Commercial Vessel Compliance

4/8/2015: Marine Debris in the Arctic: Sources, Science, Impacts and Possible Solutions

UPDATE: The second paragraph was corrected to remove the wording ‘specifically cruise ships’ as a source of potential discharges. The correction was made to remove any unintended focus on this segment of the professional maritime community. The previous version of this blog unintentionally implied that cruise ships are engaging in deliberate dumping of plastics and debris in the Arctic. In fact, the cruise industry has been a leader in maritime environmental stewardship, including the responsible management of garbage, for many years. Thank you for your readership of Maritime Commons.

Written by David Condino

The Coast Guard’s Office of Port and Facility Compliance, or CG-FAC, is taking a leadership role in interagency and international efforts to promote stewardship of our oceans and protect the marine environment, including the U.S. coastal waters and the high seas areas of the Arctic Ocean. CG-FAC staff represents the Coast Guard on both the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee, or IMDCC, and the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment, or PAME, Work Group delegation. Climate change and the diminishing of both annual and multi-year ice in the Arctic regions over the recent past have seen an increase in interest in fishing, oil and mineral extraction activities, shipping routes for cargo vessels and even cruise ships in the Arctic.

Recently, the Coast Guard highlighted the fact that as more ships transit highly productive, yet relatively pristine, Arctic waters, the risk of pollution rises accordingly. This includes the discharge of plastics and other debris due to lost gear, casualties, and other incidents.

Scientists studying ocean currents and ice cores from the arctic have discovered that marine debris, especially small bits of plastic, already in the ocean at lower latitudes are being carried on deep ocean currents into the arctic and are accumulating in seasonal and multi-year ice. One great concern is that as the ice melts due to climate change, this ice bound plastic, which can release toxins and be ingested by marine animals, fish and marine mammals will be re-released into the ocean. Discharges from shipping in the Arctic can only exacerbate the issue. Waste management for both ships and port communities in the Arctic is especially challenging given the remoteness, lack of existing port infrastructure, seasonal weather challenges and sensitivity of the environment, and might beg the question of just how to ensure Arctic ports could, even if they were able to accept ships waste, manage that waste without the risk of pollution to the ocean from their land based facilities.

While the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, or MARPOL, applies to Arctic waters and amendments to MARPOL are meant to provide better protections for ships operating in Polar Regions, it remains the responsibility of each country to enforce the provisions relating to keeping all types of ship’s waste out of the water. Those international regulations include the requirement for each country to ensure that reception facilities are available at ports for ships that need to discharge their operational wastes including all types of garbage that can contribute to the accumulation of marine debris in the ocean and eventual degradation of the Arctic marine environment. But siting, operating and maintaining waste facilities in small, remote ports in the Arctic present additional challenges and risks to both the environment and to culturally sensitive areas in the far north.

One solution that PAME is working on is the basic concept of “carry in, carry out” for ships operating in Arctic waters, using the concept of regional waste management planning where ships discharge all wastes at designated ports outside the Arctic and retain wastes until they leave the Arctic. The concept would require careful planning and possible redesign and or repurposing of dedicated space aboard ships for waste management and ensuring that designated regional reception facilities have the extra capacity to handle the additional ship’s waste in an environmentally responsible manner.

This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.