Ships banned from discharging seabird pollutant PIB

Dead birds lined up on a sea wall Guillemots, auks and razorbills were among the bird species found dead

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A pollutant that killed thousands of birds off the coast of Britain earlier this year will no longer be dumped at sea after a worldwide ban was agreed.

More than 4,000 birds were killed or injured by the chemical polyisobutene (PIB) between Cornwall and Sussex, and on the Channel Islands.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has reclassified PIBs from 2014.

It means ships will only be able to wash their tanks and dispose of all PIB residues while in port.

Until now it has been legal for discharges to be made when vessels wash out their tanks, as long as they are further than 12 nautical miles from the nearest point of land.

'Glue-like' substance

The ban had been recommended by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), on behalf of the government, and was welcomed by the RSPB, RSPCA and other wildlife charities.

Under pressure from the UK's Marine and Coastguard Agency, the IMO's working group that deals with the transit of dangerous chemicals decided to create a new category that would cover the most dangerous types of PIB.

This means that high viscosity PIBs will now become Category X under the IMO classification and can only be discharged in port with all residues removed to shore. The new rating will be included in the IMO's annual circular that categorises these chemicals in December this year but it is unlikely to be included in the official mandatory code for bulk chemical transport for another two years.

However most shippers and governments use the annual circular as the basis for what's legal and what isn't, so effectively the discharge of high viscosity PIBs will be banned at the end of this year. Imposing this change, and any penalties associated with a breach, though, is down to the national authority

The decision was taken by the IMO at a meeting in London on Monday.

"There was only one entry for PIBs before," said the IMO's Natasha Brown.

"We are keeping the current category but will create a new entry for the high viscosity PIB, which is the problem chemical if you like, in terms of these discharges."

The substance - a lubricant used to improve the engine performance of ships - was found on seabirds, mainly guillemots, in two separate instances between January and May.

Guide to UK seabirds

Guillemot
  • Guillemots (pictured) are the most common seabird found around the British Isles
  • During spring they gather in huge breeding colonies, known as loomeries, on coastal cliffs and rock stacks
  • The females lay their eggs directly on a ledge - but the eggs' conical shape prevent them rolling off
  • By contrast, puffins raise a single puffin chick (puffling) in an underground burrow

Source: BBC Nature

In the sea, high viscosity PIB becomes "glue-like", covering birds and restricting their movements and ability to feed, causing them to eventually die from hypothermia or starvation.

In August, the MCA said it had been unable to trace the vessel the contamination spill had come from and closed its investigation.

Adam Grogan, RSPCA senior wildlife scientist, said: "Our staff worked around the clock washing and treating these poor birds in January and April and it was heartbreaking seeing the pitiful state they were in.

"Hopefully this will help stop incidents like these happening again, and save wildlife from suffering and dying like this in the future."

Alec Taylor, from RSPB, said wildlife charities worked hard for the ban, with support from several south coast MPs.

"But the huge support we received from members of the public, many of whom experienced the effects of this pollution first hand as they walked the beaches, was perhaps the clinching factor in achieving such a quick decision to prevent discharges of harmful PIBs," he added.

The IMO is the United Nations agency responsible for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships. It consists of 170 member states, of which the UK is one.

The organisation confirmed a number of other European countries had also been investigating the discharge of "high viscosity products" by chemical tankers, including PIBs.

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