Karen Scott (The Conversation)–Ocean plastic pollution was the focus of the recent United Nations Ocean Conference, which issued a statement supporting an earlier decision by the United Nations Assembly for the environment to begin negotiations for a global plastics treaty.
This initiative has been welcomed almost universally, but it should not overshadow the fact that we already have good international laws regulating ships that throw plastic overboard. We just don’t apply them correctly.
It is estimated that half of the plastic pollution of the oceans comes from some 4.5 million fishing vessels operating in national and international waters. Recent research suggests that over 100 million pounds of plastic enters the oceans from industrial fishing gear alone.
Better implementation and enforcement of existing laws would be a much faster way to tackle plastic pollution from ships than waiting for a new treaty to be passed.
Plastic waste from fishing vessels includes lost or deliberately abandoned fishing gear such as nets, pots, floats, crates and fish aggregating devices (FADs).
Plastics have been found in the deepest part of the ocean in the Mariana Trench and in remote areas such as Henderson Island in the Pitcairn Group. Lost or abandoned fishing gear can lead to “ghost fishing” where nets, FADs and other gear continue to “fish” for decades. Other impacts of ocean plastic pollution include entanglement, ingestion, transfer of invasive species and toxins, hazards to navigation, and fouling of beaches.
Global rules on plastic pollution from fishing vessels
Unlike land-based sources of plastic pollution, where global regulation is weak, international rules around plastic pollution from ships are strong, at least on paper.
Two main regimes have been developed within the framework of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). One is the London Dumping Regime, which regulates the deliberate dumping of plastic waste at sea from ships and platforms. The other is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which regulates both deliberate and accidental discharges of plastics from ships.
Under the London Dumping Regime, plastic waste, including fishing nets and FADs, must not be dumped or deliberately discharged by any vessel in all sea areas outside of the States’ internal waters. Although there is an exception for the disposal of materials incidental to the “normal” operation of ships, this cannot be said to include the deliberate disposal of plastic waste, given the damage it causes to marine ecosystems. .
This position was confirmed by parties to the London Regime in 2018, when they argued that the deliberate disposal of fishing gear is contrary to its objectives.
Accidental loss overboard
While the London regime does not apply to accidental loss of fishing gear, MARPOL does so by prohibiting the discharge into the sea of all plastics, including nets, FADs and other fishing gear, at both deliberate and accidental.
There is, however, a significant loophole: the ban does not apply to fishing vessels where “all reasonable precautions have been taken to avoid such loss” or where the discarding of fishing gear is necessary for the protection of the environment. ‘environment. Guidelines adopted in 2017 provide guidance on what constitutes reasonable precaution – for example, the proper sorting and collection of plastic waste in a way that prevents it from being lost overboard.
Plastic pollution has also become an issue for Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs). They collaborate with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on various initiatives to minimize the loss of fishing gear and the effects of ghost fishing.
For example, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which manages fisheries in the Southern Ocean, bans the use of plastic packaging bands on most vessels. .
The problem with these rules is the lack of enforcement. It is difficult to monitor and enforce the ban on plastic pollution from ships on the high seas. Flag states often lack the incentive to do so.
Practical measures such as gear marking and particular stowage technologies to reduce waste are often contained in non-binding guidelines rather than mandatory rules. And there aren’t enough incentives to persuade vessels to retrieve derelict gear they encounter while fishing.
Plastic anti-pollution solutions
States should use their legal powers under the international law of the sea to take action against vessels entering their ports if there is evidence that they have negligently abandoned or lost fishing gear at sea.
Flag States should require their own vessels to mark their gear and create financial incentives so that floating fishing gear can be retrieved and disposed of safely.
The London scheme has a robust compliance process that could be used more regularly to tackle the dumping of fishing gear and highlight this problem internationally.
While the new plastics treaty may ultimately play an important role in tackling plastics in the oceans, we don’t have to wait until then to better tackle plastic pollution from ships. We just need to better enforce the laws we already have.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.