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Tuesday, 6 June, 2000, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Marine rubbish 'costs millions'
shetland harbour in snow
For coastal communities like Shetland's the costs can be huge
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Marine pollution is not just ugly - clearing it up is extremely expensive, and it can even put lives at risk.

A study of the impact of marine debris and small oil spills off the coasts of northern Europe puts the total cost at 750 million.

It says present laws to prevent pollution of the seas are not working, and calls for them to be strengthened.

And the study bemoans "a key problem - the apparent apathy society has towards marine debris in general".

It is based on a two-year research project undertaken by KIMO, the local authorities' international environmental organisation, based in the Shetland Islands, UK.

Multiple effects

KIMO has more than 100 members in the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Faeroes, and the Netherlands, with associate members in Germany.

The study report says marine pollution is:

  • interfering with maritime traffic by damaging ships' propulsion systems
  • putting human lives and safety at risk
  • damaging opportunities for tourism
  • affecting the fishing and aquaculture industries
  • imposing unnecessary costs on rescue and emergency services like the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).
Councillor Jurgen Thomaneck, chairman of KIMO UK, said: "This research clearly indicates that the economic costs go way beyond the physical cleaning and management of beaches.

oiled birds
Oil claims many victims
"It is obvious that the costs to industries and services that have to deal with this pollution are substantially greater than previously understood.

"The polluter is simply not paying, and in some industries bad waste management is causing an economic burden to colleagues. This type of pollution is costing our society dearly."

As an instance of the threat it has identified, the report says that in 1998 the RNLI attended more than 200 incidents involving vessels with fouled propellors. Of these, 11% "were in life-threatening situations".

The report puts the cost of these rescues at 1m. It says floating debris such as oil filters and paint tins can spoil catches and damage nets, costing fishing vessels up to 2,000 per incident.

Blown onshore

Wildlife is often harmed by rubbish, with more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles estimated to die annually from swallowing or becoming entangled in plastic litter.

The report says marine garbage can cause problems on land, when strong winds blow debris ashore, exposing farm animals to risk from entanglement or from eating rubbish.

lifeboat on slipway
Lives can be put at risk
Using Shetland as an example, the study says that if every farmer, salmon farmer and fisherman were affected by marine debris to the worst degree possible, the total annual cost could be more than 5m.

A more realistic figure, it says, is closer to 1m. But Shetland represents only a small fraction of the north European coastline.

The report concludes that existing pollution legislation is hard to enforce, and there are no incentives for polluters to clean up.

Bringing it home

It wants vessel operators and crews to improve the way they handle waste, so that less ends up in the sea.

And it adds: "Tourists seem more concerned about dog fouling than plastics on the beach.

"Only when marine debris actually starts to cost individuals money does the level of concern grow."

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See also:

06 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Beach rubbish harms sealife
27 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
British beaches 'improving'
07 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
UK birds hit by French oil spill
24 Feb 00 | Scotland
Marine life protection plan
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