine policy specialist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.  It is not the first time nations have wrangled over how to share genetic resources. Under another U.N. pact, the 2010 Nagoya Protocol, 105 countries have agreed to rules to prevent so-called biopiracy: the removal of biological resources—such as plant or animal DNA—from a nation’s habitats without proper permission or compensation.

Those rules don’t apply in international waters, which begin 200 nautical miles from shore and are attracting growing interest from researchers and companies searching for valuable genes. The first patent on DNA from a marine organism was granted in 1988 for a sequence from the European eel, which spends part of its life in freshwater. Since then, more than 300 companies, universities, and others have laid claim to sequences from 862 marine species, a team led by Blasiak reported in June in Science Advances. Extremophiles have been especially prized. Genes from worms found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, for example, encode polymers used in cosmetics. And BASF has patented other worm DNA that the company believes could help improve crop yields. The conglomerate, based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, says it found most of its 5700 sequences in public databases…

It may take years for nations to agree on a marine biodiversity treaty; [A]n “ideological divide” between developing and developed countries has, so far, “led to stalemate” on how to handle marine genetic resources, says Harriet Harden-Davies, a policy expert at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Most developing nations want to expand the “common heritage” philosophy embedded in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which declares that resources found on or under the seabed, such as minerals, are the “common heritage of mankind.” Applying that principle to genetic resources would promote “solidarity in the preservation and conservation of a good we all share,” South Africa’s negotiating team said in a recent statement. Under such an approach, those who profit from marine genes could, for example, pay into a global fund that would be used to compensate other nations for the use of shared resources, possibly supporting scientific training or conservation.

But developed nations including the United States, Russia, and Japan oppose extending the “common heritage” language, fearing burdensome and unworkable regulations. They argue access to high seas genes should be guaranteed to all nations under the principle of the “freedom of the high seas,” also enshrined in the Law of the Sea. That approach essentially amounts to finders keepers, although countries traditionally have balanced unfettered access with other principles, such as the value of conservation, in developing rules for shipping, fishing, and research in international waters.

The European Union and other parties want to sidestep the debate and seek a middle ground. One influential proposal would allow nations to prospect for high seas genes, but require that they publish the sequences they uncover. Companies could also choose to keep sequences private temporarily, in order to be able to patent them, if they contribute to an international fund that would support marine research by poorer nations. “Researchers all around the world should be put all on a level playing field,” says Arianna Broggiato, a Brussels-based legal adviser for the consultancy eCoast, who co-authored a paper on the concept this year in The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law.

Exceprts from Eli Kintisch U.N. tackles gene prospecting on the high seas, Science, Sept. 7, 2018

Coral Reefs Preservation: Aichi Targets

In the past half-century, though, these beautiful, biodiverse structures have been put under pressure by human activity. About a quarter of all coral cover has died. The reefs that are in worst shape are those off the most crowded beaches. “People don’t leave enough time for their sun cream to soak in, so it gets in the water,” says one deckhand with Eo Wai’anae Tours, which organises boat trips off Oahu. More damage is caused by fertiliser-rich run-off from farms, leading to algal blooms which block light the corals need. Fishing near reefs cuts the number of herbivorous fish, allowing vegetation to grow out of control. Some fishing methods are particularly harmful: for example, blast fishermen in Colombia, Tanzania and elsewhere use dynamite to stun and kill fish without regard to the harm done to nearby reefs…In the South China Seaisland-building and fishing for giant clams are crushing some reefs beyond the possibility of recovery (seearticle)….

Tourism generated by the Great Barrier Reef is worth about $4.6 billion annually to nearby Queensland alone. Australian bigwigs bent over backwards last year to keep the UN from listing the reef, a World Heritage Site, as “in danger”. Estimates suggest that the economic value of Martinique and Saint Lucia’s corals comes to $50,000 per square km each year, thanks largely to tourism. But overdevelopment threatens the reefs the visitors come to gawp at. Sediment from construction clouds waters, burying corals and blocking the light they need. Hotels close to the shore may be convenient for tourists, but the process of building them can kill the reefs that snorkellers like to swim over…The three countries with the largest numbers of people who fish on reefs are all in the coral-triangle region: Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. In Indonesia and in the Philippines, up to 1m people’s livelihoods depend on reefs.

Averting a tragedy of the commons means agreeing which activities should be restricted and enforcing the rules. For coral reefs—and other biodiverse marine environments—the usual approach is to give ecologically sensitive areas special status under local or regional laws. In such “marine protected areas” (MPAs), activities that are deemed harmful, such as fishing, drilling and mining, can then be restricted or banned, with penalties for rule-breakers.

The Aichi targets, agreed in 2010 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, seek to reduce “anthropogenic pressures” on coral reefs to “maintain their integrity and function”. The aim is to have at least 17% of inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas under conservation by 2020. Most countries have signed up. But the targets are far from being met. Less than 3% of the ocean’s surface is within an MPA.

The most urgent action is needed close to shore. The nearer humans are to reefs, the worse their effect on the fragile ecosystems. A global register of fishing vessels, long under discussion, would also help identify wrongdoers. And beefing up the UN law of the sea could inspire further action. Decades old, it has little to say about biodiversity.

But simply declaring an area protected does not make it so. In 2009 George Bush junior, then president of America, established three national marine monuments in the Pacific, including nearly 518,000 square km of coral islands and surrounding areas. Their remoteness makes it hard to stop vessels entering illegally; Hawaii’s coastguard is already stretched.

Satellites are sometimes used to police MPAs, but they pass over infrequently. In the future, sailing robots could play a larger role. America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been working with a private firm, Saildrone, on hardy models equipped with carbon-fibre fins. They cost less than $500,000 each and can roam remote ocean regions for months, making them far cheaper than manned boats.

Such drones could photograph rogue fishing vessels, obtaining hard-to-gather evidence for any criminal proceedings. And they could carry out other useful work at the same time, such as monitoring ocean temperature and acidity or tracking tagged members of endangered species. Saildrone plans to provide its robots as a service, so that universities and other cash-strapped organisations do not have to buy one outright…

Even if the right policies are adopted to keep corals healthy in the immediate future, longer-term threats loom. Neither oceanic warming nor acidification can be kept out by an MPA. And both may be happening too fast for corals to adapt, especially as recent global climate deals will not slow them much. Back slaps and handshakes accompanied the inclusion of an aim to limit global warming to just 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in the Paris Agreement last year. But only an incorrigible optimist would bet on that aim being achieved.

So researchers are turning their attention to ways to help corals cope. Their global diversity, scientists hope, may hold the key. The same coral will grow differently under different conditions: corals of the western Pacific near Indonesia, for example, can withstand higher temperatures than the same species in the eastern Pacific near Hawaii….The characteristics that help some reefs survive unusual conditions could allow others to endure climate change. But tough corals from one place cannot simply be transplanted to another. So a team at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology is in the early stages of engineering reef ecosystems, with $4m from the Paul G. Allen Foundation, a charity set up by Bill Gates’s former business partner.

Organisms respond to environmental changes through both genetic processes (adaptation) and non-genetic ones (acclimatisation). With corals, the nature of their symbiotic relationships can also alter. So selectively breeding and conditioning them, and investigating whether certain types of algae confer resistance to heat or acidity, could create hardier varieties faster than they would develop naturally.

These could then be used to repopulate ravaged reefs—once more is known about how and where to transplant them. “We’re assisting evolution,” explains Ruth Gates, who leads the research.

Marine conservation: Rejuvenating reefs, Economist, Feb. 13, at 57