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Hidden pollution from shipping threatens sustainable ocean efforts - University of Portsmouth

Ships are the polluting ‘elephants in the room’ nobody is talking about despite a global drive to make oceans cleaner, according to new research.

Graphic showing where metals come off ships
Graphic showing where metals come off ships

Nearly every vessel, from commercial vessels to day-tripper yachts, are continually releasing substantial amounts of toxic metals into the sea, according to the study.

The study, led by Dr Gordon Watson, of the University of Portsmouth, coincides with the launch of the United Nations ‘Decade of Ocean Science’ to focus on healthy seas and a ‘sustainable blue economy’.

Dr Watson said: “It’s ironic that as the world is working really hard to remove plastic pollution, there is, at the same time, highly polluting vessels continuing to pollute the seas right under our noses. The United Nations and the world want healthy seas with sustainable ocean policies awash with more offshore wind farms, aquaculture, and sustainable tourism. All those aims are laudable, but toxic metals from shipping, which is critical to all these activities, is a hidden threat to healthy seas and nobody’s really talking about it.”

Alongside educating boat owners on using less toxic anti-fouling paints and anodes, Dr Watson and colleagues call for urgent legislation to ensure that shipping is front and centre of sustainable ocean policies.

The researchers studied data from the 1980s on the amounts of toxic metals in sediments of the English Channel region from over 300 coastal and offshore sites.

Although they found a steady reduction in overall levels of metal contamination in the seabed from the 1980s, 2010-13 showed an increase partially linked to specific metals involved in shipping activities.

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