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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

Exploring the Environmental Impacts of Dark Shipping

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

"The global shipping industry is responsible for a significant share of human-induced climate change. Over 3% of global emissions are emitted by ocean-going ships, and the industry is booming, with growth projections showing no signs of slowing anytime soon."


The global fishing industry is a monster economic driver, directly employing around 4.2 billion people and providing wages exceeding $27.2 billion per year - and these figures don’t even consider the fishing industry. While shipping is undoubtedly a necessity economically, the environmental fallout is staggering.


Every year, ships move billions of containers containing solid and liquid bulk cargo and numerous other trade supplies - many of which are hazardous when exposed to biological life or the world’s natural resources. But the environmental issues don’t stop with cargo and materials. Shipping directly impacts almost every natural environment. One report from March 2022 outlined the five primary environmental impacts of shipping as:

  1. Air Pollution

  2. Noise Pollution

  3. Vessel Discharge

  4. Port Congestion

  5. Marine Ecosystem and Species Degradation


However, that report was only focused on international freight shipping. If we consider the environmental damage caused by the global fishing industry, not including illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, the list would become far more expansive.


Consider this. Data from the European Environment Agency suggests that, even after the decline in shipping activity resulting from the looming COVID-19 pandemic, ships still produce about 13.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from the EU transport sector - making it a disproportionate contributor to the world’s declining environmental quality. To put that into numbers, those statistics equate to 1.63 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.


While the fallout is expected to decline in the coming years as more policies are put in place to fight the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, the momentum must continue to carry if we hope to reach global sustainability goals by 2050.


Below, we take a closer look at the environmental impacts of shipping and how dark ships play a threatening role in the problem.



Air Pollution


As stated above, the global shipping industry is responsible for a significant share of human-induced climate change. Over 3% of global emissions are emitted by ocean-going ships, and the industry is booming, with growth projections showing no signs of slowing anytime soon.


The International Maritime Organization (IMO) calculated that the global shipping industry emitted more than 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2007. Again, those numbers are decreasing alongside climate change policies and initiatives, but the issue is difficult to curb at scale. Dark shipping, the ships that operate without using their AIS systems for vessel monitoring, further contribute to the problem, and global figures are often conducted without considering this activity. The challenge is that we can’t accurately assess how much “dark” activity is occurring at any one time, so mitigating the threat is complex at best. While space-based vessel monitoring continues to gain traction and develop into more efficient monitoring pathways, more needs to be done to sufficiently address the problem.



Noise Pollution


Along with the increase in global shipping activity, noise pollution from shipping has also grown considerably. The noise produced by ocean-going ships can travel long distances in the water, and marine species like whales and dolphins that rely on sound for communication, migration, and feeding suffer tremendously. Research shows that the noise produced by the global shipping industry has had short-term and long-term impacts on numerous marine species - specifically, marine mammals. The immediate impacts include acoustic and behavioral responses, stress, and auditory masking - a term used to describe a sound or group of sounds overtaking another.


While tools and technologies exist to monitor noise pollution from ships and can help develop strategies to reduce the impacts, dark ships are not using them to reduce their environmental impacts. Further, IUU fishing vessels not only contribute to noise pollution problems but are directly challenging sustainability efforts for marine animal populations.



Vessel Discharge


Although the number of oil spills and cargo accidents has decreased over the past decades due to navigation and technological improvements, open-water incidents and general shipping pollution are still threats that must be managed carefully. Even the few oil-related accidents that happen account for approximately 12% of the oil that enters ocean ecosystems yearly, and ships discharge a problematic amount of byproducts that threaten environmental integrity. Further, ocean-going ships contribute black water, bilge water, grey water, and more - simply through routine operations. These products affect localized water quality, harm marine ecosystems like coral reefs, and pose a general health risk to the public.


Dark ship operators are particularly careless about managing these waste products, mainly because they have little regard for environmental quality or the ecosystems they operate within. These operators work quickly to conduct their business and move through an area, and they simply cannot risk the time and effort it takes to conduct their activity with care for the discharge from their ships. Further, dark ships carrying materials and products like oil and natural gas operate without certain tracking and navigational equipment - leaving them vulnerable to harsh and unseen weather conditions.

Port Congestion


Port congestion is a significant challenge for marine authorities, especially since the economic backup caused by the pandemic. When vessels arrive at port and cannot immediately berth, they are forced to queue and wait. In California last year, dozens of cargo ships were bottlenecked, discharging massive amounts of pollutants that impacted local water and air quality. While these issues are not generally constant, the fallout on local air quality and marine ecosystems can be tremendous.


Dark shipping adds to the problem by ships making unregistered and unregulated calls to port - backing up lawfully abiding shipping operations and clogging ports.



Marine Ecosystem and Species Degradation


Perhaps the most critical and impacted segments resulting from global shipping are marine ecosystems and marine species. Considering all the above points, marine and aquatic ecosystems are under severe threat resulting from shipping activity, and between overfishing, water pollution, and climate change, the world must act quickly to prevent a fallout that may not be able to be remediated. By protecting air quality, we reduce ocean acidification - the driving factor contributing to coral reef death and the destruction of the marine habitats vital to food supply chains and environmental processes. Protecting water quality also reduces the impact on these vulnerable ecosystems brought on by fishing.


Dark shipping directly impacts these ecosystems and processes, mainly through IUU fishing, and is a threat that must be mitigated immediately. Without healthy oceans and sufficient marine species populations, certain parts of the world will face more hunger, poverty, and an overall decline in their quality of life.


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