Marine pollution

Marine pollution refers to the emptying of chemicals or other particles into the ocean and its harmful effects.

A critical problem arises when the potentially toxic chemicals stick to tiny particles and these are taken up by plankton and benthos animals which are deposit or filter feeders concentrating upward within food chains.

As animal feeds usually have a high fish meal or fish oil content, toxins can be found in consumed food items obtained from livestock and animal husbandry—in eggs, milk, butter, meat and margarine. A common route of entry of contaminants is the river where industrial wastes containing toxic chemicals flow into the water stream. When particles combine chemically, oxygen gets depleted and this causes estuaries to become anoxic, that is, deficient of oxygen.

To curb marine pollution and regulate the use of the world’s oceans by individual States, the nations of the world have come together to form two major conventions: one on dumping of wastes at sea (Convention on the Dumping of Wastes at Sea, to be replaced by the 1996 Protocol) and the other laying down rights and responsibilities of States in use of the oceans and their resources (United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea or UNCLOS).

Convention on Dumping of Wastes at Sea:

An inter-governmental conference on the Convention on the Dumping of Wastes at Sea met in London in November 1972 to adopt this instrument, the London Convention.

The Convention has a global character and is aimed at international control and putting an end to marine pollution. The definition of dumping under the Convention relates to deliberate disposal at sea of wastes or other materials from vessels, aircraft, platforms and other man-made structures or disposal of the vessels or platforms themselves.

‘Dumping’ here does not cover wastes derived from the exploration and exploitation of sea-bed mineral resources. The provision of the Convention would not apply when there is a need to secure the safety life or of vessels in cases of force majeure.

The Convention came into effect on August 30, 1975. The secretariat duties relating to it are overseen by the IMO.

Details and Developments:

The articles aim to promote regional cooperation especially in the area of monitoring and scientific research. Parties have undertaken to designate an authority to manage permits, keep records and monitor the condition of the sea.

There are wastes which cannot be dumped and others that require a special dumping permit. The criteria on issuing of this permit is also explained in an Annex that concerns the nature of the waste, characteristics of the dumping site and method of disposal of the waste.

Certain important amendments were adopted by the Convention various times to deal with the emerging issues in the context of dumping of wastes in the oceans.

The 1978 amendment:

Which came into effect on March 11, 1979, dealt with the incineration of wastes at sea? Another set of amendments adopted at the same time (October 1978) related to introduction of new procedures for dispute settlement.

The 1980 amendments:

Became effective on May 19, 1990. They give the procedures to be followed when permits are issued for special dumping. They state that permits must be issued only after considering whether there is enough of scientific information available to gauge the impact of dumping.

The 1993 amendments:

Effective from February 20, 1994, banned dumping of low-level radioactive wastes into the seas. They phased out the dumping of industrial wastes by December 31, 1995 and called for an end to incineration of industrial wastes at sea.

It is to be noted that dumping of low-level radioactive wastes and industrial wastes as well as incineration of wastes were earlier permitted by the Convention. But attitudes towards dumping have changed over the years and these have been reflected consistently in the amendments adopted. The changing approach, keeping in view the need of the times, led to the adoption of the 1996 Protocol on November 7, 1996.

1996 Protocol:

The Protocol, which became effective on March 24, 2006, replaces the 1972 Convention.

It shows the major change in approach among the nations regarding the use of the sea as a place for dumping of waste materials:

Details of the Protocol (comparisons with the 1972 Convention included):

The 1996 Protocol is much more restrictive as compared to the 1972 Convention that allowed dumping provided certain conditions were satisfied, the conditions varying depending on the magnitude of danger of the materials to the environment, even while blacklisting some materials from being dumped at all.

Article 3 of the Protocol calls for appropriate preventive measures to be taken when wastes or other matter thrown into the sea are likely to cause harm “even when there is no conclusive evidence to prove a cause relation between inputs and their effects.” The article states that “the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution”. The Contracting Parties must ensure that the Protocol does not simply result in pollution being transferred from one part of the environment to another.

Article 4 prohibits the Contracting Parties from dumping “wastes or any other matter with the exception of those listed in Annex 1″. This Annex includes dredged material; sewage sludge; fish waste or material resulting from industrial fish processing operations; vessels and platforms or other man-made structures at sea; inert, inorganic geological material; organic material of natural origin; and bulky items like iron, steel, concrete and other similar unharmful materials for which the concern is mainly physical impact and it is limited to those circumstances and where such wastes are generated in small islands with isolated peoples who have no access to other proper disposal options.

Exceptions to the above are contained in Article 8 which allows dumping “in cases of force majeure caused by stress of weather, or in any case which constitutes a danger to human life or a real threat to vessels…”

Article 5 prohibits incineration of wastes at sea (permitted by the 1972 convention but prohibited under the 1993 amendments).

Article 6 states that “Contracting Parties shall not allow the export of wastes or other matter to other countries for dumping or incineration at sea”. This reflects concern in recent years regarding export of wastes which cannot be dumped at sea under the 1972 Convention to Non-Contracting Parties.

Article 9 calls upon the Parties to designate an appropriate authority to issue permits in accordance with the Protocol.

Article 11 explains the compliance procedures which states that, no later than two years after the coming into effect of the Protocol, the “Meeting of Contracting Parties shall establish those procedures and mechanisms necessary to assess and promote compliance…”

Article 16 contains procedures for settling disputes.

Article 26 allows for a transitional period which enables Contracting Parties to phase in compliance with the convention over a five-year period. There are extended technical assistance provisions in this regard.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is responsible for Secretariat duties with respect to the Protocol.

The Protocol has three annexes in all, two of them concerned with assessment of wastes and arbitral procedures.

Amendments to the articles shall come into force on the 60th day after two-thirds of Contracting Parties shall have deposited an instrument of acceptance of the amendment with the IMO. Amendments to the annexes are adopted through a tacit acceptance procedure and they will be enforced not later than a hundred days after being adopted. The amendments are binding on all Contracting Parties except those who have clearly stated their non-acceptance.

2006 Amendments to the Protocol:

Adopted on November 2, 2006, the amendments were enforced on February 10, 2007. The amendments allow the dumping of carbon dioxide streams only when it is done into a sub-seabed geological formation; the streams have an overwhelming carbon dioxide content (they may also have incidental associated substances got from the source material and capture and sequestration processes used); and wastes or other matter are not added when disposing them.

The amendments allow storage of carbon dioxide (CO2) under the seabed but regulate the sequestration of CO2 streams from CO2 capture processes in sub-seabed geological formations. Parties agreed that guidance for conducting it should be developed within the earliest time possible.

The amendments have created a basis in international environment law to regulate carbon capture and storage in sub- sealed geological formation in order to ensure their permanent isolation. It is part of the measures being considered to address climate change and ocean acidification like developing low carbon energy forms especially for sources of enormous CO2 emissions (power plants, steel factories and cement works).

The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea:

The UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is an international agreement that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations where use of the oceans’ waters by them is concerned. It was a result of the third UN Convention (conference) on Law of the Sea which was held from 1972 to 1982 and replaced four 1958 treaties. The UNCLOS specifies guidelines for businesses, the environment and management of marine natural resources.

The UNCLOS came into force in the year 1994. In 1993, Guyana became the 60th state to sign the treaty. As of today, it has been signed by 155 countries and the European Community. The USA has signed the treaty but its senate is yet to ratify it.

The UN Secretary General receives instruments of ratification and accession. The UN provides support for Convention meetings. However, the UN does not have a direct part in the implementation of the Convention. But organisations like the International Maritime; Organisation and the International Whaling Commission have a role to play.

The UNCLOS details a comprehensive regime of law and order in the seas and oceans of the world and lays down rules to govern use of the oceans and their resources. The full text of the Convention has 320 articles and nine annexes which deal with aspects like delimitation, control of environmental pollution, marine scientific research, economic and commercial activities in the seas, technology transfer and settlement of disputes between States with reference to ocean matters.