North-east Atlantic environment assessed

Comprehensive review detects pollution reductions but stresses need for more progress

A first ever comprehensive survey of north-east Atlantic Ocean's environmental status highlights substantial cuts in some kinds of pollution but stresses continuing big challenges. Quality status report 2000 (QSR 2000) was launched today in Copenhagen, at the close of the annual meeting of parties to the Ospar convention on protecting the north-east Atlantic.

According to Ospar, QSR shows that "many significant sources of pollution have been stopped," and worsening trends "have been reversed". Key advances, the study says, are recorded falls in oil discharges from refineries and phosphorous run-off from land. Levels of PCBs have also fallen, and there have been "drastic" reductions in radioactive discharges.

Notwithstanding these improvements, Ospar stresses that the region's marine environment "remains under threat," and in particular from inputs of hazardous substances and from unsustainable fishing pressures. In the North Sea, inputs of nitrogen from agriculture is a problem, while concentrations of the antifouling agent TBT "still exceed safe levels". Coastal development is seen as a key issue in the Iberian region. Widespread occurrence of persistent organic pollutants in biota is the main challenge for the Arctic region, the report concludes.

QSR 2000 stresses severe data limitations underpinning many of its conclusions, meaning that its assessment could underestimate some impacts. This make it difficult to devise policy, the report says. For example, though endocrine disrupting chemicals have been prioritised under the Ospar agreement to end pollution by hazardous substances, there is considerable uncertainty over which substances have endocrine disrupting properties and what their effects are.

The impacts of chemicals from offshore installations, potential impacts on deep oceanic currents and the Gulf Stream from climate change and the risks posed by the lack of "routine monitoring in the open ocean" are other areas where QSR 2000 emphasises a need for more research and improved monitoring.

Among hundreds of recommendations, QSR 2000 calls for improved mariculture management, better coastal protection and great care in any expansion of the offshore oil and gas industry. The report also recommends better controls on mineral extraction and changes to the management of dredged material so that total loads are considered as well as contaminant levels.

On shipping, it identifies a need for enforcement and expansion of existing prohibitions on litter discharges and further incentives for the use of port reception facilities. Controlling hazardous substances discharges (see separate article, this issue) will require baselines, better monitoring techniques and agreement on best available technology for the disposal of organotin wastes. Cutting nutrient inputs will require better implementation of EU directives on sewage treatments nitrate pollution by agriculture.

European environmental groups said today that QSR 2000 had underestimated environmental threats and failed to make sufficiently tough recommendations. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said the report proved that the region's environment was "severely degraded". It complained that threats posed by climate change, nutrients and hazardous substances pollution, fisheries and damage to coastal habitats had been only superficially addressed.

Follow Up:
Ospar secretariat, tel: +44 207 430 5200; QSR 2000 press release and conclusions; WWF north east Atlantic website.

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