Costa Concordia Cruise Shipwreck Highlights Threat of Oil Spills in the Mediterranean Sea

While international attention is primarily focused on the human casualties of the January 13 Costa Concordia cruise shipwreck, we cannot ignore the threat that the more than 500,000 gallons of fuel and other substances from the ship could have on Europe’s biggest marine park: the Mediterranean Sea.

Changing weather conditions and shifts in the cruise ship’s position are proving to be a logistical nightmare for the maritime service firm that has been hired to take the fuel off the ship.

Fears of a massive oil spill in the iconic Mediterranean underscores the dangers of allowing these huge tankers to travel along some of the most important waters without uniform regulation. Unquestionably, internationally-sanctioned precautions must be taken to protect our oceans and ecosystems from hazardous spills and future contamination.

Over the last three decades, cruises have grown increasingly popular as a vacation choice, making the industry one of the world’s fastest growing tourism sectors.

But, the ecological destruction associated with spills and sewage from these floating cities is frightening.

Cruise ships dump sewage, oil, and other waste into oceans, polluting beaches, contaminating coral reefs, and destroying valuable marine ecology wherever they go.

According to Oceana, the largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation, cruise ships generate up to 25,000 gallons of sewage from toilets and 143,000 gallons of sewage from sinks and showers each day.

International legislation on the processing and dumping of this waste barely regulates the activities of cruise ships, so tons of waste ends up in ocean waters and coastlines.

As a result, the marine ecosystem in the Mediterranean Sea is suffering a massive decline in biodiversity and irreparable damage to its functions.

The growing problem caused by the increase in cruise ship traffic across the world has led to some countries to start introducing new regulations to try and curb their impact. However, as stated by Oceana, “legislation is sadly lacking when it comes to international waters.”

The Costa Concordia shipwreck provides an opportunity to reexamine some of the international strategies established to fight the years of unsustainable exploitation and other human impacts which have resulted in the current critical state of the marine environment.

In truth, many of the existing strategies aimed at reducing waste from commercial shipping can be applied to cruise ships.

For example, Seas At Risk, a European association working to protect and restore the marine environment of the European seas, launched the “Clean Ship Concept” about ten years ago in an effort to reduce harmful discharges from ships. 

The goal of a Clean Ship is to minimize the impact of shipping on the environment and maximize opportunities for safe and environmental navigation. As Seas at Risk states, the Clean Ship Concept “… requires a shipping sector that puts environmental protection first and where a "safety culture" is at its heart.”

This notion is the key to preserving our oceans. Environmental protection should be at the heart of any cruise line or commercial ship agenda, and every ship needs to take responsibility for their environmental actions not only after an accident, but before.

With any luck, the Costa Concordia will be the last shipwreck the world endures, but it should forever serve as a lesson that every action we take as humans can have an impact on our environment. Committing ourselves to policies that promote a combination of innovation and conservation will protect our oceans and safeguard our ships.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons