- Following the adoption of a Resolution on Marine Plastic Pollution at the 68th International Whaling Commission conference (IWC68) in October, member countries will have to report on the status, reduction, recycling, and reuse efforts on marine plastic pollution.
- At IWC68, member nations adopted a resolution to support international negotiations on a treaty to tackle plastic pollution. The body also recognised the transboundary nature of marine plastic pollution and the importance of international cooperation.
- The Resolution on Marine Plastic Pollution commended the UN Environment Assembly’s March 2022 decision to begin negotiations on an international legally binding instrument to tackle plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.
- For India, local communities will be crucial stakeholders in tackling ocean plastic, say biologists.
At the 68th International Whaling Commission conference (IWC68) in Slovenia in October, member nations adopted a resolution to support international negotiations on a treaty to tackle plastic pollution. Countries will now aim to report on the status of marine plastic debris. For India, local communities will be crucial stakeholders in tackling ocean plastic.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is an inter-governmental body responsible for the management of whaling and the conservation of whales.
It has a current membership of 88 governments from all over the world, including India, which played a critical role in amending the text of the resolution to incorporate reporting commitments on the status of marine plastic by member countries.
Confirming that the impacts of marine plastic pollution on cetaceans is a “priority concern” for the IWC, the Resolution on Marine Plastic Pollution adopted at IWC68, commended the UN Environment Assembly’s March 2022 decision to begin negotiations on an international legally binding instrument to tackle plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.
Though the IWC’s main focus is to keep a check on whale stocks and ensure there is a balance in the whaling industry, it is also concerned with plastics and marine debris because they impact the survival of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, among other marine species.
Plastic ingestion and entanglement in nets are the other issues that lead to injury and death of such marine animals. Welcoming the IWC68 resolution, Sajan John, a marine biologist at Wildlife Trust of India, says, “Since whales and whale sharks are filter feeder animals, they clean the water. When they ingest plastic, it could get into their digestive system and create many issues.”
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that almost 13 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans yearly, affecting approximately 68% of cetacean species. Plastic ingestion cases are found in at least 57 out of the 90 known cetacean species (63.3%). Ingestion of plastic has been recorded in all marine turtle species and nearly half of all surveyed seabird and marine mammal species. Apart from this, those species that are not directly impacted by ingestion or entanglement could suffer from secondary impacts such as malnutrition, restricted mobility and reduced reproduction or growth, experts at the conference shared.
This resolution, with amendments from India, was one of the major successes at the IWC meeting. The draft Resolution on Marine Plastic Pollution was proposed by the Czech Republic on behalf of the European Union member states parties to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling; the resolution was co-sponsored by the United States of America, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Korea, Republic of Panama and India.
Following the adoption of the resolution, India, at the IWC68, shared that in 2019, “20.34 million tonnes of plastic was generated in India, and 60% of the same were recycled against the world average of 20%. So the solid waste management capacity in India, which was only 18% in 2014, increased to 70% in 2021. The Bureau of Indian standards classifies microbeads in cosmetics as unsafe and has banned microbeads in cosmetics. This was implemented in 2020 along with the ban on importing plastic waste.”
At the discussion on the resolution of the IWC meeting, Bivash Ranjan, Additional Director General of Forests at India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), who was with the country delegation at the meeting, said that one of the early threats India perceived for the marine aqua fauna was plastics.
Ranjan said, “Apart from banning single-use plastic and microbeads, India has also taken steps to clean the coasts and make them plastic-free.” He said that this move (removing all the plastic litter across coasts) will further strengthen the conservation plan of the dolphins.”
In the follow-up to the IWC resolution, the next step is for countries to report on marine plastic waste.
India made an amendment to the resolution asking member countries to report on the status of marine debris around their country and the amount of plastic recycling and usage.
On the implications of the IWC68 resolution to the conservation of cetaceans and whales, Vishnupriya Kolipakkam, Scientist, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) said, “This will help us to identify where and what the problem is. Otherwise, it’s just a resolution that says, let us reduce the use of plastic. The member countries will take the route of sustainable use and reduce single-use plastic. It has a broad general resolution, and many countries are already doing this. But because of India’s intervention, we suggested that member countries have to report back on the status and recycling usage of plastic. Now, it would be more relevant because we can call on people and governments who are not actively doing anything,” she said.
Challenges and solutions for implementation
However, the success of implementing the IWC68 resolution will depend on many factors. In India, a tropical country, plastic pollution does not emerge from a single point source, points John. Many tributaries of rivers drain into the ocean. Many human activities are localised in the rivers’ upstream, and plastics dumped into the rivers eventually end up in the oceans.
John told Mongabay-India, “Most of the time when we talk about marine plastic pollution, it is about removal from the coastal beach and clean up activities. Everything is centered around the coastal area. We are trying to address the issue on the periphery, but we are not trying to address the issues from the upstream. Not much occurs upstream, and there is little awareness or action.”
He pointed out that complete tracking of plastic and collecting the data is beyond quantifiable. “One, we are on the tropical side of the oceans; two, we depend heavily on disposable plastic, so quantifying that would be challenging,” John added.
Local communities will be crucial to the IWC68 resolution’s implementation.
At WTI, John has been looking at different approaches to tackling India’s marine plastic pollution problem. He works with the fisher community, telling them to bring back marine debris found in the ocean. Involving local fishing communities that go to the sea daily is one way to remove plastics from the ocean effectively.
“India has a coastline spanning 8,000 kilometres, and fisher families have almost tripled. If we mobilise them on the east coast, west coast, and the two of our island territories, we can recover plastic,” said John.
The major issues in Indian coasts are bottles, polythene bags, plastic wrappers, and covers. The nets contribute to a small part of the debris, he added.
Also, a complete ban on plastic will be tough. John says, “We have moved from biodegradable to plastics, so everything revolves around plastic now. Plastic use is high in the medical industry, especially during the pandemic. Polymer science has also advanced. If there is an alternative to single-use plastic, those could be given at a subsidised rate. But if the price of the alternative product is high, then people would opt for the cheaper plastic.”
IWC’s initiative on marine plastics
Almost two decades ago, the IWC recognised the significance of marine debris impacts on cetaceans. Plastic pollution spans five of the eight priority areas of environmental concern identified by the IWC’s scientific committee. This was endorsed by the commission in IWC Resolution 1997. In addition, Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14) aims to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources, including preventing and reducing marine pollution of all kinds by 2025.
Within the framework of IWC, there was another crucial resolution in 2018 on ghost gear entanglement in cetaceans. The Commission has encouraged the conservation committee, scientific committee, and whale killing methods and welfare issues working group to consider engaging organisations on marking the gears used for fishing so that the net entanglement issues could be examined.
In the IWC68 resolution, the body also recognised the transboundary nature of marine plastic pollution and the importance of international cooperation by IWC’s contracting governments and other international organisations, including the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Arctic Council and International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
As a result, the IWC secretariat was directed to look at ways in which they can engage as a stakeholder within the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) process.
It was recommended that the contracting countries submit reports, voluntarily, to the scientific progress committees on the status, reduction and recycling of plastic, and ingestion in stranded marine animals. The Commission, in the recent resolution, also recommended the IWC secretariat to add marine debris mapping along the Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs). Further, there were also requests to reduce single-use plastics in the IWC day-to-day operations itself. All this will be discussed further in the next meeting, IWC 69.
[This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network’s Biodiversity Media Initiative]
Banner Image: A humpback whale. Photo by Christopher Michel/Wikimedia Commons.