Back to the Basics: Ocean Ethics

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I received an email from Edward last week in response to the 4Ocean plastic cleanup blog of June 7. In it he talked about the multi-layered issues associated with ocean pollution and cleanup.

Ecologic impact, for one. “The establishment of the 4Ocean business plan, while admirable,” he wrote, “doesn’t in itself solve the ecological impact of the ever-increasing amounts of trash in the ocean or along it’s shores.”

These effects are enormous. Large numbers of marine wildlife are being harmed, many killed, through ingestion of small bits of plastic and other trash mistaken for food. Starvation. Poisoning. Internal bleeding and digestive illnesses.  These are a few of the direct attacks on those creatures of the sea who eat trash.

Another direct impact on sea life comes from fishing boats that discard their gear and their damaged nets into the ocean, bringing about a situation called ‘ghost fishing.’ In a bizarre way, this flotsam floating around continues to ‘fish’ as it traps marine life within its grip and, consequently, reels in larger predators that come to feed on the trapped fish.

Indirectly, pollution that brings about an imbalance in the ocean’s ecosystem – marine habitat destruction, for example – can put us all at risk. As described by the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN), Oceans are the lifeblood of planet Earth and humankind. They flow over nearly three-quarters of our planet, and hold 97% of the planet’s water. They produce more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and absorb the most carbon from it. So it would appear that we have a personal interest in getting the ocean back into tiptop shape.

And then Edward wrote about the business community.  “Ridding the ocean of massive accumulations of trash must begin with changing the business practices of the world’s maritime industry as a major polluter,” he said.

I know we started out talking about plastic.  But with Edward’s challenge I became curious about the laws associated with maritime dumping, what is considered a pollutant, what not.  How is it monitored?  I shall not attempt to summarize this complex topic. But I thought you might be interested in reading the following list of items considered, under the law, acceptable for ocean dumping.

Help me out here.  I don’t get how some of these are not considered pollutants.

The London Protocol (of 2006) expressly prohibits incineration at sea and the export of wastes and other matter for the purpose of ocean dumping. Under the London Protocol, dumping of all wastes and other materials is prohibited except the following materials listed in Annex I of the London Protocol (“the reverse list”), which may be considered for dumping: 

  • Dredged material.
  • Sewage sludge.
  • Fish wastes 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.
  • Bulky items primarily comprising iron, steel, concrete and similarly unharmful materials for which the concern is physical impact, and limited to the circumstances where such wastes are generated at locations with no land-based alternatives.
  • Carbon dioxide streams from carbon dioxide capture processes for sequestration in sub-seabed geological formations.

Given the vastness of the ocean and the immeasurable number of private and commercial ocean-going vessels, can we suspect that all are virtually free to pollute the ocean? A kind of guilty until proven innocent situation?

After all, laws can be made. Satellites can be launched. Ecology patrols can swarm the beaches and monitoring crews can board ships. But in the end it appears that this is a self-monitoring, voluntary honor system; that once again we are down to right and wrong. To ethics.

 

 

 

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