Oceans, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea… Part IV


As I had mentioned in my last article, because of human activities on land, oceans’ health is under serious threat.  We will now go into the details of marine pollution.   However, before going deeper into it (pun intended!), it is necessary to understand how essentially our life depends on oceans. 

In the last article, we saw oceans absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur and exhale oxygen for us to breathe and dimethyl sulfide for cloud seeding and keeping the temperature of the planet under control.  We also saw how oceans develop monsoon process which is a lifeline particularly for us in the Indian subcontinent.  As dwelled upon earlier, Oceans services to humanity are innumerable.  And the continuation of humankind entirely depends on the well-being of oceans.  Unfortunately, human activities on land take marines for granted, and oceans well-being is therefore under severe threat.


What is Marine Pollution?

Now that we have sufficiently understood the importance of oceans’ services for our existence let us now move ahead and see how human activities are threatening the well-being of oceans or in other words how we are polluting our oceans.  What is marine pollution?  

Marine is an adjective, as per Oxford dictionary, meaning relating to or found in the sea; for example, marine plants and marine biology.  It also tells us about shipping or naval matters like marine transport or marine insurance.  The word “marine” originates from Latin word marinus.

And the word “Pollution” comes from Latin pollution, and it means – “the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance which has harmful or poisonous effects.”  As per its etymology, the initial references to this word are found from late 14th century.   The word then was being used to imply “discharge of semen other than during sex,” (!) and then later, “desecration, defilement.”  In Late Latin pollutionem (nominative of pollutio) which meant “defilement,”  was noun of action from past participle stem of Latin polluere, which meant “to soil, defile, contaminate,”  Present-day sense of “contamination of the environment” was first recorded in the year 1860, but was not familiar in use until 1955.

Marine pollution apparently, therefore, means the occurrence and inputs of wastes and the impact of these residues on the oceanic environment.  Marine Pollution as per definition by UN is – “The introduction by man, directly, or indirectly, of substances or energy to the marine environment resulting in deleterious effects such as hazards to human health, the hindrance to marine activities, impairment of the quality of seawater for various uses and reduction of amenities.”

Marine Pollution – Background

The dispersal of floating debris at sea has long fascinated people. As early as 1870 Jules Verne provided a graphic description of how floating debris accumulates in ocean gyres in the chapter on the Sargasso Sea in his famous novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

As compared to the history of the human history of marine pollution is quite brief, which is at the most last around 150 years.  The discovery of fossil fuels, followed by massive industrial revolution and development of almost entirely non-degradable, durable and low-density substance called as plastics; were a few main triggers to set marine pollution on the high-speed track.  Although marine pollution has a history of around 150 years, critical international laws to counter it were only enacted in the mid-twentieth century. Marine pollution was a concern during several United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea beginning in the 1950s. Most scientists then believed that the oceans were so vast that they had unlimited ability to dilute, and thus render pollution harmless.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were several controversies about dumping radioactive waste off the coasts of the United States by companies licensed by the Atomic Energy Commission, into the Irish Sea from the British reprocessing facility at Windscale, and into the Mediterranean Sea by the French Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique. Marine pollution made further international headlines after the 1967 crash of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon and after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill off the coast of California.

Marine pollution was a significant area of discussion during the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm. That year also saw the signing of the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, sometimes called the London Convention. The London Convention did not ban marine pollution, but it established black and gray lists for substances to be prohibited (black) or regulated by national authorities (gray). Cyanide and high-level radioactive waste, for example, were put on the blacklist. The London Convention applied only to waste dumped from ships, and thus did nothing to regulate waste discharged as liquids from pipelines.

Growth in research

Above graphical representation shows the trend in the numbers of (mainly) academic research papers on the marine litter problem.  The graph shows tremendous growth in the research about marine pollution over the years.  During the 60s when the study was in its infancy when it was still treated mostly as a curiosity.  However, through the 1970s and 1980s, when most of the threats to marine systems were identified, baseline data were collected on the distribution, abundance, and impacts of marine litter, and policies were formulated to tackle the problem. Research tapered off in the 1990s mostly because initial curiosity was over and the study mainly started focusing on the solution, despite on-going increases in the amounts of marine litter.  And it is only in the last decade, or so that research interest has been resurgent, following alarming reports of mid-ocean ‘garbage patches’ and increasing appreciation of the pervasive nature of tiny ‘microplastic’ particles (<0.5 mm) and their potential impacts on the health of marine ecosystems.

Having understood background of marine pollution, in next article we will see various sources of this menace.  Thank you.

Milind Joshi




2 thoughts on “Oceans, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea… Part IV

  1. Milind,
    Series of articles are very informative, well studied and written.
    If you invite suggestions please lets know where and how?
    Keep it up .
    Best wishes


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s