Marine litter reaches critical level in the Mediterranean

A Lebanese fisherman along the Beirut coastline in Lebanon, May 3, 2016. Privatization and pollution have made it difficult to scrape by on catches from the Mediterranean Sea. (Credit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Plastic pollution and other forms of marine litter in the Mediterranean Sea have reached critical levels, according to a recent report. On this year’s World Oceans Day, which aims to raise awareness of the devastating impact of plastic pollution on our wildlife, climate and health, it’s as important as ever to highlight the effects of pollution on the Mediterranean and on those who rely on it for their livelihoods.

The report, released by the United Nations Environment Program/Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP), provides the most comprehensive review to date on the effects marine litter has on one of the most important bodies of waters on the planet. Although the Mediterranean constitutes only 1 percent of the world’s oceans, it is home to more than 10,000 species and is a source of food, work and leisure for hundreds of millions in the 19 nations that border it.  

Because the sea has just two narrow points of contact with open oceans – the Suez Canal in the east and the Gibraltar Straits in the west – Mediterranean waters take around a century to renew. This exacerbates the damage caused by marine litter and other forms of pollution, which circulates longer than it otherwise would in other bodies of water.

According to the UNEP/MAP report, Mediterranean pollution is also made worse by its densely populated coasts, highly developed tourism industries, inputs of litter from rivers and heavily urbanized areas and the impacts of an astounding 30 percent of the world’s maritime traffic transiting the Mediterranean Sea.

The problem is also exacerbated by the fact that, up until few years ago, over 40 percent of coastal urban centers lacked sewage treatment facilities, according to UNEP/MAP, and 80 percent of wastewater was disposed of in the sea untreated.

For the 480 million people living on and near Mediterranean coastlines, this degree of pollution does not come without consequences. The level of plastic waste in the sea is beyond critical, and in some regions, the volume of microplastic in the water exceeds that of plankton. Marine litter ends up on beaches, reducing touring revenue and weakening coastal economies. And the cost of picking up the litter is high; according to the report, Spain spends more than 60,000 euros annually to remove litter from harbors.

Marine litter also has an impact on fisheries, and the effect is twofold: a sea full of floating garbage not only makes it more difficult to fish, but it increases costs with damaged vessels and equipment, and lost fishing time.

Efforts to clean the Mediterranean have not gone unnoticed; the civic movement Let’s Do It Mediterranean gathered 80,000 volunteers from communities all around the Mediterranean Sea and from three continents to participate in simultaneous cleanup events last month. The event was not just about cleaning up trash, representatives of the movement said, but transforming the public’s way of thinking.

National Environmental Action Plans have also been undertaken in all the northern Mediterranean countries, as well as in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan. Most countries have ratified the Barcelona Convention. And leaders from Euro-Mediterranean countries have increased efforts to reduce the pollution of the Mediterranean in the Horizon 2020 initiative, targeting municipal waste, urban waste water and industrial pollution.

Now, the Mediterranean faces a turning point. The pollution crisis has been identified and plans have been made to fix the problem. Whether these countries will stay committed to these plans amid the migrant crisis, border tensions and other issues remains to be seen.

Share.

About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com