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Transport and marine conservation

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Conflict Stories

Story 1: Information to reduce ship strikes in the Pelagos Sanctuary for Marine Mammals
Marine traffic such as high-speed passenger vessels, naval ships and expanding commercial whale watching were all increasing in the late 1980s, which posed increasing risks of collision and disturbance to marine mammals in the area. As a result the Pelagos Sanctuary - a transboundary Specially Protected Area of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI) located in the North-western part of the Mediterranean Sea was proposed. To limit possible negative impacts on cetaceans within the sanctuary, specific restrictions have been implemented.

Story 2: Shipping routes in Swedish waters under investigation.
Research has shown that some intensively used shipping routes in Sweden have negative impacts (disturbance, oil spills etc.) on these species because of physical and noise disturbance and chemical pollution from oil spills. Due to the importance of these routes for Swedish and international maritime traffic, they Swedish Transport Administration claimed them as ‘areas of national interest’ in line with the Swedish environmental code.

Conflicting elements

Conflicts between the maritime transport sector and area-based marine conservation are due to the various direct and indirect impacts of maritime shipping on marine habitats and life.

  • Noise pollution. Underwater acoustic noise generated by the shipping industry contributes to ambient noise in the ocean. Noise affects numerous marine species in many ways, including protected species and sanctuaries.
  • Collision. Collisions between marine mammals and vessels are known as “ship strikes” and mostly affect large cetaceans. Ship strikes of cetaceans are an issue of growing concern internationally, and are likely to represent the main fatal threat for whales on global scale. Ship strikes also result in economic loss for the shipping companies due to costs of repair, impact on reputation, and timetabling issues.
  • Accidental oil spills. Vessels can pose a threat to marine protected areas through accidental spills of oil or other toxic substances. Accidents that lead to the release of large quantities of oil can have major environmental impacts on a wide range of species, causing damage also to coastal environments and affecting sectors such as tourism and fishing.
  • Discharge of hazardous waste and contribution to invasive species. Vessels can pose a threat to marine biodiversity through accidental spills (of oil or other toxic substances) or through the periodic discharge of waste waters into the marine environment. Among all the ship types, tankers tend to use the largest ballast water quantities, followed by container ships. 
  • Exhaust emissions. Fuel oil used for maritime transport contains 3,500 times more sulphur than fuels used for onshore transport. Nitrogen emitted by ships contributes to eutrophication of the marine environment, which indirectly impacts on biodiversity.
  • Physical damage to habitats. Vessels can negatively affect marine habitats and animals through the use of their anchors. In shallow areas, bottom sediment is resuspended, with impacts on surrounding benthic communities.
  • Port expansion. Ports are expanding in response to larger vessel sizes and number, putting pressure on the natural environment. Some pressures only occur during the construction phase of ports, others such as port illumination are chronic, with negative impacts on biodiversity.

Conflicts between the maritime transport sector and area-based marine conservation are strongest along shipping lanes and in areas with high noise pollution. Noise and chemical pollution can persist in the marine environment and affect animals and habitats far away from the vessels of origin.

Drivers of conflict

Shipping is considered a key maritime sector in the EU on account of the direct employment it offers and the role it plays in intermodal transport networks. The EU White Paper 2011 aims to achieve a 50% shift from road to rail and maritime transportation by 2050, likely leading to an increase in shipping in all European seas.

Increasing economies of scale result in larger ships being built. This requires deeper and wider shipping lanes, as well as larger port infrastructure. There is also increasing competition between ports, forcing them to look for new investment opportunities and expansion. 

International environmental policy sets out ambitious targets for area-based marine conservation. The Aichi targets for the Convention on Biological Diversity stipulate that by 2020, 10% of marine areas, especially those of high biological and ecological significance, should be managed as protected areas. Other political drivers include the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 14 “Life under water”, as well as EU-wide and national biodiversity and climate polices. In its MSFD the EU expects Member States to reach “good environmental status” of marine waters by 2020.