01 June 1995 00:00 [Source: ICB]
In the past the North Sea was a vital resource to the people who lived beside it. These days its ecological importance is becoming greater than its economic impact. But, as Dr Alja Schmidt-van Dorp of WWF discusses, has irreversible damage already been done to it and its inhabitants?
By Dr Alja Schmidt-van Dorp*
PEOPLES AROUND the North Sea's coasts have always enjoyed its benefits. The hostile elements of the water provided protection against intruders, while also a source of food and a means of communication and transport through shipping.
Nowadays, however, intruders threaten more from the air, food can be supplied from anywhere in the world and there are easier and simpler methods of communication and transport. But tranquility, space and scenic beauty are rarer than in the past and this applies also to the North Sea.
Fuel from the sea contributed to the increasing development of the North Sea countries' economies, including the chemicals sector and made the intensive production of food easier through the production of fertilisers and crop 'protection' substances (in agriculture and horticulture) and medicines (in intensive cattle breeding, pig and fowl raising, and shellfish farming).
This is not paid for in hard cash only. The environment suffers through destruction of half the natural coastline; sea bed pollution through dumping and offshore industrial waste; disease and mortality of fish and shellfish stocks by chemical contamination and eutrophication and destruction of drinking water resources. Approximately 110 000 chemicals are now on the Inventory of Existing European Chemical Substances, but even the potential impact on the environment of most of these is not yet known.
Toxic chemicals have been detected in wildlife from the Arctic to Antarctica - in polar bears, turtles, whales, alligators, dolphins, herons, seals, otters and humans, among other species.
Among these chemicals are substances blocking healthy biochemical processes and mimicking the hormone functions (but without the useful hormone performance) thus causing damage in humans and wildlife into at least the third generation. These include alkylphenolic substances, phthalates, styrene and bisphenol A.
The decline of the otter population in Britain was associated with contamination by organochlorine pesticides and PCBs . Breeding success has been severely reduced in birds and marine mammals by DDT and other organochlorine pesticides . Declining fish stocks may not be due to overfishing only . Contamination of the remaining fresh water resources may turn out to be a threat for future generations of fish and humans alike  .
The need for measures is often felt only when signs of danger or damage appear. The first and second International Conferences on the Protection of the North Sea (Bremen, 1984 and London, 1987) were called by the ministers responsible for the North Sea after widespread problems had occurred in the continental coastal waters, especially in the German Bight. These problems have been lack of oxygen in the bottom water and, as a consequence, mass mortality of fish and shellfish, beach pollution and poor bathing water quality, a permanent stream of beached oiled birds, increased prevalence of fish diseases, breeding failure among terns in the Rhine delta and among cormorants and birds of prey everywhere in western Europe. Before the third conference in The Hague (1990) the North Sea was hit by a viral epidemic and large-scale blooms of the toxic algae Chrysochromulina polylepis.
The former halved the number of common seals in the southern North Sea, the Wadden Sea and the Wash; the latter destroyed the livelihood of fish and shellfish farmers, in particular in the Skagerrak and Kattegat. Baltic seals failed to produce offspring and this was linked to changes caused by the accumulation of hazardous substances in their bodies.
At the Hague, North Sea ministers compiled a list of 36 substances for which the inputs were to be reduced by 50% by 1995, compared to 1985. Among them are several (mercury, cadmium, copper, nickel, zinc, lead, arsenic and chromium) and a range of organic contaminants and pesticides. The official figures of the Progress Report presented to the fourth Ministerial Conference in Esbjerg in June 1995, show that these reduction targets have only been met by all participants for those dangerous substances which have been discontinued (the 'drins, DDT and azinphos-ethyl). Of the heavy metals, only the lead input to the North Sea has been halved in all countries - partly due to the substitution of lead-containing petrol by lead-free petrol. Phosphate inputs halved because of the introduction of phosphate-free detergents.
Few countries reached the target for all heavy metals. Zinc has not decreased significantly and the 70% reduction target for the very hazardous substances, lead, mercury, cadmium and dioxins has not been met. The use of endosulfan has not fallen in France, Sweden, Switzerland or the UK, neither has that of trifluralin in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands or the UK. Several countries still dispute the merits of atrazine reduction. The data reported for organic contaminants are patchy and often impossible to compare.
It has been evident for a long time, that further treatment of waste, waste water and emissions would not result in sufficient protection of the North Sea. Pollution had to be tackled at source. The big point sources - production and treatment plants - were the first target. The huge number of diffuse sources - millions of farms, households and ships - have turned out to be more difficult to tackle.
Leakage and losses at production, construction and maintenance sites can cause unintentional but considerable damage to the environment. The distribution and fate of products, byproducts and waste are closely monitored in the metabolism of an organism but not always in the production process.
Therefore, some authorities have undertaken an audit of substance streams across such sites, usually achieved through 'gentlemen's agreements' with industry. The monitoring of flows of substances and energy can cut unintentional losses, save environmental costs by reducing pollution, and allows for comparison between alternatives.
The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) believes all hazardous substances must remain within closed systems of production/consumption/reuse, a cycle of which consumer behaviour is a part. The Best Available Technology (BAT), developed for a number of production sectors through various decisions and recommendations of the Oslo and Paris Commissions , should become Clean Technology for all hazardous substances. Even this is not enough to prevent all leakage. Therefore, persistent hazardous products, such as chlorinated paraffins and PVC should be phased out. The results from the North Sea Ministerial process have shown that for similar substances phasing out is the only realistic solution.
In the more open systems of agriculture and aquaculture, tracking and measuring losses is very difficult.
Fertilisers and manure are nowadays the main sources of ammonia and phosphates which enter the North Sea (for 1995 estimated at 1.2m tonne nitrate nitrogen, 152 000 tonne phosphate phosphorus) . Every year, more than 190 000 tonne of agricultural pesticides and tens of thousands of tonne of nonagricultural pesticides are released into the environment of the North Sea catchment area and much of this reaches coastal and marine waters.
The input of organic substances with suspended matter and colloids in rivers, ground and drainage water is considerable  but, so far, not quantified. This aggravates the oxygen regime and adds to the problems of algal blooms, as do raw sewage and sewage sludge.
Accounting for sales and application, combined with monitoring levels in the immediate environment, will improve the estimate of inputs of fertilisers and pesticides. It will allow for better decisions on the choice of crops and their balanced cultivation for every type of soil, and so restrict the costs for individual enterprises and the environment.
At the national level this information should be combined and used for stricter monitoring of crop 'protection' products and comprehensive reduction programmes.
The aim must be to reduce the use and emission of pesticides, and finally the dependence on pesticide use .
Other diffuse sources of marine pollution are merchant shipping, sailing and fishing, and these pose special problems for the inspection agencies because of their mobility.
An estimated 60 000 tonne of oil is dumped illegally at sea through operational discharges. This and legally discharged oil, and other lipophilic substances, cause mass mortality to coastal and sea birds, especially in seasons when they are particularly vulnerable.
Regulation on antifouling substances applied to small boats (through the International Maritime Organisation) has improved the water quality in coastal waters but still does not protect fish and shellfish along the busy shipping lanes of larger vessels .
Monitoring equipment for vessels is under development or available (such as the Ports Pro Marpol equipment for discharge water from ships) and monitoring tools for the identification and recovery of hazardous cargo, often lost in bad weather at sea, should be applied.
The economy in North Sea countries has grown at the expense of the quality of natural resources and the environment. The inputs of the hazardous substances listed in the 1990 North Sea Declaration seem, generally, to be decreasing, but the effects of current inputs will continue to be felt long into the future.
As one of the most heavily used and abused ecosystems in the world, more stringent measures are clearly needed. WWF believes that:
This is a joint task for industry, governments and citizens in the interest of both public health and the protection of the North Sea ecosystem.
Governments must teach industry through setting examples that pollution prevention pays and they themselves must learn from industry in joining international forces.
Only countries with a national Best Environmental Policy should enjoy the benefits of a wealthy and healthy North Sea.
*Dr Schmidt-van Dorp is North Sea officer for the World Wide Fund for Nature.
1. Mason and MacDonald; PCB and organochlorine pesticides residues in other spraints; their significance for regional otter strategies; 1993, Report WWF UK.
2. Colborn, T & Clement; 1992. Chemically induced alterations in sexual and functional development: The wildlife/human connection. Princeton Scientific Publishing, New Jersey.
3. Síeborg,B; 1995 An estimate of human impacts on the North Sea fish fauna, WWF International report
4. Substances mimicking oestrogen found together with hermaphroditic fish downstream of several sewage outfall in Britain.
5. Sharpe & Skakkebaeck; 1993 Are oestrogens involved in falling sperm counts and disorders of the male reproductive tract? The Lancet, Volume 341, 29 May 1993.
6. Oslo and Paris Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic
7. Ospar Report on nutrients in the Convention Area, 1995 (in prep)
8. Schmidt-van Dorp. A D; (1994) The kingdom of the scavengers. Proceedings of the Scientific Symposium on the 1993 North Sea Quality status report, Ebeltoft.
9. Parcom Recommendation 94/7
10. Hallers, C.ten, J F Kemp & J P Boon; (1994) Imposex in Whelks (Buccinum undatum) from the open North Sea: Relation to shipping traffic intensities. Mar. Pol. Bul. 28 (5): 311-313
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