The sea is the engine room of the planet. It creates weather and helps to control balance of gasses in the air. The sea produces water through evaporation and rain. This water is essential for life on land, but the sea is vulnerable to upset and abuse. And, if the sea is upset, all of life on earth can be upset.
Our activities destroy life in the seas and oceans. Unless they are controlled, they will ultimately threaten our own survival.
The North Sea is a sea which is mainly surrounded by land. This land is almost the whole of Europe. You can almost guarantee that if you find a river or stream, in Europe, the chances are it will end up in the North Sea. It would be much easier if it was only one country which had to clean up its act, but, it isn't. It is actually most of Europe that is involved. If there was an agreement, it would have to be signed by all countries and this would be practically impossible to achieve. Therefore the problems in the North Sea aren't just a problem that can be cleared up overnight. The masses of pollution in the North Sea doesn't just destroy the marine life but it also makes recreational activities very difficult. The main problem is that in many instances raw sewage as well as sludge is pumped into the North Sea, that's not to mention the tons of direct dumping, atmospheric pollution, agriculture run-off, oil spillage, industrial waste including chemicals and other factors. Many British beaches are totally unfit for swimming because of the awful raw sewage swept ashore, totally spoiling what would be beautiful natural beaches. This problem is on a world scale. Something needs to be done.
Seas have always been used as dumping grounds but in the past, with a smaller world population, more biodegradable rubbish and less industry and heavy farming, the effects were less noticeable than they are today. Even larger oceans have become badly contaminated but the smaller, shallower seas, such as the North Sea, are in danger of becoming poisoned beyond recovery.
Sewage is a mÿÿor pollution problem. There is so much of it because as populations have increased so has the need to remove human waste. Many countries believe (or choose to believe) that by pumping sewage a long way out into the sea it will disperse and cause no harm. This is not the case. Untreated raw sewage, including excrement, condoms and sanitary items are pumped into the sea. Raw sewage is a serious form of water pollution as it causes disease in wildlife and bathers. A significant proportion of bathing beaches have unexpectedly high bacterial content mainly as a result of untreated sewage being discharged into rivers and the sea. In the short term, the health risk is slight and includes stomach upsets, eye infections and skin rashes. More serious long term effects include the risk of typhoid, salmonella and polio. Sewage sludge may be a safer option but contains dangerous levels of heavy metals, nitrates and other industrial contaminants. An increase in bacteria as a result of the presence of sewage means more oxygen is used up in the water, thereby making it uninhabitable for fish and other animal life.
Rivers run into the sea taking excess water and rubbish from the land. Society uses the sea directly as a dumping ground. Every day millions of tonnes of rubbish are thrown into the sea, most of which will never get broken down.
Direct dumping has again become worse as populations have increased and more people have taken to the water for their leisure activities. The dumping of glass, plastic, polystyrene from boats and from beaches is not only visual pollution but can effect the well-being of marine life. Chemical containers which are purposely dumped from ships may leak and their contents cause further pollution and threat to both man and wildlife. There are laws controlling direct dumping. Although there are limits on how far inland you can be before dumping a certain material, there is a problem with this because there is nothing to enforce the rules and rubbish can still eventually be swept ashore.
Atmospheric pollution is another form of pollution to effect the North Sea. Air pollutants eventually are blown into the sea. The more atmospheric pollution we make on land, the more the sea is effected. Also coming into this category is radioactive fallout and acid rain. Acid rainfall is caused principally by the release of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air from industry, burning fossil fuels and car exhaust fumes. Much of this ends up in the sea causing permanent damage to life there.
Agricultural run-off comes indirectly into the North Sea because it comes through rivers but it is still a bad pollutant. Agricultural run-off comes from farm land. It contains nitrates and fertilisers. These cause a build up of algae. The algae uses up all the oxygen so there is not any left for plants and animals. Pesticides which also come from agricultural run-off can kill sea animals. Growth hormones and antibiotics given to farm animals find their way into the sea where they effect the life cycles of marine wildlife.
Oil pollution at sea poses a great threat to wildlife. Oil comes from various sources. There are natural 'leaks' discharges of fuel oil from ships, spillages from oil refineries, spillages from oil rigs, tanker accidents and oil from where tankers have washed out their tanks illegally at sea. But the main source of oil is from rivers. The rivers are lined with industry all pumping out unwanted oil based waste. The problem with oil is that it takes a very long time for balls of thick tar/oil to break down. These giant balls of oil could still be around in decades to come. Oil also spoils beaches and prevents many leisure activities such as swimming, sun bathing, etc Every one knows how difficult it is to get oil off clothes and is an irritant to the skin. Major oil spills are not an irregular occurrence on the news and in other media sources. In major oil spills most of the wildlife on the coastlines is killed. Fish intake the oil and are immediately poisoned. Sea birds get their wings full of oil and sink when their wing feathers cease being waterproof.
In 1977 a major oil spill from the Ekofisk oil field leaked 31,040,000 litres into the North Sea. In 1993 the oil tanker Braer spilled 85,000 tonnes of oil into the North Sea near the Shetland Islands off Scotland.
Maybe one of the most dangerous pollutants in the North Sea is chemical pollution. Industrial plants in Europe that produce unwanted chemicals normally dispose of them into streams. Not only does this have devastating effects on the stream, killing both plant and animal life, but it soon runs into the North Sea having an even more disastrous effect there. Chemicals are not always directly dumped into rivers or streams. There is an ever-increasing problem from chemicals seeping off the hulls of boats. To protect the hulls of boats against algae and barnacles, a special paint is used containing a pesticide called tributyl tin (TBT). This gradually seeps into the sea, where it contaminates shellfish and even salmon. Only when the chemical has been said to harm humans, have people been finally been alerted to the dangers of tributyl tin (TBT).
Another major problem from industrial waste includes the release of heavy metals which cannot be broken down. These include mercury which effects the nervous system of sea mammals and fish and lead which causes kidney disease. Over 100,000 different chemicals find their way into the sea and often nobody knows what the long term consequences of these may be. Diseased seals and deformed fish at the mouth of the Rhine, are an indication of this environmental disaster.
In the past, radioactive waste has been disposed of in drums in the deep sea. Although this practice has now been stopped again no one knows the long term effects of these lethal drums.
A rather rare pollutant comes in the form of warm water. Many people do not see any harm in discharging warm water into rivers and seas. The pollutant is normally caused by power stations where it has been used in a cooling system. This 'thermal pollution' has caused mammals and fish to gather round warm water outlets rather than migrating to warmer seas. This makes them used to this temperature and if the outlet was to fail, they would die because of the drop in temperature.
Deep-water dredging for minerals result in about 97% waste material being thrown back into the sea. This creates high concentrations of heavy metals which cut out sunlight for phytoplankton in surface waters and introduces toxic metals into food chains.
In some of these cases improvements have or could be introduced. Raw sewage or partly treated sewage could go through more thorough treatment processes. This would prevent solid items being washed up on beaches and decrease the amount of pollution dramatically. Once treated the sewage could be used as fertiliser on the land. Direct dumping could be improved by making laws which have tighter restrictions on dumping in the sea. There would need to be large fines and patrols on both beaches and at sea to enforce the laws. Atmospheric pollution could be improved by having tighter laws for factories, reducing car exhaust fumes by limiting traffic, and, reducing the amounts of fossil fuels being burnt. By encouraging farmers to use more natural methods of farming without the use of fertilisers and pesticides, the amount of agricultural runoff entering the sea through rivers would be less. You might have subsidize farmers for natural farming. Education must be given to the public to not expect perfect food in order to conserve the environment. Oil pollution must be stopped by making tighter laws and enforcing them. Also countries need to be extremely well prepared in the event of an oil disaster so treatment and containment is immediate. Chemicals, again, need tighter restrictions. Penalties need to be imposed on industries disregarding these restrictions and a work force needed to make sure this is carried out. New ways must be found to dispose of hazardous materials or perhaps they should cease to be produced?
Some positive steps have been taken already. These include the banning of waste being burnt on incinerator ships which was ended in 1991. There are several international treaties to protect the North Sea e.g. The London Dumping Convention has banned the dumping of heavy metal and cancer producing waste into the sea and the Oslo Treaty has black listed chemicals that cannot be discharged into the North Sea. Also environmental organisations such as Green Peace have drawn public and government attention to environmental abuse in the North Sea (as well as other seas).
"The North Sea IS! the dustbin of Europe"
The North Sea serves Europe for gas, oil, fishing, transport (travelling across it) and recreational activities are based upon it.
"Since mankind first set foot in the sea it has muddied the waters"
The main problem is, that, even those countries in Europe that aren't bordering the North Sea still pollute it by river pollution and air pollution. This means the whole of Europe is responsible (and maybe other countries through acid rain)
BUT, finding a solution is easier said than done! Here are some of the many reasons why the North Sea can't be cleaned up, just like that!
Money- any solution would prove to be very expensive to countries, companies, tax payers and in turn the consumer.
Cooperating- everyone needs to work and agree - it is no good just one country cleaning up their act.
Acceptance- everyone accepting there is a problem and taking responsibility.
Willingness- willingness to change and accepting that some things may have to change in everyday life e.g. non perfect vegetables and higher water rates in order for our water environment to stay cleaner.
That's not the end of the story!- Man has used the North sea as a rubbish bin for so long now that it is not just prevention that is needed. Man also needs to repair the damage that has been done so far. Maybe a committee of experts needs to be set up to discuss what needs to be done and to discuss a plan of action!!
By working together, Europe can ensure that the North Sea has a future.