Marine problems: Shipping | WWF

Sub-standard ships and poor shipping practices are leading to massive marine pollution and damage.

Find out what WWF is doing!

Container port on the North Sea, Antwerp, Belgium. rel= © WWF / Michel GUNTHER

This damage is caused by:

  • Transfer of invasive alien species: through ballast water and on ship hulls
  • Air pollution: through emission of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide
  • Physical and other damage: through dropping of anchors, noise and wave disturbances, and striking of whales and other marine mammals
Concentrated danger
The threats posed by shipping are not spread evenly across the oceans, but rather concentrated in busy shipping lanes and ports.

As shipping lanes become more and more congested, the level of pollution caused by shipping increases - as does the chance of spills and accidents.

Increased shipping traffic also threatens natural habitats around ports and near shipping routes. Seagrass meadows, wetlands, and mudflats - which are increasingly recognized as fundamental elements of a country's natural environment and economic resource base - are often located near or in maritime port locations.

Over 90% of all trade between countries is carried by ships

Some 50,000 merchant ships sail the world's oceans, transporting everything from food and fuel to construction materials, chemicals, and household items. In 2003, around 6.1 billion tonnes of cargo was shipped by sea, covering a collective distance of over 6 million kilometres.

Slow to change

International law limits the ability of coastal nations to impose and enforce their own environmental and navigation regulations on foreign ships passing through their waters. Instead, countries must use international conventions established through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

However, the current approach to setting international standards for shipping tends to be reactive, slow, and based on industry-driven compromises.

The phase out of single-hulled oil tankers is a good example. It was only after the single-hulled Exxon Valdez went down off the coast of Alaska in 1989 that the US introduced a phase-out of these old tankers.

It took the sinking of the single-hulled Erika ten years later off the coast of France for the member states of the IMO to accelerate the global phase-out to match that of the US. Even then, the provisional target date for the phase-out of all single hulled vessels was 2015.

The sinking of the single-hulled Prestige tanker in 2002 - causing the fourth oil spill off Spain’s Galician coast in 30 years - promoted the IMO to further accelerate this phase out to 2010 for all tankers and 2005 for the largest oil tankers.