An environmental issue

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Safer shipping


The Shipping issue.

1967 saw the Torrey Canyon oil disaster wreak havoc with the coastline of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Almost 50 years on, beaches right around the UK remain under virtually constant threat from another shipping disaster. Unfortunately, almost every winter the UK coastline witnesses shipping accidents of one type or another, involving cargoes from timber to household goods and BMW motorcycles, and almost all threatening the environment further from the leakage of shipping diesel. And with the number of oil tankers that grace our waters, it might only be a matter of time until we see another disaster in the UK of the scale of 1967. Globally there have already been many oils spills even more disastrous for the environment than the Torrey Canyon.

A major threat to the marine environment is the routine use of flags of convenience by shipping companies. Registering vessels in far-flung countries with fewer regulations has helped protect many shipping companies from penalties following pollution incidents. It has also allowed systematic abuse of human rights with shipping companies able to push crew to the limits whilst paying a pittance. Crews are often unqualified and inexperienced, sometimes leading to accidents that can endanger human life, pollute the environment and close our coastlines.

Oil is probably the most recognisable pollutant for recreational water users as it is often deposited on tide lines and leaves smeary marks on boards and wetsuits. However all sorts of cargoes are lost from ships, either during rough seas, through accidents and sometimes due to the deliberate actions of the crew. Mermaid’s Tears (plastic nurdles used in injection moulding), fishing crates and netting, construction timber, household goods, vehicle components and toxic chemicals can all end up in the sea from ships around our coast. Routine shipping practices such as cleaning oil and ballast tanks offshore often result in smaller scale pollution incidents but still extremely damaging to the marine environment.

Shipping Facts & case studies

Environmental and wave protection issues

Torrey Canyon oil spill

Torrey Canyon oil spill

The first major UK oil pollution incident at sea involved the Torrey Canyon in 1967. 120,000 tonnes of crude oil escaped into the sea between the Isles of Scilly and the Cornish coastline. The environmental destruction was on a scale not seen before but sadly this was only the first of many oil accidents that have occurred around Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Most recently the sinking of the Prestige off Spain resulted in 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil escaping into the sea and many surf beaches became ‘off limits’ as each new tide brought a new layer of toxic oil to shore.

Flags of convenience

Flags of convenience

Most of these incidents occur because the ships are poorly maintained or crewed by an under-qualified team. Under current legislation, it is difficult to prosecute after ‘flag of convenience’ pollution incidents. The Torrey Canyon flew a Liberian flag of convenience and the Prestige flew a Bahamian flag of convenience.


Flags of convenience are used by far too high a proportion of the world's shipping fleet, bringing with it all the environmental, criminal and human rights threats with it. SAS would like to see greater regulation of ships not only in UK waters but right around the world's oceans to help safeguard the marine environment.

Notwithstanding flags of convenience, operational and accidental pollution of the marine environment from ships is controlled and prevented by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). The legislation contains several annexes covering specific issues including oil pollution, sewage pollution, toxic chemicals and litter.

  • Annex I Regulations for the Prevention of Pollution by Oil. This covers the prevention of pollution by oil from operational measures and accidental discharges. It requires all oil tankers to have double hulls.
  • Annex II Regulations for the Control of Pollution by Noxious Liquid Substances in Bulk. This includes the complete ban on any discharge of residues containing noxious substances within 12 miles of the nearest land.
  • Annex III Prevention of Pollution by Harmful Substances Carried by Sea in Packaged Form.
  • Annex IV Prevention of Pollution by Sewage from Ships. This controls pollution of the sea by sewage; the discharge of sewage into the sea is prohibited, except when the ship has in operation an approved sewage treatment plant or when the ship is discharging comminuted? and disinfected sewage using an approved system at a distance of more than three nautical miles from the nearest land; sewage which is not comminuted? Or disinfected has to be discharged at a distance of more than 12 nautical miles from the nearest land.
  • Annex V Prevention of Pollution by Garbage from Ships. This deals with different types of garbage and specifies the distances from land and the manner in which they may be disposed of; the most important feature of the Annex is the complete ban imposed on the disposal into the sea of all forms of plastics.

(For further details please see