In the early 1970s, the Mediterranean Sea was in dire straits.
Factories were leaching toxic chemicals into its fragile waters. Oil spills were blanketing its shores. And cities were flooding it with so much raw sewage, beachgoers risked exposure to infectious disease.
The pollution was so severe that many worried the Mediterranean, which had supported human civilization for 4,000 years, was dying.
“Once a symbol of the seas’ benefits to man, [the Mediterranean] became a symbol of man’s destructive impact on the seas," wrote Mostafa Tolba, the former head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in his memoir.
By 1975, Tolba and others at a newly formed UNEP had decided that the only way to save the sea was through an international treaty involving its nearly two dozen coastal states.
A year later, and despite what were in many cases deep political tensions, 13 countries signed the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution.
Over time, States would restrict ships from dumping chemical-filled ballast water; protect endangered animals, like turtles and monk seals; establish emergency response plans for oil spills, and push coastal cities to treat their sewage.
Former UNEP Executive Director Mostafa Tolba (left) said the Mediterranean had become “a symbol of man’s destructive impact on the seas." Photo: UNEP
The Barcelona Convention and the wider Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) would come to be the foundation of UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme, which today oversees 18 international accords designed to protect coastal and deep-sea habitats. Stretching from the Arctic to the South Pacific, those treaties involve nearly 150 countries.
While the world’s seas continue to face tremendous pressure from pollution, overfishing and, increasingly, climate change, the Regional Seas Programme is considered a bulwark against their collapse.
“For a long time, the ocean and seas were seen as these places that were far removed from the human world and as such became a dumping ground for waste, including hazardous substances,” said Nancy Soi, the coordinator of UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme. “That has since changed with the sustained call for action through the Regional Seas Programme.”
For a long time, the ocean and seas were seen as these places that were far removed from the human world.
Nancy Soi, coordinator of UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme
A long history
Humans have been polluting the world’s oceans for thousands of years. One study suggests that four millennia ago, heavy metals were dripping from human settlements into the South China Sea. But it was the massive industrialization after the Second World War that would push marine pollution into overdrive.
Metals like cadmium, copper, and lead began to flow en masse into the oceans.
In Minamata, Japan, the dumping of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, infamously killed hundreds and sickened thousands.
A barrage of new synthetic chemicals also started to slip into the ocean and spread like wildfire; in the 1970s, researchers found the pesticide DDT in the blubber of Arctic whales. More recently, scientists have found over 250,00 barrels possibly containing DDT off the Southern Coast of California.
In the 20th century, an increase in shipping led to a host of infamous oil spills, including the sinking of the supertanker Torrey Canyon off Great Britain in 1967 and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.
The sinking of Torrey Canyon off Great Britain in 1967 galvanized an effort to prevent against oil spills. Photo: PA Images via Reuters Connect
The situation would become so bad, famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and a colleague would write: “If Aphrodite had been born today from the wave, coming out of the foam, she would have boils on her bottom.”
Faced with the rising tide of pollution, countries around the world have turned to the Regional Seas Programme. Since its launch in 1974, 146 states have joined the programme’s 18 conventions and action plans. While the programme’s structure varies from region to region, it’s based on the fundamental notion that the only way to solve marine pollution is by getting neighbouring countries to work together.
A soon-to-be-released report on the programme found that in many places, it has helped dramatically reduce pollution and counter other threats to the sea, like overfishing:
- In the Mediterranean, beach litter has dropped nearly 40 per cent.
- In the Baltic Sea, the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous, which can create ocean dead zones, has slowed.
- In South Asia, states established a system to respond to oil spills.
- In the Caribbean, countries have created 50,000 square kilometres of marine protected zones
- In East Asia, 600 tour operators have pledged to reduce the impact of diving on sensitive marine ecosystems, like coral reeds.
- In the Antarctic, researchers are working to prevent the overfishing of krill.
The world has a massive problem with plastic.
A model programme
The Regional Seas programme would also rewrite the template for multilateral environmental agreements – the sprawling international treaties that govern everything from air pollution to climate change.
Launched in the early 1970s, the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) and the Barcelona Convention (which now counts 21 member states) was the world’s first “significant” international environmental accord, said Peter M. Haas, a professor of political science at America’s University of Massachusetts.
In a dramatic reversal from the past, Haas said the convention’s architects focused on slowly building support for a cleaner sea. They commissioned research on pollution in the Mediterranean, sounded the alarm about its findings and made a concerted effort to educate legislators about the problem – before finally pushing for concrete restrictions on pollutants. It was a strategy that would underpin accords like the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, said Haas.
“The whole Regional Seas Programme was built on a more dynamic vision of building awareness and capacity over time,” he said.
In the Mediterranean in particular, UNEP and the MAP have helped to build an institutional culture of environmental protection and management that’s laying the foundation for a more sustainable and resilient sea, says Tatjana Hema, UNEP/MAP Coordinator.
“The system will continue to evolve to address emerging challenges and new environmental threats. What is sorely needed at the moment is a surge in effective implementation and enforcement at the national level,” she added.
In the years to come, the Regional Seas Programme could play an important role in protecting the ocean from climate change, say experts.
The Regional Seas Programme is tracking the often-devastating effects that climate change is having on coral reefs and the animals that call them home. Photo: Unsplash / Sebastian Pena Lambarri
As carbon dioxide emissions rise, the world’s seas are becoming warmer and more acidic. That is imperilling a host of marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, the underwater cities that support one-quarter of all marine life. Since 2009, almost 15 per cent of the world’s corals have disappeared and most reefs could be beyond saving by 2034.
In places like the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean, Regional Seas programmes are tracking the effects of climate change, providing the scientific underpinning for legislation designed to save the seas.
Many Regional Seas programmes are also taking aim at another threat: plastic pollution. Every year, 11 million tons of plastic end up in the world’s seas, poisoning marine life and often finding its way into the human food chain, where research suggests it could cause a host of medical disorders.
Eleven Regional Seas programmes have rules designed to counter marine litter, though in many places the tide continues to rise.
“The world has a massive problem with plastic,” said Lefteris Arapakis, an anti-pollution campaigner and 2020 UNEP Young Champion of the Earth. Many countries, he said, are still not meaningfully coordinating their efforts to limit plastic pollution.
“I compare it to Game of Thrones. An army of the dead is coming from the North and we’re fighting among ourselves. That army of the dead is going to vaporize us.”
The whole Regional Seas Programme was built on a more dynamic vision of building awareness and capacity over time.
Peter M. Hass, University of Massachusetts
Vital for the future
The future of the world’s oceans and seas has deep implications for humanity. Coastal and marine ecosystems are vital to the livelihoods of 3 billion people. Their collapse could spark food shortages, drive up joblessness, and leave coastal communities exposed to the fallout from climate change, like rising seas and violent storms.
“Our ocean is in fact one giant body of water. Its health has an impact on everyone, whether you live by the sea or on the top of a mountain,” said Soi. “They cannot be a dump.”
Despite the challenges facing the world’s seas, Soi is optimistic. The Regional Seas Programme has a four-year action plan aligned with UNEP’s Medium-Term Strategy, which is designed to tackle the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.
As well, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, momentum is growing for a global agreement that would limit pollution in the open ocean.
Next week, at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2), leaders are expected to discuss the possible establishment of an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to kick-start work towards a global and legally binding agreement to address plastic pollution.
“There is hope for the seas,” said Soi. “Things will get better.”