10 Different Types of Ocean Pollution (And the Laws That Fight Them!)

What are the Different Types of Ocean Pollution?

When you’re studying to become a lawyer who is specialized in environmental law, it’s useful to know types of pollution. Oceans are critical to human survival, producing over half of the world’s oxygen supply, absorbing carbon dioxide, and regulating climate. The health of our oceans is at stake due to the increasing amount of pollution. So, what are the different types of ocean pollution? And what is being done to counteract them?

Ocean pollution comes in several forms, including trash, sewage, oil spills, light, noise, and more. Luckily, legislation has been put into place to prevent further pollution in our oceans, protect biodiversity, and promote optimal human health. Keep reading to learn the different types of ocean pollution and the different types of laws that are in place to counteract it.

The Different Types of Ocean Pollution

Ocean pollution is not only a massive threat to marine life but also human health. Unfortunately, ocean pollution comes in several different forms, and the common denominator is that they are all linked to human activity. The different types of ocean pollution include:

  1. Garbage and plastics. Garbage pollution, including straws, bottles, netting, tires, and more, is a massive threat to our ocean’s wildlife, as they ingest these materials, get tangled in them, and suffocate. Plastic waste includes microplastics, which are tiny fragments of plastic and are a significant issue on their own – as they are ingested by animals and, in turn, humans. The average person consumes an estimated 74,000 microplastics each year. Because this is such a new phenomenon, the long-term health effects are not entirely known.
  2. Sunscreen. Unfortunately, many sunscreens and other topicals applied at the beach contain harmful chemicals that contribute to coral reef bleaching, including oxybenzone and octinoxate. Sunscreen and other topicals such as insect repellents and tanning oils can come off your body when you’re in the water and harm beneficial algae, sea urchins, fish, and other marine animals.
  3. Oil spills. When oil leaks from vehicles on the road, it can make its way into our oceans. In addition, boats spill petroleum into the water, sometimes at catastrophic levels like the recent oil spill in California. 
  4. Sewage. Sometimes septic systems fail or don’t function properly for several reasons, including aging infrastructure, poor design and maintenance, and overloaded systems. This results in insufficient nitrogen or phosphorus being removed from our gray water before discharging it into waterways, leaving behind pollution, including soaps and detergents, human waste, and sludge.
  5. Agriculture and aquaculture runoff/chemical pollution. When inland farmers use nitrogen-rich pesticides and herbicides, they also can make their way into the ocean as agricultural runoff through rivers, especially after heavy rainfall. The aquaculture industry also contributes to this issue, releasing uneaten food, antibiotics, and parasites from fish farms into the water.
  6. Industrial waste. The accumulation of dangerous toxins such as radioactive waste, arsenic, lead, fluoride, mercury, cyanide, and many other high contaminants cause the water and sea life to become infected by this waste.
  7. Eutrophication. Also known as dead zones, this results in a lack of enough oxygen dissolved in an area with excess nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus) where animals then suffocate or leave as a result. Nutrient pollution from freshwater ends up in the ocean from the runoff of municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants and industrial-scale agricultural farms.
  8. Carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is released into the atmosphere while burning fossil fuels. Our oceans are absorbing this carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which ultimately changes the chemistry of the water and affects marine life. The pH of the ocean is changing and becoming more acidic (ocean acidification), which makes it extremely difficult for certain marine organisms (coral, plankton, etc.) to form their shells and skeletons. Ocean water that is too acidic can even eat away at shells or skeletons that are already formed.
  9. Noise. Noise pollution is another huge threat to our oceans. It includes noises generated by cargo ships, sonar, oil exploration, drilling, fishing, jet skis, and more, which can confuse marine life that depends heavily on hearing.
  10. Light. When baby sea turtles hatch from the egg, they depend on the moonlight to find their way to the ocean. The odds of a baby sea turtle surviving are 1 in 1,000, and it turns out that light pollution from seaside condos, restaurants, and other establishments can confuse the baby sea turtles and lead them astray – making their odds of survival even lower. Light pollution also affects fish and other marine mammals / marine life that live in shallow marine environments near shores.

The History of Ocean Conservation

Before 1972, there were no laws that prevented dumping into the oceans, and this allowed people around the world to dump trash, sewage sludge, and hazardous wastes into the ocean without a second thought. According to National Geographic, “millions of tons of heavy metals and chemical contaminants, along with thousands of containers of radioactive waste, were purposely thrown into the ocean.”

The 1970s are collectively known as “the Environmental Decade,” where we saw an increase in concern over the detrimental effects that human activity has on the environment. This is largely due to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which highlights the adverse impacts that indiscriminate pesticide use has on the environment.

In July 1970, President Nixon proposed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA remains responsible for matters concerning the environment, human health, and infrastructure.

The London Convention was founded in 1975, becoming the first international agreement to protect the marine environment. The London Convention implemented regulatory programs and prevented disposing hazardous materials into ocean waters. This agreement would later be updated in 2006 and called the London Protocol – which specifically bans dumping all waste and materials, excluding a short list of items such as leftover materials from dredging.

Key Laws Against Ocean Pollution – Acts That Protect the Ocean!

Laws that Protect the Ocean

The Environmental Decade resulted in the passing of legislation that ultimately changed the way we make environmental decisions today. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most significant acts that were passed to protect the environment and oceans from pollution.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

Signed into law on January 1st, 1970, NEPA forces government agencies to analyze the environmental effects of federal actions and actions made under permits that are likely to impact the environment significantly. NEPA also allows society to voice their opinions and concerns with agency decisions through public notice and comment requirements.

Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA)

The CZMA was signed in 1972 and encouraged collaboration between state and federal governments to “preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, restore or enhance the resources of the Nation’s coastal zone for this and succeeding generations.”

This legislation provides federal funding for states with an approved coastal zone management plan. With the said plan, states hold power to shut down federal actions inconsistent with their plan to protect coastal waters.

The Clean Water Act (CWA)

Signed in 1972, the CWA prevents the discharge of oil or other hazardous substances into US waters, including oceans. This legislation gives the government power to punish companies that pollute ocean waters.

Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA)

Among the laws that help protect the Ocean is the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act.  The MPRSA regulates the dumping of all materials that could be a threat to the environment and human health – aligning with the requirements and standards of the London Convention. It is also known as the Ocean Dumping Act.

The EPA is responsible for issuing ocean dumping permits for material other than dredged material and designating and managing ocean disposal sites for those materials. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is responsible for issuing permits to dump dredged material based on EPA guidelines.

Four federal agencies are responsible under the MPRSA, including the EPA, which maintains primary authority, USACE, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and the USCG (United States Coast Guard).

Final Thoughts – Types of Ocean Pollution (and Laws that Address Them)

The Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, makes an excellent point in that “none of these laws are any good without the right regulation and enforcement by the government.” There’s always room for improvement in protecting our oceans, and we must elect people who genuinely care about doing so.

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