Palm oils, waxes and glues – an increasing seabird threat

What do palm oil, paraffin wax and PIBs have in common? They are all high viscosity substances under Annex II of the MARPOL Convention.

Not the best way to introduce yourself at a networking event, perhaps, but these Annex II products are increasingly coming under the spotlight as NGOs and Governments seek to reduce their risk to the marine environment.

In 2013, two separate discharges of a gluey set of chemicals called polyisobutylenes (PIBs) somewhere off the south west coast of the UK resulted in over 4000 seabird deaths, affecting at least 18 species. The majority of the birds were dead, but some were taken for treatment, with several hundred rereleased. In terms of birds affected, these incidents were one of the worst marine pollution incidents since the SS Torrey Canyon ran aground off Land’s End in 1967, releasing almost 120,000 tonnes of crude oil. The true impact of both incidents at sea is likely to be much higher.

Guillemots coated with high viscosity PIB, Cory, Liskeard, Cornwall, April 2013.  BTO Image Library
Guillemots coated with high viscosity PIB in Cornwall, April 2013. (c) BTO Image Library.

The PIB incidents caused major public interest and outrage, as it was discovered that ships could legally discharge all forms of PIB when washing out their tanks, and that new and even more dangerous forms of PIB were now being transported without any environmental assessment at all! This public anger, together with pressure from the RSPB and other NGOs, led to the UK government proposing to reclassify all high-viscosity and highly reactive PIBs to ban their discharge in any quantity at sea in October 2013. This decision was agreed by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in discussions, at which I was present, and is now in force.

This was an incredible victory for seabirds and other marine life, only 9 months after the first incident, but other Annex II substances remain legal to discharge, and we want that to change! We hope that PIBs act as a catalyst for a wider review of all similar Annex II substances at the IMO. Several IMO member countries are keen to start this conversation as the costs of cleaning up these incidents are proving increasingly significant, and at BirdLife, we will be calling on all national governments to support this work when the time comes. Although it will take longer that the 2013 PIB decision, it could mean seabirds are no longer subject to the threats from this type of pollution.

Alec Taylor

RSPB (UK partner of BirdLife Europe)

Follow me on Twitter at @1TakeTaylor

August 2014

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