EU Policy. Lawmakers agree tougher standards to tackle marine pollution

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Ringo H.W. Chiu / FR170512 AP Copyright Ringo H.W. Chiu/Copyright 2021 AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Ringo H.W. Chiu/Copyright 2021 AP. All rights reserved.
By Marta Pacheco
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Satellite monitoring is a key aspect of the bill meant to prevent spills in the sea.


Ship owners and operators will face greater accountability for their environmental impact after MEPs and EU governments agreed tougher standards to prevent pollution in European seas, following a political agreement struck in Brussels on Thursday evening (February 15).

The deal reached by MEPs and EU governments included a broadening of the range of substances that cannot be discharged from ships, to sewage, garbage and residues from the scrubbers used to remove toxic substances from exhaust funnels.

MEP Sara Cerdas (Portugal/S&D), who was part of the parliamentary negotiating team, said the deal will mean “more robust sanctioning” measures for vessels that pollute the ocean, more closely aligning EU law with its international obligations on prevention of pollution.

“The new rules introduce criminal sanctions for ships that commit pollution crimes and the inclusion of new polluting substances, such as pellets,” added Cerdas.

The issue of plastic pellet pollution gained prominence earlier this year after million of tiny particles washed up on Spanish beaches after containers fell from a cargo ship during heavy weather.

This came after the European Commission had already proposed to revise the 2005 Ship-Source Pollution Directive in June last year, in a bid to align various EU maritime bills with international regulations, to simplify reporting obligations, and to prevent fragmentation of regulations between EU countries.

National governments will now need to introduce mechanisms to impose “dissuasive fines” for all the ships found in breach of the new rules, in line with with criminal sanctions set out in EU environmental crime legislation adopted last November.

MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu (Romania/EPP), who as rapporteur was lead negotiator for the parliament, said it was important that the penalties “reflect the seriousness of the offenses” so as to act as a “true deterrent”.

“Member states must not falter in their duty to safeguard our marine environment. We need a concentrated effort, utilising advanced technologies like satellite monitoring and on-site inspections, to stamp out illegal discharges effectively,” said Marinescu, referring to the European satellite CleanSeaNet, operated by the European Maritime Safety Agency, which tracks vessels and monitors for oil spills.

The concept of satellite monitoring to prevent marine pollution has been backed by the NGO Seas at Risk, whose senior shipping policy officer Lucy Gilliam said it was “good to see new laws keeping up with the times”.

“This revision further aligns with the goals of MARPOL, a global treaty on marine pollution from ships, covering more types of pollution like waste, plastic, and discharge from scrubbers,” added Gilliam.

Recalling that around 80% of all international trade is fulfilled by deep sea maritime transport, the European Shippers’ Council (ESC), representing cargo carriers, applauded the political agreement.

“For shippers, it is very important that there are transparent tools which enables them to identify spillage of fuel, pollution by garbage, or underwater noise,” Godfried Smit, ESC’s secretary-general told Euronews.

Smit said the satellite CleanSeaNet is already instrumental in providing key data, and added ESC’s members were encouraged to monitor information carefully when choosing a shipping line to carry their containers.

“In general, we see that a very high percentage of carriers are quite compliant with the present rules, and are expected to be with the future ones,” added Godfried, noting the better the available data, the more shippers can also be held accountable for their choice of carrier.

The agreement reached on pollution from shipping now awaits formal endorsement by the EU Council and the Parliament before entering into force.

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