Marine Environment: An unchartered territory

Anshu Bansal, Research Associate

“Whatever we do, the ocean will survive in one way or another. What is more problematic is whether we shall preserve it in a state that ensures humanity’s survival and wellbeing”

Federico Mayor, Director General, UNESCO

The marine environment includes the waters of seas and estuaries, the seabed and its subsoils, and all marine wildlife and its sea and coastal habitats. It constitutes a fund of resources which can be used to achieve greater economic potential, so its protection in seeking to revitalise its economy1. The marine environment is a vital resource for life on Earth. Marine ecosystems  perform  a  number  of  key  environmental  functions  —  they  regulate the climate, prevent erosion, accumulate and distribute solar energy, absorb carbon dioxide, and maintain biological control2.

The world’s oceans are not only the domain of food for human being but also the legitimate concern of marine transport, offshore extraction of oil, gas and other minerals, climate control and recreation. Marine fisheries account for 85% of the global fish catch. Maritime shipping is involved in the transport of over 80% of the world’s merchandise trade3.

Though the seas cover the majority of our planet’s surface, far less is known about the biodiversity of marine environments then that of terrestrial systems4. The marine environment is also a great contributor to economic prosperity, social well-being and quality of life. Irish and Norse examined all 742 papers published in the journal Conservation Biology and found that only 5% focused on marine ecosystems and species, compared with 67% on terrestrial and 6% on freshwater5. As a result of this disparity, marine conservation biology severely lags behind the terrestrial counterpart, and this gap of knowledge poses major problems for conservation of marine biodiversity and must be addressed6.

International Perspective to Marine Environment

Being a common heritage of mankind, marine resources are also subjected to international Conventions. For instance, many of Europe’s regional seas are the subject of international conventions. Some of the Conventions are: The 1992 OSPAR Convention which regulate and control marine pollution in the North Sea and North Atlantic, the Helsinki Commission on the protection of the Baltic Sea (Helcom) and the Barcelona Convention on the protection of the Mediterranean Sea. A number of these have made excellent contributions to marine protection, but they have few enforcement powers7. The main reason for the failure of some of these conventions rests in the fact that they did not had effective enforcement mechanism. The most important legislation addressing the increasing problem of marine pollution is probably the 1978 Protocol to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which recognised that vessels present a significant and controllable source of pollution into the marine environment [Lentz, 1987]8.

International Management Regimes for Marine Environment

To address the complexity of management regimes, it is essential to develop a methodology and collect the information required for the systematic valuation of ocean assets and services.  At  the  2002  World  Summit  on  Sustainable  Development  (WSSD)  the international  community  agreed  to  “establish  by  2004  a  regular  process under  the  United  Nations  for  global  reporting  and  assessment  of  the  state of the marine environment, including socio-economic aspects building on existing regional assessments9.” The 2004 target proved unrealistic, but in 2005 the  General  Assembly  launched  an “assessment  of  assessments”  (AoA)  as  a  preparatory stage for the ‘regular process’, as it is called10.

In February 2004, IMO adopted the Ballast Water Management Convention, addressing the immense damage that can be caused by microscopic aquatic life  transported  around  the  world  in  this  way  and  deposited  in  alien  local ecosystems, threatening to disrupt their delicate balance11. Most countries recognize the value of their coastal and marine biodiversity and have gazetted marine and wetland protected areas to ensure their sustainability12.

At the global level, the Law of the Sea Convention, the central regime for ocean governance, has established a new treaty system of ocean institutions. Under the umbrella of the convention, a number of ‘sub‐regimes’ can be identified, each of which deals with specialized matters. The most important of these sub‐regimes cover13:

  • The sustainable management of marine living resources, the focus for which is Food and agricultural Organization of the United  Nations  (FAO),  including  its  network  of  regional fisheries commissions and conventions;
  • Shipping  and  marine  pollution  control,  centered  on International Maritime Organization (IMO) and several related convention‐based institutions;
  • The marine environment, the main responsibility for which has been assigned to United  Nations  Environment  Programme (UNEP), including its network of regional seas agreements and action plans;
  • Marine scientific research and associated ocean services and management, centered on Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC);
  • Deep seabed mineral development, through the International Sea Bed Authority (ISBA).

Major Threat To Marine Biodiversity

There are several causes of marine pollution, such as:

(a)  Dumping of wastes at sea14.

(b) From land-based sources e.g. untreated sewage and the dumping of wastes which reach the sea and oceans through rivers and streams, fumes from power plants and factories, etc.;

(c)  Pollution from ships during their voyages;

(d) Pollution from seabed activities i.e. exploration of mineral resources in the seabed15.

It has also been established that one of the major contributor in pollution concerning marine biodiversity relates to disposing waste in marine environment. One among them is the threat posed by Plastic debris. There are overwhelming evidence that plastic pollution is a threat to marine biodiversity, already at risk from overfishing, climate change and other forms of anthropogenic disturbance. Due to the long life of plastics on marine ecosystems, it is imperative that severe measures are taken to address the problem at both international and national levels, since even if the production and disposal of plastics suddenly stopped, the existing debris would continue to harm marine life for many decades16.

There have been nevertheless some attempts to promote the conservation of the world’s oceans through international legislation, such as the establishment of the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter [the London dumping Convention or LDC]17.

In addition to plastic debris, activities such as fishing and extracting aggregates, oil and gas all affect our marine environment. We have damaged many habitats, for example by some fishing methods and by boat anchor chains dragging through seagrass beds18. Pressures from commercial activities have caused a decline in a number of species, including spiny dogfish and porbeagle and even extinctions, for example of the angel shark in parts of UK waters.

An estimated 70% of the world’s fish stocks are already being exploited at or beyond sustainable limits, but fishing generally continues unabated despite extensive regulatory arrangements for their management19. Also, Oil spill is one of the major threat. The oil spill from the  Erikaalong the French coast in December 1999, which was followed by two other cases of sinking ships and the release of hazardous substances, namely the Kristal and the Baku20.

Conclusion and Recommendation

The  marine  environment  is  faced  with  a  number  of  increasingly  severe threats.  These include loss or degradation of biodiversity and changes in its structures, loss of habitats, contamination from dangerous substances, and the impacts of climate change21. Coastal and marine resources are being vanished and damaged by increase in marine human activities. This leads to deteriorating biodiversity in such a way that livelihood opportunities are decreasing.

In order to deal with the problem, UK Marine Bill can be referred. In UK, Marine Bill was drafted which provided a number of tools to improve our marine environment. For instance, Marine Conservation Zones will provide a mechanism to protect nationally important species and habitats. Marine planning will help us to find space for the competing range of activities in our seas, for example fishing, wind farms and gravel extraction and manage them in a holistic way. The Marine Management Organisation will regulate marine activities and help enforce laws to protect the marine environment22.

  1. Protecting and conserving the Marine environment, European Commission (2006). []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. A. N. Subramanian, Introduction: Marine Environment. []
  4. Ormond (1997). []
  5. Murphy and Duffus (1996). []
  6. Ibid []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Josee G.B. Derraik, The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review, Marine Pollution Bulletin 44 (2002) 842–852 []
  9. Symphony of the seas , The Marine Environment, The magazine of the UNEP (December,2007). []
  10. Ibid []
  11. Conrad, Flexible Instrument. []
  12. UNEP- WCMC (2000). []
  13. A. N. Subramanian, Introduction: Marine Environment []
  14. Art 1(1)(5)(a) 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. []
  15. Art  43  1982  Law  of  the  Sea  Convention,  “User  States  and  States  bordering  a  strait  should  by agreement co-operate []
  16. Josee G.B. Derraik, The Pollution Of The Marine Environment By Plastic Debris: A Review, Marine Pollution Bulletin 44 (2002) 842–852.  []
  17. Ibid. []
  18. Ibid. []
  19. Supra note 3. []
  20. The Times Editorial, Rough Seas for Maltese Flag, 10th March 2001. []
  21. Supra note 4 []
  22. Jonathan Shaw, Protecting Our Marine Environment Through The Marine Bill, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. []

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