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DECLINING OCEAN POLLUTION DURING PANDEMIC

"Base of the sea is never a desert though it's endless". Our earth is the combination of 70 percent of water and 30 percent of land out of which a very minimal 0.96 percentage is accumulated by the fresh ground water. It is also a well-known fact that the resources in any form available in water is almost ten times the resources in the water. With the early 1400s, man started utilizing water mode of transportation and travel across the globe. Now water mode of transport is considered as the cheapest mode of transportation and is used for bulk transport from one continent to the other. The whole system is known as the shipping or the maritime industry. This has turned to be the major export import across the globe.

There are a set of activities identified as threat to marine environment i.e., ocean dumping, land runoff, dredging, Oxides of Nitrogen and Sulphur, ocean acidification due to absorption of carbon dioxide, sea water level rising, ozone depleting substances, waste discharge from ships, oil spills and plastic pollution.

The first route cause for plastic litter in the ocean is by fishing of planktons and then followed by metal waste, sewage sludge and radioactive discharge, which were intentionally discarded to the sea. This was in the early 1900s. By 1970s, the amount of plastic litters in the oceans showed shocking hike which made international authorities to look seriously on this subject.

Pre-Pandemic period has dealt with various issues including degradation of Maritime microscopic and macroscopic species. United Nations Environment Programme is the concerned authority for the conservation and governance of the environment at international parlance. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific deal with the protection and conservation of environment in Asia- Pacific Region.

Legal Framework

International Convention Relating to Intervention on the High Seas in cases of Oil Pollution Causalities 1969 and its protocol in 1973 empowered state control over maritime oil pollution. The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1975 is the first international agreement for the protection of marine environment. International Convention for Prevention of Pollution from the Ship 1973 or MARPOL exclusively deals with pollution from ships, which was modified by Protocol of 1978.

Thereafter the United Nations Convention in the Law of the sea i.e. UNCLOS was enacted to deal the marine pollution issues and allied matters in detail. Part XII and associated provisions of UNCLOS dealt the states' responsibility towards protection of the marine environment. In 1990, International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation (OPRC) provided a global legal framework in combating major incidents on marine oil pollution. In 1992, Protocol Amended the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution imposing strict liability on the wrongdoers of oil spills in oceans. 1992, the Fund Convention was amended by the Protocol to provide compensation for oil pollution damage. In 1996, International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in Connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea was adopted by the International Maritime Organization but was never come into force. Further in 2000, Protocol on Preparedness, Response and Cooperation to Pollution Incidents by Hazardous and Noxious Substances was enacted to enhance the scope of OPRC. The reason why I mentioned the legislative framework for protection of marine environment is to show you that how can it be so unproductive sometimes.

Changes in Pandemic

UNEP News Report dated 13th May 2020 claimed that the Ocean Pollution is decreasing as a consequence of the pandemic. In the report, it is said, "COVID 19 pandemic could help turn the tide on well-being of oceans in AsiaPacific region". UN through its report recognizes that the temporary shut down due to the pandemic along with reduced demand for marine resources and traffic on the seas give a breathing space to recover from pollution, overfishing and impacts of the climate change.

This statement has immensely shocked me as I was on the presumption that discharge of surgical mask utilized during the pandemic would drastically increase the pollution. The statement of UNEP has made me to research on why is it so. As output there are mild and minute factors that causes major impact on marine pollution. Let's have a look.

Travel and Tourism

There is a great decline in overall tourism and travel. Hence the instant behavior of throwing empty bottles, disposable cups and cutlery etc. to the lake, river or to sea. There is also reduction in the number of ships traversing and hence there is absence of minimal oil discharge or spills and also noise pollution; which cater wider mobility to marine species. It is a fact that the number of cruise ships traversing on sea has declined with the shooting pandemic.

Accidents at Sea

As already said, the pandemic has put down the high impulse of travel and tourism across the globe. Due to the same, traffic at the sea is minimal. Hence there is less probability of happening of the ship accidents. Ship accidents whether cargo ships or the passenger ships, often sunk due to the collision or the trauma in damage. This can further lead to oil spills, discharge of metal parts to the deep sea, mixing of contents in the ship with sea may be plastic, fiber, cloth, rug, waste, dead bodies of animals or human beings etc. and birth of harmful organisms both micro and macro from the partly degraded or fully degraded objects which affects the sustenance of marine species.

Parasites from Harbor

In many instances, ships and vessels berthed at the harbor carry local organisms which attach to the outer bottom of the ship. Ships as carriers, carry these organisms and commute to different countries where these organisms left over in the territorial waters of various countries and sometimes they multiply and kills other useful marine organisms. Different organisms may present in different harbors which is completely based on the climate, environment, salinity of water, temperature, presence of other organisms and contents in sea water such as pollutants, organic discharge etc. During the voyage the parasite organisms which is attached to the ship mingle and drops into sea water and breeds to produce more to the group. In further it attacks planktons and other microbes which actually sustain for keeping up the environment balance.

Nurdle Supply

Nurdle is a tiny pellet of plastic which is used as raw material in manufacturing plastic products across the globe. Nurdles on a bulk quantity are often shipped to different countries for manufacturing purposes on daily basis. Jace Tunnel, Director, Marine Science Institute, University of Texas in the Nurdle Survey report says "where I am in Texas, there are certain beaches that allow people to still go to as long as people stay 6 feet apart and do not gather in groups more than two people." Also a study published in New England Journal of Medicine states "COVID 19 was detectable on plastic and stainless steel up to 72 hours and cardboard for 24 hours". This has stepped back many people from touching and litter plastic and stainless steel at public places like beaches, lakes etc.

Fishing

Legal fishing has been prohibited for temporary timeframe to handle COVID 19 in many countries. Though illegal fishing is reportedly and unreported conducted, the volume fished has a drastic change. Due to the same, lot of fishes and other species including planktons which were listed as species at the verge of extinction has come out of the danger zone by breeding and life from exploitation. Though COVID 19 has allowed ocean to regenerate, there is a fear that the pandemic will affect the aquaculture activities in the country.

Disposal of Protective Measures

Due to COVID -19, the hourly basis change on of the PPE kits, masks, gloves etc. to protect from the deadly virus gives an alarm on the production of plastic waste across the globe. As already mentioned, the study published by the Medical Journal has forced many country to dispose waste like gloves, masks, PPE kits by permanent means rather that making it float into the rivers and then to the seas. This clearly points to how much waste we produce and ho we manage and mismanage it.

Natural Disasters

Floods, landslides, earthquakes etc. draws waste including effluence, hazardous materials to the ocean. Due to lockdown and temporary shutdown of various industries in most of the countries due to pandemic, pollution as to air, water, noise etc. has come down to reasonable level. So human activities probing the natural disasters have come down due to which the probability of the happening of natural disaster have greater chances to come down. This will definitely prevent the pollution of marine environment due to natural disasters to a certain extent.

Proof of in-effective Legal framework

I have already mentioned the various legislations at international level to regulate the activities at the sea and protect the marine environment. But the international authority United Nation openly testified drastic improvement in the marine environment in the news report, indicates the inefficiency of existing legal framework for the protection of marine environment and enforcement of existing laws. United Nations have several times in its report stated various statistics in its reports and various occasions such as conferences, summit etc. but this improvisation in the environment bags no credit to the authority as environment revamps its own in the drastic cut short of human activities. Hence the recognition by the United Nations with regard to the marine pollution clearly shows there is a need to regulate human activities to prevent pollution of marine environment. Also there is no effect or impact of existing legal framework for which they are crafted.

Concluding Remarks

Environment as such plays an inevitable role in balancing the life on earth. Environment include air, water, biological species, minerals etc. In the initial stage of pandemic where many countries declared lockdown, the first result was not seen on declining the community spread; but the declining pollution of air, water, noise and all environmental issues. News across the globe reported the presence of seals, walrus, dolphin, sea elephant, octopus, clearer Ariel view of places, fall down of smog, climatic corrections, growth of plants marked as rare and endangering and total revamping of environment itself. Nature has showed us human beings are not at all the part of it; but people are the real devastators of nature.

Though pandemic has affected the human community in a bad shape, a clear window of opportunity is open to legislate or execute or implement to protect the marine environment and regulate activities in the sea. Post-Pandemic will be new normal so that window of opportunity as said can be effectively implemented.

Adv. Anu Bhuvanachandran is Partner, Outsay Legal.

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