The silent crisis: ocean dumping and its global impact

Ocean dumping is destroying our marine ecosystem and no one is talking about it. Yet, the illicit and direct discharge of pollutants into the ocean from industries, ships or sewage treatment plants can no longer go unnoticed

Up until the 1970s, companies worldwide saw the ocean as a convenient dumping ground for the waste produced by their manufacturing processes. Today, this practice, albeit somewhat regulated, remains alarmingly prevalent and illicit, with devastating consequences. Known as ocean dumping, this issue remains obscure to many.

What is ocean dumping and what ends up in our seas

Ocean dumping refers to the deliberate disposal of hazardous waste into the sea from ships, aircraft, platforms, or other man-made structures.

This waste often contains heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, and chromium, as well as hydrocarbons like heavy oils, substances like phosphorus and nitrogen, and organochlorines from pesticides.

Additionally, the world’s nuclear power plants contribute radioactive waste to the ocean. Evidence increasingly suggests that both short-lived and long-lived radioactive elements can be absorbed by marine life such as phytoplankton, zooplankton, algae, and then transmitted up the food chain to fish, marine mammals, and humans. Other materials disposed of in the ocean include human remains for burial at sea, ships, artificial ice docks in Antarctica, and fish offal.

The lack of proper education

Nations around the globe, led by the United States, have a long history of dumping toxic waste into the oceans under the false belief that if these toxic materials were released far enough from shore, they would not affect us or marine life.

As a result, waste, radioactive waste, munitions, chemical and industrial waste, and more have been disposed of in the ocean with little or no concern for the negative impacts. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this trend was based on the mistaken assumption that marine waters had an unlimited capacity to mix and disperse waste.

The 1960s and 1970s saw millions of tons of waste dumped into the ocean, with the numbers from 1970 alone being staggering:

  • 42 million tons of dredged material (34% of which was contaminated)
  • 5 million tons of industrial waste
  • 5 million tons of sewage sludge (significantly contaminated by heavy metals)
  • 0.5 million tons of construction and demolition debris

Moreover, EPA records indicate that over 55,000 containers of radioactive waste were dumped at three ocean sites in the Pacific Ocean between 1946 and 1970. This continued largely because regulating ocean dumping is a daunting task for governments, despite the acknowledged devastating effects.

Ocean dumping has terrible effects inside and outside the sea

The Safe Water Drinking Foundation emphasizes that the ocean is an interconnected ecosystem where every factor affects another. Consequently, when a habitat is rendered toxic by chemicals and pollution, all other marine systems dependent on it struggle to survive.

Many marine species, including turtles, fish, shrimp, crabs, rely on algae for survival, but algae are increasingly being lost. The disappearance of such a vital food source is alarmingly impactful on marine life today, forcing fish and mammals to migrate in search of other food sources. Additionally, the disposal of waste such as plastics and metals negatively impacts marine life, trapping, injuring, and killing animals and fish that become entangled.

Furthermore, when ocean dumping harms marine life and habitats, it leads to several other effects:

  • Coral reefs are destroyed
  • Harmful algae blooms expand
  • Ecological imbalances are created
  • Ocean biodiversity is lost
  • Oxygen levels in seawater decrease: another direct effect of ocean dumping is the deoxygenation of our oceans. According to the IUCN, the overall oxygen content in the oceans has decreased by about 2% since the mid-20th century, while the volume of ocean waters completely devoid of oxygen has quadrupled since the 1960s.

What we can do to prevent dumping in the oceans

Currently, the deliberate disposal of waste or other materials in the ocean is internationally regulated by the London Convention of 1972 and the London Protocol of 1996. The United States regulates disposal through the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, which also implements the London Convention.

London Convention and London Protocol

The London Convention and the London Protocol establish global rules and standards to prevent, reduce, and control pollution of the marine environment from dumping. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOSC) requires states to adopt laws and regulations on ocean dumping that are no less effective than the global norms and standards. Furthermore, under Article 192 of the LOSC, countries have a general obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment.

The United States ratified the London Convention in 1975 and implements its requirements through the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972.

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