Thursday, 23 September 2010

Marine litter: It’s a global issue, but is there regional ‘will’ to act?

Listening to the opinions of delegates at a panel discussion organised by Seas At Risk at this year’s OSPAR Environment Summit, it seems that everyone agrees marine litter is an issue of concern, it just appears that political will to act, unlike the problem itself, is difficult to find.

This is perhaps surprising when you consider the discovery of ocean ‘garbage patches’, the astonishing findings of national beach clean-ups and monitoring programmes and of course the shocking photographic evidence of marine birds with their stomach’s filled to the rim with plastic remnants. Somehow, however, this evidence has not been enough to propel political will to the extent whereby ambitious and progressive actions are being taken and it is perhaps this disconnect between what we know and what we are doing that is most worrying.

Take the work of the OSPAR Commission on marine litter for example. OSPAR, being the regional mechanism set up to protect the North-East Atlantic, has encouragingly taken measures to monitor the problem of marine litter and raise its profile. What has been lacking however, has been progressive measures to stop the growth in marine litter and ultimately prevent litter reaching the sea from ships and land-based sources.

Of course marine litter is not a simple problem to solve in that inputs come from multiple sources. However, in comparison to other environmental problems, such as the prevention of hazardous substances from entering the marine environment, for which OSPAR does have a strategy, the problem of multiple sources really is no different.

Indeed, in order to act on these sources, OSPAR does have a number of options available to it and during the panel discussion there were two interventions that are worth mentioning.

One suggestion was that a Regional Seas Action Plan on Marine Litter – as is the case in several other regions of the world – would be essential to bring about a concerted effort towards acting on all sources of marine litter. The second view gave a more immediate way forward as a panellist suggested that OSPAR could focus its efforts on at least one of the sources of marine litter.

This latter point is also one that is most opportune and is presented by a golden opportunity in the form of the IMO’s review of Annex V – concerning ship waste dumping. Here lies an opportunity for OSPAR and its contracting parties to support a position of ‘general prohibition’ concerning the dumping of waste, and to ultimately prevent all onboard materials from ending up in the sea. This might only be one source, but it is a significant one at that.

Time, however, is upon us. If OSPAR does intend to use its combined efforts to press for environmentally friendly shipping regulations, it will need to step up its work in order to be part of the IMO’s review procedure that is expected to culminate in amended regulations by around 2012. This won’t be agreed during the OSPAR Summit, but if it can quickly agree to such a strategy, then it might just demonstrate whether OSPAR does have the political will to go beyond monitoring and indeed take measures to help solve this persistent environmental problem.