4.12 > The Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) is also affected by the litter in the Pacific Ocean, as the birds mistake the brightly coloured plastic for food and ingest it. Here, the photographer has laid out stranded items of debris neatly on the beach. These types of objects are typically found among the stomach contents of albatross, and can cause the death of many of the affected birds.
Raising awareness: The first step forwardThe fact that marine litter is a problem that must be taken seriously is only gradually being recognized. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has therefore launched an intensive publicity campaign in an effort to raise awareness of this critical situation. Its main focus is on working with non-governmental organizations and government agencies to improve the situation at the regional level. This includes promoting the introduction of regulations and practices that in many cases are already the norm in Western Europe, such as waste separation systems, recycling, and bottle deposit-refund schemes. Various litter surveys have shown that much of the debris found in the North Sea, for example, comes from shipping rather than from land-based sources. However, the situation is reversed in many countries of the world, where waste is often dumped into the natural environment without a thought for the consequences and, sooner or later, is washed into the sea. In these cases, shipping plays a less significant role. UNEP is therefore emphasizing the importance of efficient waste management systems. UNEP also supports high-profile, media-friendly clean-up campaigns such as the annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Every year, volunteers, especially including children and young people, clear litter from beaches and riverbanks. The main aim is to raise young people’s awareness of the problem of global marine litter. In 2009 alone, around 500,000 people from some 100 countries took part in the ICC. Before all the litter is disposed of onshore, each item is recorded. Although the data collection is carried out by laypersons and may therefore contain errors, the International Coastal Cleanup nonetheless provides a very detailed insight every year into the worldwide litter situation. Indeed, surveying marine litter – i.e., regular monitoring – is an important tool in assessing how the situation is developing. In various regions of the world, professionals have been recording the debris found along the coasts for many years. In the north-east Atlantic region, for example, a standard methodology for monitoring marine litter was agreed to by the Contracting Parties to the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention), and this has been in effect for around 10 years. Using a common, standardized survey protocol, 100-metre stretches of around 50 regular reference beaches in the north-east Atlantic region are surveyed three to four times a year. It was this monitoring activity that found that the debris in the North Sea mainly comes from shipping.
International agreements lack teethFor some years, efforts have been made to stem the tide of litter with international agreements. These include the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978 relating thereto (MARPOL 73/78). Since 1988, Annex V to the Convention has specified which types of waste must be collected on board and may not be discharged into the sea. For example, under the MARPOL Convention, disposal of food wastes into the sea is prohibited if the distance from the nearest land is less than 12 nautical miles. Disposal of all plastics into the sea is prohibited. For the EU, on the other hand, Directive 2000/59/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 November 2000 on port reception facilities for ship-generated waste and cargo residues requires ships to dispose of their waste before leaving port and obliges ports to ensure the provision of adequate reception facilities for such waste. Ships must contribute to the costs of the reception facilities through a system of fees. If a ship has proceeded to sea without having disposed of its waste, the competent authority of the next port of call is informed and a more detailed assessment of factors relating to the ship’s compliance with the Directive may be carried out. Critics point out that both the assessment itself and the communication between ports are inadequate. The fact that there has been no decrease in the amount of debris along the North Sea coast as yet also suggests that the international agreements lack teeth. Annex V of the MARPOL Convention is therefore being revised at present. In any case, the agreements have no impact on the amount of waste entering the sea from land-based sources. It is hoped that the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) – the European Union’s tool to protect the marine environment and achieve good environmental status of the EU’s marine waters by 2020 – will improve the situation. Besides addressing topics such as marine pollution from contaminants and the effects of underwater noise on marine mammals, the MSFD in addition deals with the issue of waste. An initial assessment of the current environmental status of the waters concerned and the environmental impact of human activities is to be completed by 2012, and a programme of measures is to be developed by 2015. The necessary measures must then be taken by the year 2020 at the latest.
Turning the tide against litter: The futureExperts agree that the littering of the seas will only stop if the entry of waste from land-based sources can be controlled. According to UNEP, this means that numerous countries will have to develop effective waste avoidance and management plans. At present, the prospect of this happening seems somewhat bleak, especially given the vast quantities of waste involved. Environmental awareness-raising and education would therefore appear to be a more promising approach. The popularity of the International Coastal Cleanup programme is an encouraging sign that there is growing recognition, around the world, of the need to prevent littering of the seas. To address the problem of ghost nets, UNEP is calling for stronger controls, which would involve fishermen being monitored and having to log the whereabouts of their nets. Work is also under way to develop acoustic deterrent devices for fishing gear that can, for example, alert dolphins to the presence of nets. The Fishing for Litter scheme being set up in Scotland and Scandinavia is another positive example of action being taken. Fishermen and port authorities have joined forces so that debris caught in fishing nets can be disposed off correctly onshore. Instead of throwing the litter back into the sea, the fishermen collect the debris on board and bring it back into port. Recycling schemes for old fishing nets are also being developed. In all probability, the global problem of marine litter can only be solved through numerous individual schemes such as these. However, without a concerted effort by the international community as a whole, the problem is likely to continue.