Unintended consequences for global and inshore waters

By Sally Campbell. Featured image, Greenpeace POW Protect the Oceans. NYC. Credit: greenpeace.org

Words can be powerful, but they can also be empty of meaning. When it comes to the global climate crisis, most of us are dedicated to holding politicians to account on their policies – and that they take on board what is now the obvious role the climate change has in so many global crises. Up until the present time we have been accepting of silence, indifference or misinformation on this vital issue. Each one of us needs to get organised and to be heard in order to protect our marine environment. Why the concern?

Sadly, this week, a fifth effort to pass a global agreement to protect the world’s oceans and marine life has failed in New York. UN Ocean Treaty talks failed to reach agreement on a Treaty which can deliver Ocean Sanctuaries across 30% of the oceans by 2030.

Talks to pass the UN High Seas Treaty had been ongoing for two weeks, but governments could not agree on the terms. Despite international waters representing nearly two-thirds of the world’s oceans, only 1.2% is protected. Environmental campaigners have called it a “missed opportunity”. The last international agreement on ocean protection was signed 40 years ago in 1982 – the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

That agreement established an area called the high seas – international waters where all countries have a right to fish, the right of ships passage and to collectively do research. Marine life living outside of the 1.2% of protected areas are at continued risk of exploitation from the increasing threats of climate change, overfishing and impacts from shipping traffic.

Over the last two weeks 168 members of the original treaty, including the EU, came together to try and make a new agreement. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that documents the status of the world’s biodiversity and their Senior High Seas Advisor, Kristina Gjerde, explained why this treaty was so important: “The high seas are the vital blue heart of the planet. What happens on the high seas affects our coastal communities, affects our fisheries, affects our biodiversity – things we all care so much about.”

The negotiations focused on four key areas:

• Establishing marine protected areas
• Improving environmental impact assessments
• Providing finance and capacity building to developing countries
• Sharing of marine genetic resources – biological material from plants and animals in the ocean that can have benefits for society, such as pharmaceuticals, industrial processes and food

More than 70 countries – including the UK – prior to the meeting, had already agreed to put 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas. This would put limits on how much fishing could take place, the routes of shipping lanes and exploration activities like deep sea mining. Deep-sea mining is when minerals are taken from the sea bed that is 200m or more below the surface. These minerals could include cobalt which is used for electronics, particularly lithium-based batteries, but the process could also be toxic for marine life, according to the IUCN.

This week’s failure is largely because of the greed of countries in the High Ambition Coalition** (HAC) and others like Canada and the United States. They have prioritised hypothetical future profits from Marine Genetics Resources over protecting the oceans. This has undermined progress made on Marine Protected Areas in the draft Treaty text. The High Ambition Coalition is risking abject failure to deliver on their commitments to protect the oceans and finalise a Treaty in 2022. Not only have they failed to finalise a Treaty during this round of negotiations, but the text is lowering its ambition by the minute. The world is facing a Treaty that will struggle to deliver 30×30, and takes an unfair and neo-colonial approach by refusing to commit any finance for the benefit of all countries.
*There is no official list of the HAC group’s members, but as of 2021, in addition to the European Union, countries in the HAC include Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Fiji, Jamaica, Mexico, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Saint Lucia, and the United States among others.



Laura Meller of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said from New York last week:
“The oceans sustain all life on Earth, but the greed of a few countries means this round of talks for a UN Ocean Treaty is set to fail. The High Ambition Coalition has utterly failed. They should be the No Ambition Coalition. They have obsessed over their hypothetical future profits, undermining all the other progress made at these talks. Unless Ministers urgently pick up the phone today to their counterparts and hammer out a deal, this Treaty process will fail.” In 2019 Greenpeace proposed a 30% protection of oceans by 2030, a target that scientists say is crucial in order to safeguard wildlife and to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Greenpeace produced a report: 30×30: A Blueprint For Ocean Protection, which was the result of a year-long collaboration between leading academics at the University of York, University of Oxford and Greenpeace.

But in New York last week countries failed to reach agreement on key issues of fishing rights and also funding and support for developing countries.
The result: UN Ocean Treaty talks failed to reach agreement on a Treaty which can deliver Ocean Sanctuaries across 30% of the oceans by 2030.

World Wildlife Foundation’s (WWF) Senior Ocean Governance Expert Jessica Battle – who was at the negotiations said that the Arctic was a divisive issue: “As it opens up due to climate change and we have much shorter winters, that is going to open up a whole new area of extraction. There are concerns that without this treaty not only will marine species not be protected but also some species will never be discovered before they become extinct.” It is interesting that America has just appointed an Ambassador for the Arctic. (www.bbc.co.uk, 27 August 2022). This new US ambassador will engage with the seven other Arctic nations – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia – as well as indigenous groups and other stakeholders, said State Department spokesman Vedant Patel. “Peace and stability in the region are of ‘critical strategic importance’ to the US and a priority for Secretary of State Antony Blinken”, he added. The announcement comes as Russia steps up its presence near the North Pole, while China has been building Arctic research stations. Geopolitics again rears its head!

It is not yet clear when countries will come back together to continue negotiations – but a deadline has been set for the end of the year. But…they have a jam-packed calendar of international meetings on other matters between now and January – including the annual climate conference COP27 and the UN General Assembly meeting. In the previous treaty from 1982 there were promises for support that were not fulfilled, and this has left some developing nations frustrated. The fate of the oceans also depends on global action on climate change – which is decided as part of other UN negotiations. The world’s seas have absorbed 90% of the warming that has occurred due to increasing greenhouse gases produced by human activities, according to NASA. Billions of people rely on healthy oceans, and world leaders have failed all of them. It now looks like protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, the so-called 30/30 agenda will be impossible. Scientists say this is the absolute minimum necessary to protect the oceans, and failure at these talks will jeopardise the livelihoods and food security of billions.

“The half of our planet which is high seas is protecting terrestrial life from the worst impacts of climate change,” said Prof Alex Rogers from Oxford University, UK, who has provided evidence to inform the UN treaty process.

So, what about our inshore waters in the UK?

Meanwhile closer to home: Britain has a combined stormwater and foul sewerage system that carries rainwater and dirty wastewater from toilets, bathrooms and kitchens in the same pipes to the treatment works. During heavy rainfall, especially when the ground is too dry to absorb the excess water, the works are inundated; to avoid raw sewage flooding homes, roads and other open spaces, it is temporarily discharged into the sea and rivers. While this is supposed to be exceptional, the charity Surfers Against Sewage noted that pollution warnings were in place for dozens of beaches in England and Wales after heavy rains last week.

Wastewater and sewage enter aquatic systems from sources ranging from surface runoff and septic systems to wastewater treatment facilities and storm drain outfalls. The four main types of waste-water are domestic, industrial, agricultural and urban. Domestic wastewater consists of black water containing human and animal faecal matter as well as gray water from household activities like bathing, washing, cooking and gardening. Industrial wastewater consists of industrial waste like pulp, paper, petrochemical runoff, chemicals, salts and acids. Agricultural wastewater comes from agricultural activities, contaminated groundwater and farming techniques, especially related to fertilizers and pesticides.

Domestic wastewater contains pollutants ranging from biologic hazards and microplastic particles to soaps and fats. Agricultural wastewater contains biologic hazards, salts, pesticides and fertilizers. Urban wastewater includes domestic and industrial wastewater but also contains runoff from storm drains. Storm drains carry pollutants from yards and parks (dirt, pet waste, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers) as well as from streets and parking lots (oil, gasoline, dirt and trash). Industrial wastewater contains a wide range of chemicals that include petrochemicals and other chemicals, acids, radioactive materials and salts. Recent findings show that a variety of drugs including recreational drug consumption also contaminate wastewaters Biologic hazards found in wastewater include bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses. Bacteria and bacterial diseases range from E. coli, typhoid fever, salmonella, cholera and shigellosis. Fungi include aspergillus. Parasites include cryptosporidium, giardia and roundworms. Viruses like hepatitis A can also be present.

Permitted industrial wastes often pass through the same sewer treatment facilities as domestic wastes. Industrial waste often contains a variety of chemicals and may also contain heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic in residual levels of concentration again permitted by the regulator. Not all of these chemicals are completely removed in sewage treatment plants, so such chemical residues are released into rivers, lakes and marine waters. In addition, some waste may be released or spilled into aquatic ecosystems without any treatment. The effects of sewage pollution on marine life impact organisms throughout the food chain.

Heavy metals build up in fish tissues as the fish consume plankton, algae and smaller prey containing the metals. This process is called biomagnification. As other animals, including humans, eat these fish, the heavy metals can reach sufficient concentrations to poison the consumer. These heavy metals may accumulate in toxic amounts for fish as well.

Urban sewage includes litter washed into storm drains and eventually into waterways. An estimated 70 percent of this litter ends up on the seabed, about 15 percent lands on beaches and about 15 percent is floating in the ocean. Most of the litter, 70 percent, is plastics with metal and glass making up the majority of the remaining 30 percent. Studies show that more than 1,200 aquatic species interact with the litter by eating it, living in or on it, or getting tangled up in it. Much of the plastic is in the form of microplastics, tiny pieces from the breakdown of larger plastics. Animals as diverse as mammals, fish, crustaceans and others are impacted by this litter.

Last year, Southern Water was fined a record £90m for dumping billions of litres of untreated sewage into the sea in West Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. In January there were concerns from bathers and oyster fishers about Southern Water dumping raw sewage into the sea at Whitstable resulting in sickness from eating oysters harvested locally.

Three EU MEPs have also complained “We fear for the negative consequences on the quality of sea water that we share with that country and as a result on the marine biodiversity as well as fishing and shellfish farms,” they wrote to the environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius. The MEPs are Pierre Karleskind, the chair of the European parliament’s fishing committee, Nathalie Loiseau, a former French Europe minister, and Stéphanie Yon-Courtin, who is also a regional councillor in Normandy, where the coastline risks being the worst affected by UK sewage.

“Since Brexit, the United Kingdom has exonerated itself from [EU] environmental rules,” they wrote in a letter headed: Britain’s pollution of the waters in the Channel and North Sea. It pointed out that although no longer bound by EU rules since January last year, the UK had signed a commerce and cooperation agreement as part of the withdrawal treaty and was still a signatory of UN law of the sea, a charter on the protection of shared waters. “Despite this, the UK has chosen to lower its water quality standards. This is unacceptable and calls into question the efforts made by EU member states over the last 20 years. The UK is committed to preserving the seas that surround it and that we share,” they wrote.

But there are other places suffering. In the 1970s our family lived close to the North Yorkshire coast…wonderful for fossils and marine life, and we took the primary school children to “work the tide” and discover the sea creatures. Fears have come after reports from residents on the North Yorkshire coast after a mass of dead crabs and rotting lobsters littered the coastline between Marske and Saltburn late last year, while further piles of dead crustaceans were spotted in Seaton Carew and Seaham in County Durham. According to Mr Harrison, fishermen believe they have lost up to 40 miles of the coastline, as crabs and lobster have disappeared from the North Yorkshire coast. They claim there is not a living thing within three miles of the coast from Teesport to Scarborough.

The investigation by the Environment Agency, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) examined a range of potential causes. They included licensed dredging, chemical contamination, activities related to offshore windfarms, the presence of algal blooms and aquatic animal disease. Many local people felt the removal and dumping of vast tonnages of toxic waste off the Tees coast to enlarge the dockside facilities could be implicated. Previously, there were the giant Redcar steel works and ICI chemical works, but now a site for a Freeport which they believed was a causative factor of the mass mortality over a 40 mile stretch of coastline. Harmful phytoplankton blooms said by DEFRA to be responsible, do not, according to fishermen, occur in the North Sea in late September and October.

No “single, consistent, causative factor” was found, according to the report from the government agencies, though it concluded it was unlikely dredging, chemical or sewage pollution, or animal disease were the cause. Recently, the new Teesport report said: “A harmful algal bloom present in the area coincident with the event was identified as of significance and the presence of the harmful algal bloom – a rapid increase in the population of algae which can release toxins into the water and affect other wildlife – in late September was indicated by satellite images. Tests on the dead crabs and lobsters confirmed they had been exposed to algal toxins.” The report said the significance of these algal toxins in the context of the deaths was not yet fully understood and government-funded research will look into the issue.

However, there is contrary opinion (www.teesvalleymonitor.com 15 June 2022) by Scott Hunter: Which chemical and where might they have come from? The chemicals were what the report refers to as “organic pollutants such as pesticides, dissolved metals, and cyanide. Earlier reports (SLAB5 2011-12) by Cefas (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture, one of DEFRA’s partner agencies) that sediment dredged from the Tees and deposited at disposal sites is consistently high in a group of contaminants known as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs). There are two zones for deposit of dredged material off the coast of the Tees. This report makes serious reading about the dumping of waste. The argument put forward is that the more pollution that there is in the marine environment, the less likely DEFRA is to apply its own regulations to managing it. Cold comfort for those affected.
To quote a Teessider: “The industrial revolution is now over, and it is time to clean up the mess it left behind. And for the benefit of those who would regale us with enthusiastic tales of the government’s levelling up agenda, we might restate our view more simply as follows: Levelling up involves cleaning up”.

I think that sums it up for much of our inshore marine environment. Marine pollution has consistently increased in the last few years and pollution from cruise ships has a major share in this. But that discussion is for next month. In the meantime, what does all this mean for the Greater Clyde Estuary and Scottish inshore waters? Well perhaps for the Clyde you had better ask the Clyde Marine Planning Partnership, which after umpteen years has still not instigated proper marine planning for our inshore waters and continues to allow untreated waste from 16 salmon farms to empty untreated into our inshore waters, or properly control bottom dredging and bottom trawling which is why the ecosystems in the Clyde are in such a poor condition. Marine Scotland, SEPA, and NatureScot as statutory consultees, as well as Crown Estate Scotland need to be more assertive and active in applying stringent management to these commons, which after all belong to all of us.

Hunter, Scott (2022) Mass Mortality in Tees Bay. DEFRA on the Defensive over Toxic Dumping in NE Waters. Tees Valley Monitor 15 June
Greenpeace (2019) A Blueprint For Ocean Protection. How we can protect 30% of the oceans by 2030.

Sally Campbell
August 2022