Creating a Coalition For Change

Horizons Article – Potentially Polluting Wrecks: Defusing The Ticking Timebomb…

Across the world’s oceans, more than 8,000 of the shipwrecks left by two world wars still contain significant amounts of oil – possibly as much as 20 million tonnes. That is 500 times more oil than the amount released in the Exxon Valdez incident.

Erosion over time, exacerbated by increased storminess due to climate change, along with port development and ocean industrialisation, have massively increased the risk of catastrophic pollution events caused by these wrecks. However, incomplete data on location and condition, combined with complex governance issues, have resulted in the need for high-cost ‘emergency response’ work rather than planned interventions.

As Mark Spalding, President of The Ocean Foundation explains, more proactive management is needed to deal with scale and urgency of this safety threat:  “Too often, a leak is only discovered when it is already causing harm. We know it is certainly far less expensive to prevent pollution than it is to rebuild coastal industries and communities or restore damaged ecosystems. Coordinated action is needed now.”

Photogrammetric Survey

Major Projects Foundation divers undertaking a photogrammetric survey of a potentially polluting wreck in Bikini Atoll World Heritage Site.

Creating a coalition for change in a complex system

Lloyd’s Register Foundation is building a global coalition of experts to create technical standards and engage international bodies in order to enable a more strategic response to the challenge. Yet working to engineer a safer ocean is only one element of a multi-dimensional problem. Some of these hazardous wrecks also act as artificial reefs and enhance local biodiversity, often contributing to the eco-tourism economy. Many are designated as of historic value and as war graves. In addition, potential pollutants are not just residual oil – munitions and other chemicals create both toxicity and safety hazards.

Partners such as International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Committee on Underwater Cultural Heritage (ICUCH) – which is part of the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) – both official advisors to the UN – will ensure that natural and cultural heritage values are fully recognised in assessment, remediation, and restitution efforts.

IUCN has already passed resolutions urging international cooperation and Joao Sousa, their Senior Programme Manager, believes that a holistic approach is vital: “By prioritising the protection of our oceans and the preservation of the myriad species that call it home, we can not only safeguard biodiversity but we are also ensuring safety and the sustainability of livelihoods that depend on these precious marine resources.”


Building local capacity and capability is essential

Some of the most intense concentrations of these wrecks are in the Global South, but resources currently don’t match the threat. Waves Group Ltd provide high resolution scans and risk assessments of pollution from wrecks to users worldwide. Their CEO, Simon Burnay, commented: “Agencies are beginning to take a more systematic approach to assessment of legacy wrecks but surveys show accelerating structural collapse and a near certainly of pollution events – we are entering a period of severely heightened risk.”

Raised awareness and local capacity building are essential. To this end, Marinas Guardian recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Conservation and Environment Protection Authority of Papua New Guinea, and are working closely with the National Maritime Safety Agency there, to help accelerate establishment of large Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and address the risk presented by some 400 Second World War wrecks.

However, Jason Peers, CEO of Marinas Guardian, believes that policy frameworks are not adequate: “Polluting legacy wrecks just don’t have the visibility they should have in marine planning discussions – which is alarming given the scale of damage that could be caused to MPAs by oil release. We support established organisations such as the Major Projects Foundation to undertake strategic survey campaigns, but data collection must be combined with readiness to prioritise and undertake interventions. Availability of technical standards will be critical to raising finance to do this.”