Hong Kong Customs displays 82.5kg of rhino horns from South Africa and destined for Malaysia. Photo: ISD

Second Postcard from the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee

By Daniel Hubbell, EIA Policy Analyst

Last week, the Environmental Investigation Agency’s wildlife team celebrated the 4th of July by returning to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for the 71st meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 71). The London-based IMO is the international body tasked with overseeing marine shipping and vessel traffic on the open oceans, and that includes protecting both human lives and the marine environment from potential harm.

Shipping traffic, while not without risks throughout all of the world’s oceans, poses particular risk in the ecologically sensitive Arctic, which faces an uncertain future as climate change warms the polar regions at twice the global rate. As early as 2040 the Arctic may be free of sea ice in the summer. As a consequence, the region is increasingly open to commercial development and greater ship activity. In the first six months of 2017 the company Sovcomflot shipped 20 million tons of crude oil from Arctic oil fields near the Gulf of Ob, utilizing the Northern Sear Route along the Siberian coast to reach European and Asian markets.

Particularly for the Arctic’s resident cetaceans, like the beluga whale, this rising vessel traffic increases disruptions from vessel noise and risks a possibly catastrophic spill of heavy fuel oil (HFO).

All significant oil spills are dangerous, but HFO demonstrates a unique persistence that can prolong its impacts long after other types of fuel oil have dispersed. In the Russian White Sea for instance, more than a decade after a 2003 HFO spill, some water samples taken near the spill site continued to record contamination levels more than 22 times the Russian Maximum Permissible Contamination Level. The local beluga population has all but abandoned these areas. The risk of using HFO is already known to the IMO, and both the use and carriage of HFO is banned in the Antarctic.

EIA’s goals for this meeting were to restart the IMO’s discussion on avoiding marine mammal areas in voyage planning and to ensure HFO was included on the IMO’s next working period. A few years ago, under the IMO’s 2014 Polar Code, both the impacts of noise and possible ship strikes of larger whales (like bowheads) by vessels traversing the Arctic had been addressed. Under navigation, ship’s masters are required to account for marine mammal migratory routes and density areas in their voyage planning. However, in EIA’s outreach, no country has been taking steps to compile this information for mariners, or working on implementing the provision internationally. Therefore, in collaboration with several other organizations, EIA submitted two papers to MEPC 71 outlining the provision, and how it could be implemented. Canada, France, and Monaco supported the paper, and EIA will be working with IMO governments at the Navigation, Communication, and Search and Rescue sub-committee next year to help implement the provision.

Better still, Canada, Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States formally requested the IMO include mitigating the risk of HFO use in the Arctic onto its work plan for 2018-2019. The proposal was supported enthusiastically by a number of other member states, and the IMO agreed to consider concrete proposals to reduce the risks of HFO at the next MEPC meeting in April 2018. As early as 2019 the IMO could conclude this debate and take firm action on HFO. EIA strongly believes the best and simplest way to reduce the risk of HFO use is to simply phase it out entirely from the Arctic region by 2020. To do otherwise would pose an undo risk to the wildlife of the Arctic and the people that depend on them.

For MEPC 71, EIA worked in collaboration with the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), to produce a briefing identifying some of the possible areas at risk from increasing shipping. Check it out here.