“Smooth Sailing” in Shipping Creates Environmental, Health, and Security Risks

Container Ship
Disasters like Hurricane Felix can disrupt food security.
Photo courtesy of Bryson109 via Wikipedia

The 58,000-gallon (220,000-liter) oil spill in the San Francisco Bay early this month brought renewed attention to the environmental and health risks of marine shipping. Yet the disaster failed to highlight the lesser-known dangers that shipping creates daily, even when the industry operates as intended. A new report estimates that emissions from ocean-going vessels could be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths each year, and the shipping industry generates serious invasive species and security risks, according to experts.

The oil that spilled near San Francisco is particularly harmful to ecosystems, wildlife, and humans because it is bunker fuel, a toxic substance 1,000 times dirtier than the diesel fuel that runs trucks and buses. Partly because most shipping takes place on the open seas away from heavily populated areas, the industry’s fuel standards are not as strict as those in the auto industry, critics say. Bunker fuel emissions of particulate matter are responsible for an estimated 60,000 deaths annually from heart and lung-related cancers, and that number is expected to increase by 40 percent by 2012 if there are no changes in regulations and if shipping continues to grow at current rates.

“Business as usual” in the shipping industry wreaks havoc on ecosystems as well, spreading invasive species far and wide. Ballast tanks, which are filled with seawater to keep marine cargo vessels upright, make “inviting habitats for all sorts of aquatic hitchhikers,” write Irving Mintzer and Amber Leonard in their article “Trade and Consequences” in World Watch magazine. Non-native plankton, crabs, fish, mussels, and other creatures transported from one body of water to another can undermine entire ecosystems, decimating marine populations and the economies that rely on them.

But invasive species are not the only dangerous things ships can transport, according to Mintzer and Leonard. “Any standard cargo container is big enough to smuggle morethan a dozen people or conceal a dangerous quantity of weapons, drugs, or explosives,” they write. The sheer number of ships plying the world’s oceans—around 50,000 merchant vessels—makes it virtually impossible to thoroughly check all containers.

The delayed and disorganized response to the San Francisco oil spill did bring some attention to a lack of preparedness for security threats. A probe by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will look into the botched response to the spill. Concerned citizens and officials worry that a terrorist scheme using shipping pathways could elicit a similarly slow response.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

The 58,000-gallon (220,000-liter) oil spill in the San Francisco Bay early this month brought renewed attention to the environmental and health risks of marine shipping.