Numerous initiatives have been developed in recent years to guide the conservation, protection, and sustainable management of marine ecosystems. Coastal marine pollution has become one of the main environmental challenges of recent decades, so its prevention and control is a key objective. Recent European legislation for the protection of the marine environment (Marine Strategy Framework Directive) demands a strategy based not only on the concentration of chemicals in different environmental compartments, but also on evaluating their biological effects in marine ecosystems. The application and standardization of sensitive biological techniques are therefore crucial to develop quantitative parameters that link the presence of pollutants to their harmful effects in marine ecosystems.
For more than 20 years, ICES Working Group on the Biological effects of Contaminants (WGBEC) has developed a list of recommended biological effects methods for marine monitoring. This has included the availability of standardized protocols and the development of quality assurance programmes. This work has covered the demands of current environmental legislation for developing and implementing effect-based monitoring programmes.
Urgent information is needed on pollutants of emerging concern, including environmental distribution, bioaccumulation potential and ecotoxicity effects. Important effects have been observed in marine organisms following exposure to such emerging substances. However, traditional risk assessment methodologies do not identify the specific modes of action (e.g. endocrine disruption, genotoxicity) of environmental chemicals and therefore, would not identify the potential dangers unless specifically tested for.
Among the pollutants of emerging concern, there has been increasing interest in the environmental importance of different types of natural and synthetic particles. WGBEC is also considering this issue, with an aim to assess both direct effects and interacting effects on marine biota. In particular, special attention has been paid to microplastics. Recent studies have demonstrated that microplastic pollution is widespread and ubiquitous within the marine environment, with the potential to cause harm to biota. In addition, plastics have the capacity to concentrate organic contaminants and it has been demonstrated that there is a pathway of environmental pollutants into the marine food chain by plastic ingestion.
WGBEC has expanded its recent activities to encompass issues relevant to the development of methods to assess effects of climate change (e.g. acidification) and to the interactions between humans and the oceans, including recreational value, fisheries, as well as contaminants and natural toxins in seafood.
The Working Group on Shipping Impacts in the Marine Environment (WGSHIP) will contribute to a clean ocean by identifying the stressors and environmental impacts associated with shipping activities. The group will review the management and mitigation measures put in place globally that can be used to reduce or eliminate sources of ship-based pollution. The group will synthesize scientific progress in addressing single stressors, such as pollutant discharge, underwater noise, and ship strikes. Holistic methods for understanding and assessing the risks of shipping and its cumulative effects will be evaluated.
For marine litter, global initiatives such as UNEA, G7, G20, IOC/GOOS & GESAMP have recognized that a comprehensive global observing & information system is necessary to evaluate sources/sinks, abundance, trends, risks, and the efficiency of reduction measures. To achieve a better understanding of the issue, and provide scientific and technical background to Regional Actions Plans from the Regional Seas conventions OSPAR and HELCOM, ICES, through its Working Group on Marine Litter (WGML), contributes to the development of monitoring strategies and the building of an integrated and harmonized network.
Our Working Group on Marine Sediments in Relation to Pollution (WGMS) has advanced sediment-related science and provided guidance on the analysis of contaminants in sediment, normalization of contaminant data from sediments, sediment dynamics, and background levels of sediment contaminants, resulting in guidelines for monitoring and assessment tools in support of harmonized monitoring under OSPAR's Joint Assessment and Monitoring Programme, which relates to their hazardous substances strategies. Some current areas of particular interest include passive sampling for studying and monitoring of contaminants in sediments.
Harmful algal blooms are a global problem and can cause substantial economic, societal, and human health problems. One example is filter feeders such as shellfish accumulating toxins produced by certain algae when feeding. Humans and other organisms can become ill or even die after eating the shellfish. Another example is algae killing fish through damage of the gills. Other algae cause oxygen deficiency or are a nuisance during mass occurrences. Some bottom dwelling microalgae produce toxins that may also accumulate in fish.
Reporting to both ICES Science Committee (SCICOM) and UNESCO Intergovernmental Panel on Harmful Algal Blooms (IOC IPHAB), the Working Group on Harmful Algal Bloom Dynamics (WGHABD) facilitates interaction between scientists working in diverse areas of HAB science and monitoring and provides a forum for the interchange of various approaches to HAB research.
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Determining the health status and biological responses of caged cod exposed to the produced water plume from an offshore oil and gas installation in the North Sea. Photographer: Christopher Harman, NIVA.