Ocean Dumping


Ocean disposal of society’s waste got its start indirectly long before the Agricultural Age when nearby streams, lakes, and estuaries were useful as waste repositories. As civilization moved to the coastal zone and navigation began in earnest, the oceans were viewed as even a larger waste repository.

Early civilizations were located adjacent to bodies of water for sources of food, irrigation, drinking water, transportation, and a place to dispose of unnecessary items. Historically, the disposal of wastes into water by humans was universally practiced.

It was a cheap and convenient way to rid society of food wastes (e.g., cleaned carcasses, shells, etc.), trash, mining wastes, and human wastes (or sewage). The advent of the Industrial Age brought with it the new problem of chemical wastes and by-products: These were also commonly disposed of in the water.

Early dumping started in rivers, lakes, and estuaries, whereas ocean dumping was simply not used because of the distance and difficulty in transporting waste materials. The wastes from ships, however, were simply dumped directly into the ocean.

As civilization developed at river deltas and in estuaries adjacent to the ocean, and these areas soon began to display the effects of dumping, disposal in the ocean became a popular alternative. Over the past 150 years, all types of wastes have been ocean dumped.

These include sewage (treated and untreated), industrial waste, military wastes (munitions and chemicals), entire ships, trash, garbage, dredged material, construction debris, and radioactive wastes (both high- and low-level). It is important to note that significant amount of wastes enter the ocean through river, atmospheric, and pipeline discharge; construction; offshore mining; oil and gas exploration; and shipboard waste disposal. Unfortunately, the ocean has become the ultimate dumping ground for civilization.

It has been recognized over the past fifty years that the earth’s oceans are under serious threat from these wastes and their “witches’ brew” of chemicals and nonbiodegradable components. Society has also come to understand that its oceans are under serious threat from overfishing, mineral exploration, and coastal construction activities.

The detrimental effects of ocean dumping are physically visible at trashed beaches, where dead fish and mammals entangled in plastic products may sometimes be observed. They are additionally reflected in the significant toxic chemical concentrations in fish and other sea life. The accumulations of some toxins, especially mercury, in the bodies of sea life have resulted in some harvestable seafood unfit for human consumption.

Seriously affected areas include commercial and recreational fishing, beaches, resorts, human health, and other pleasurable uses of the sea. During the 1960s numerous groups (global, regional, governmental, and environmental) began to report on the detrimental impact of waste disposal on the ocean. Prior to this time, few regulatory (or legal) actions occurred to control or prevent these dumping activities.

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