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Shipping and Ports


1.1   This paper summarises the status of commercial shipping within the OSPAR region and of measures taken to manage its environmental impacts. It briefly notes key messages from the QSR 2010 and IA 2017, and reports on progress since then.   Recreational boating and cruise tourism are covered in the separate feeder report on tourism.

Distribution and intensity

2.1   Shipping occurs throughout the OSPAR region. The OSPAR Regions II, III and IV (and parts of Regions I and V) continues to have a high density of shipping, with the highest densities in the English Channel, Southern North Sea, and the entrance to the Mediterranean. The OSPAR region included three of the 20 leading container ports globally in 2017 (Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg), and ten of the 20 largest ports in Europe, with a particular concentration in the southern North Sea (UNCTAD 2019, Eurostat 2019). The figures below show route density maps for cargo shipping and for tankers, and the locations of larger ports in the OSPAR region.

Figure 1 Route density map of cargo shiping in the OSPAR area 2019 (Source EMODnet 2020)

Figure 2 Route density map of tanker shiping in the OSPAR area 2019 (Source EMODnet 2020)

Figure 3 Major ports in the OSPAR region (taken from Eurostat 2019)

2.2   The assessment of shipping for the 2010 QSR noted that maritime transport had been rapidly increasing and was expected to grow. In the event, maritime transport growth in the subsequent decade was affected by the economic downturn of 2008 onwards.     

2.3   In 2018, the gross weight of goods handled in OSPAR ports was around 2.4 billion tonnes, almost identical to 2008.  Around 1.45 bt was inwards transport to the ports and 0.95 bt was outwards transport.  The Netherlands had the largest volume of sea-borne freight in Europe in 2018, 605 million tonnes (Eurostat 2020a)1.  Rates of change over the decade varied between countries and ports – for example, increases in freight handling in the Netherlands and Portugal, and decreases in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and France2.

Unit: Thousand tonnes (data from Eurostat a)

Figure 4 - Gross weight of goods handled in all ports by direction - annual data

2.4   For some OSPAR countries, transport of goods to and from countries outside the European Union was the largest proportion of freight movements in 2018 (e.g. Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Spain), in others, transport between European ports was the larger proportion (e.g. Ireland, United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden)  (Eurostat 2020b). In some of the larger ports (e.g. Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg) slightly more than half was from deep-sea transport; in others, short sea shipping predominates (Eurostat 2020c).

2.5   The largest element of freight transport to/from OSPAR countries in 2018 was liquid bulk goods (such as liquified gas, crude oil and oil products), followed by containers, dry bulk goods (such as coal, ores and agricultural products) and Ro-Ro traffic.  The relative proportion of containers was slightly higher in 2018 than ten years’ previously (Eurostat 2020d)3. Numbers of shipping movements decreased, while the tonnage of shipping and the numbers of larger ships increased4. In 2008, Eurostat reported only 35 vessels above 200k gross tonnage using OSPAR ports, almost all of them in one port, La Rochelle. In 2018, there were over 500, all container ships, predominantly in the ports of Bremerhaven, Hamburg, Wilhelmshaven, Felixstowe, Southampton, Rotterdam and Le Havre. The number of ships between 100k and 200k tonnage also increased (Eurostat 2020e).

Unit: Number (data from Eurostat 2020e)

Figure 5 - Vessels in main ports by type and size of vessels (based on inwards declarations) - quarterly data

Unit: Gross tonnage in thousand (data from Eurostat 2020e)

Figure 6 - Sum of gross tonnage of vessels in main ports (based on inwards declarations)

2.6   Passenger numbers embarking and disembarking in ports of OSPAR countries in 2018 were little changed from 2008 (Eurostat 2020f ). Routes and numbers are shown in the figures below.

Figure 7  Route density map of passengers shipping in the OSPAR area (from EMODnet 2020)5

Unit: Thousand passengers (data from Eurostat 2020f)

Figure 8 - Passengers embarked and disembarked in all ports for individual OSPAR Contracting Parties for the years 2008, 2013 and 2018

2.7   Arctic shipping is a special case. The Arctic Council has reported that ship traffic in the overall Arctic region is increasing, due to factors such as increased resource extraction, tourism, and ice sheet thinning.  Between 2013 and 2019, the number of ships entering the Arctic Polar Code area grew by 25% to 1628; the distance sailed grew by 75% to 9.5 million nautical miles.   While fishing vessels were the largest contributors, bulk carrier transport increased substantially over the period (PAME 2019).

Economic value

3.1   Maritime transport is critical to Europe’s economy, estimated to represent between 75% and 90% (depending on the sources) of the EU’s external trade and one third of intra-EU trade (European Commission 2020a).

Table 1 Gross value added (GVA) in the Blue Economy for EU countries within the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea (€ billion). Excludes Baltic and Mediterranean areas of EU countries; does not include Norway, Iceland, Faroe Islands
Atlantic OceanMaritime transport4.
Port activities10.29.612.39.910.210.512.711.811.7
Shipbuilding and repair3.
North SeaMaritime transport13.614.013.213.614.313.415.312.615.5
Port activities10.911.111.411.711.813.114.714.715.4
Shipbuilding and repair3.
Table 2 Employment in the Blue Economy for EU countries within the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea (thousand employees). Excludes Baltic and Mediterrean areas of EU countries; does not include Norway, Iceland, Faroe Islands
Atlantic OceanMaritime transport53.151.849.450.649.552.054.845.153.3
Port activities141.2143.5137.1163.2164.0160.7173.3218.7184.5
Shipbuilding and repair83.376.573.377.876.380.478.685.880.0
North SeaMaritime transport142.2143.6150.9149.9150.5145.6150.9145.8152.8
Port activities134.9137.9125.6142.6147.2170.0179.5209.4204.2
Shipbuilding and repair77.070.669.671.373.875.975.580.375.8

Future trends

Volume and distribution of shipping

4.1   Recent reviews of future trends in shipping have generally anticipated growth in global volumes in the short and longer terms, but with uncertainties about the extent of that growth. For example, UNCTAD 2019 anticipated international maritime trade expanding at an average annual growth rate of 3.4% over 2019–2024, driven in particular by growth in containerized, dry bulk and gas cargoes. However, it noted that uncertainty about future growth remained, with risks that trade would be limited by slower overall economic growth and related factors such as trade tensions, shifts towards more regionalised trade flows, economic transitions (e.g. in China), supply side disruptions, and climate-change related impacts. Similar conclusions about overall growth are reached in other analyses – for example, the OECD’s International Transport Forum forecast that the current demand pathway would see a tripling of maritime transport by 2050, but also noted some of the uncertainties (ITF 2019).  The impact of Covid-19 on global and regional trade flows remains to be seen, but over the next decade, could depress previous projections of shipping demand.

4.2   There will be area-specific influences on the precise relationship between global trends and shipping in the OSPAR region.  For example, the ITF predicted that the North Atlantic Ocean will remain the third busiest maritime corridor by 2050, with 15% of global maritime freight routes.  It also notes that new free-trade agreements, such as between the EU and Japan and the EU and Canada, are likely to lead to increased trade volumes (ITF 2019).   But there are a range of other factors affecting trade - for example, a report for the UK Government noted that countries with aging populations tend to spend a lower proportion of income on clothing or durable goods, which could dilute demand for shipping somewhat in those countries (UK Maritime 2050).

4.3   The routes taken by ships in OSPAR waters may also change somewhat – for example, through re-routing as a result of windfarm construction, which could increase the length of shipping routes and, potentially, the risk of accidents.

4.4   For Arctic waters, the Arctic Council has previously expected further increases in shipping activity (e.g. Arctic Council 2017) How significant this will be remains uncertain  - the ITF noted that there will be a trade-off between gains from shorter distance and the higher costs of Arctic shipping, so that the market potential for most types of shipments remains uncertain, although this could change if the Arctic became reliably ice-free (ITF 2019).   Similarly, a 2017 Foresight study for the UK Government noted that the Arctic shipping season is projected to triple in length by mid-century, potentially saving 10-12 days in routes from East Asia to Europe.   Trans-Arctic routes may provide a useful supplement to traditional routes via the Suez Canal, though will likely not replace them, and whether trans-Arctic routes will become economically viable is unclear.  However Arctic transport is also likely to grow due to increased destination shipping to serve natural resource extraction projects and cruise tourism (Foresight 2017).

Fleet composition

4.5   Changes in the nature of the fleet are also expected to take place over the next 30 years. UNCTAD reported that in 2019, bulk carriers, oil tankers and container ships represented the three largest sectors of global shipping by weight.  More than half of those were ships less than 10 years old. A younger fleet can assist moves towards the sustainability of shipping, as they tend to be more efficient and less liable to break or cause environmental damage. Scrapping of less fuel-efficient ships may also accelerate (UNCTAD, 2019).  

4.6   The last decade has also seen increases in the size of ships. As noted in paragraph 2.5, the gross tonnage of ships entering ports in OSPAR countries increased over the decade, while the number of movements either fell or did not increase by the same proportion. A study for the ITF in 2018 reported that the average and maximum size of container ships had doubled in the previous 10 years, and that the proportion of larger ships will continue to grow to 2025. The average size of container ships on Far East – Europe routes was expected to grow from under 11000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) in 2015 to over 16000 TEUs by 2025 (Merk, 2018). IMO analysis of global trends does not consider the emergence of significantly larger ships very likely (e.g. 30,000 TEU), because the large investment in terminals would only be possible for a few ports, but does consider that an increased number of larger ships is likely (IMO 2020).

4.7   Changes in ship size can have several consequences. These include the need for more intense and deeper dredging, relocation or redesign of ports, and more environmental impact or losses of cargo if a serious accident were to occur. Slower steaming is also a feature of larger ships, as they are more efficient at low speeds than previous container ships designed for higher speeds (ITF, 2015). Speed reductions have been observed in vessels traveling to and from ports in the European Economic Area over the period 2008-2018, with an average speed reduction of around 18%, but with higher reductions in some sectors (e.g. some container ship sizes, oil tankers) (European Commission 2020).

4.8   The composition of the fleet and design of ships will also be influenced by initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. IMO’s 2020 regulation on sulphur (see 6.19 below) is an important driver of change towards more efficient ships.   On greenhouse gases, IMO’s 2018 strategy on reduction of greenhouse gases from shipping includes improvement of the existing energy efficiency framework, and work on development of low-carbon fuels and innovative technologies. It envisages reductions in the carbon intensity of international shipping of at least 40% by 2030 and efforts to reduce by 70% by 2050. IMO work continues, for example to strengthen energy efficiency requirements for new ships, and the strategy will be reviewed in 2023.    Energy efficiency can be improved through operational improvements and design features such as better hull design or propulsion aids such as sails or kites. Potential alternative fuels include liquified natural gas; electrofuels such as hydrogen or methanol; battery power; ammonia; and biodiesel or biogas (UNCTAD 2019). The EU is funding research and innovation projects to promote the decarbonisation of water-borne transport, including projects concerned with electric ferries and novel materials to reduce ship weight (European Commission 2020b). The precise pace and details of fleet change remains uncertain and depends on factors which influence the shipping industry in general, as well as the viability of different alternative fuels.

4.9   There may be some impact from the growth of schemes which seek to reward more environmentally-friendly shipping. Ships which meet defined criteria can qualify for incentives such as discounts for port fees. These include:

  • The Environmental Ship Index (, overseen by the International Association of Ports and Harbours. It was designed by the ports of Le Havre, Bremen, Hamburg, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.   Over 9000 ships have a valid ESI score, based on assessments by the ship owner. It covers air pollutants and carbon dioxide, and also considers noise emissions. Incentives for ESI ships are offered by over 30 ports in the OSPAR area;
  • The Clean Shipping Index (, which includes air emissions, chemicals (including anti-fouling coatings), waste and water and involves third party verification.   It is used by the Swedish Maritime Administration as a tool for differentiating fairway dues;
  • The Green Award (, which targets the highest performing ships through a certification procedure taking into account fifty different criteria.  Incentives are available from some ports in Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.

4.10   A study by the ITF in 2018 reported that evidence on the impact of these schemes is limited, but that development of the schemes and more substantial incentives could help to nudge shipping towards further decarbonisation (ITF 2018).

4.11   In Arctic Waters, a cross-cutting environmental provision is the IMO’s Polar Code, which entered into force in January 2017.    It is mandatory for operational safety matters under SOLAS (the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea), and for environmental issues under MARPOL (the International Convention for Prevention of Pollution from ships [covered by SOLAS].   Environmental matters include provisions on prevention of pollution by oil, sewage and garbage, and other guidance on pollution prevention. The environmental part of the Polar Code applies to all ships certified under MARPOL Annexes I, II, IV and V.   Its implementation is supported by an Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum under the auspices of the Arctic Council.  IMO has also produced a draft regulation which will prohibit the use and carriage for use as fuel of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, starting in 2024. The draft regulation will be for consideration by the IMO Marine Environmental Protection Committee.

QSR 2010 and Intermediate Assessment 2017

5.1   The QSR 2010 and its background paper on shipping (OSPAR 2009) highlighted the substantial growth in shipping movements globally and in the OSPAR region over the previous 20 years.   It summarised the main threats from shipping as:

  • pollution by oil and hazardous or toxic substances;
  • air pollution through emissions and particulate matters;
  • discharge of operational wastes from ships, including raw sewage and litter;
  • toxic chemicals used in anti-fouling paints and leaching of heavy metals from anodes;
  • introduction of non-indigenous organisms through ballast water and hull fouling;
  • pollution and physical impact through loss of ships and cargo;
  • physical and other impacts including noise and collision with marine mammals.

5.2   The QSR 2010 noted the development of measures to address some of these pressures, notably MARPOL Annexes 1 to VI. It urged OSPAR to promote strict implementation of measures, and to assess their effectiveness through better monitoring.    It recommended OSPAR countries to promote action, within the IMO and amongst themselves, in various areas: for example, to implement the clean ship approach of the Gothenburg Declaration; to reduce air-borne emissions; to reduce waste; to eliminate organotin compounds from anti-fouling systems; to co-operate on oil spill prevention and counter-pollution measures; to apply measures on ballast water; and to improve assessment and data on the impacts of shipping, including the effects of ship noise and ship strikes on marine mammals.

5.3   The IA 2017 noted developments in several of these areas; for example major reductions in organotin compounds; and monitoring and measures relating to non-indigenous species.   It reported that most OSPAR countries expect a future increase in shipping, but that due to measures such as regulation and marine planning, the environmental impacts of the sector were not expected to grow in proportion to the increase.

Analysis of specific pressures, impacts and measures

6.1   This section summarises key environmental impacts from shipping.  Further information for the EU as a whole is available in the recent European Maritime Transport Environmental Report (EMSA//EEA 2021).

Introduction of non-indigenous species – ballast water and hull fouling
What is the issue

6.2   Shipping is potentially a significant route for non-indigenous species to enter the marine environment in the OSPAR area.  Invasive non-indigenous species can threaten native biodiversity, with associated social, economic or environmental costs.   Removal of non-indigenous species once established is difficult, so prevention of their introduction is key. Shipping can transfer marine non-indigenous species in two ways:

  1. through exchange of ballast water;
  2. through organisms transported on ships’ hulls (biofouling).

6.3   Ballast water is used to maintain safe operating conditions for ships during voyages, but its intake and subsequent discharge can pose serious problems due to its role as a vector for the transfer of species, potentially over great distances. Examples of non-indigenous species in the OSPAR area thought to have been introduced via ballast water include the ‘comb jelly’ Mnemiopsis leidyi, which caused large blooms in Dutch estuaries in 2006 and was subsequently found more widely in the North Sea; a diatom, Coscinodiscus wailesii, which first appeared in European shelf seas in 1977 and has now become a dominant member of the plankton community; and the Chinese mitten crab Eriocheir sinensis  (Reid et al 2009).

6.4   An ICES report in 2019 looked at the issue of biofouling.  Most commercial vessels represent some degree of biosecurity risk; recreational vessels are considered a particularly high risk vector. Some of the most widespread non-native species with significant impacts have been transported by vessel fouling, such as the colonial sea squirt Didemnum vexillum.  In the UK, this was initially confined to a small marina but, despite eradication attempts, ultimately spread all around the UK coastline.   If global shipping trade does increase in the coming years, the risk of introduction of non-indigenous species through biofouling could rise.   Other factors such as changing shipping routes, slower shipping speeds, environmental disturbance due to port development, and the impacts of climate change could also increase the risk (Galil et al 2019).


6.5   At the time of QSR 2010, the IMO Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments (2004), had not yet come into force.   OSPAR and HELCOM had developed voluntary interim guidelines for managing ballast water, based on those of the IMO, to be used on a voluntary basis, pending the ratification and entry into force of the Convention.    However, QSR 2010 concluded that the risk of introduction of new species via this route continued to increase, due to higher numbers of ship movements and faster journey times favouring survival.   It recommended that OSPAR countries should take measures to counter this, by applying ballast water exchange standards, ratifying the IMO Ballast Water Convention and promoting its entry into force, and assessing the risks of introducing non-indigenous species.  

6.6   Subsequently, OSPAR, HELCOM and the Barcelona Conventions developed voluntary guidelines on ballast water exchange, which entered into force in 2012 (OSPAR 2012-04).   In 2015, in preparation for the entry into force of the Ballast Water Management Convention, OSPAR and HELCOM adopted a joint harmonised procedure for granting exemptions under the Convention in certain low-risk situations.  (OSPAR Agreement 2013-09 amended by OSPAR Agreement 2015-01).  This included an online decision support tool administered by OSPAR and HELCOM.  

6.7   The Ballast Water Management Convention entered into force in 2017.   It requires ships to manage their ballast water to meet standards referred to as D-1 and D-2.   The former requires ships to exchange and release at least 95 per cent of ballast water by volume far away from a coast.  D-2 raises the restriction to a specified maximum amount of viable organisms allowed to be discharged, limiting the discharge of specified microbes harmful to human health.   It generally includes the installation of a ballast water treatment device, which enables sterilisation.  

6.8   New ships must meet the D-2 standard; existing ships must initially meet the D-1 standard but, by 2024, all must meet the D2 standard.   Every ship is required to have a Ballast Water Management Plan and International Ballast Water Management Certificate, and to keep a Ballast Water Record Book.   The IMO has also issued guidelines on aspects of implementation, and continues to review the operation of the Convention during the current experience-building phase.   Several amendments and a new code relating to the Convention came into force in October 2019.   In the EU, EMSA has produced material such as 2019 guidelines on best practices on sampling.

6.9   As at 15 September 2020, 88 states and IMO associate members had ratified the Convention (IMO 2020c), including all OSPAR states other than the United Kingdom, although the latter is drafting legislation and operates in accordance with the Convention’s guidelines.

6.10   For biofouling, IMO guidelines for the control and management of ships’ biofouling were adopted in 2011.   In 2018, IMO agreed a process to review the guidelines.    Globally, GESAMP (2019) highlighted that the application of the IMO Biofouling Guidelines has been inconsistent, and mentioned challenges such as dealing with irregular surfaces and cavities, and assessing the efficacy of new in-water cleaning technologies.  ICES also highlighted improvements that could be made such as targeted guidelines dependent on vessel type and operational profiles, hull form optimisation, and better assessment of compliance (Galil et al 2019).

6.11   OSPAR/HELCOM OSPAR continues to consider management of ballast water and biofouling  through a joint task group with HELCOM.

Assessment of impacts of measures

6.12   Since 2003, OSPAR states have tracked and reported the number of new introductions of non-indigenous species into the Greater North Sea, Celtic Sea, and Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast.  The OSPAR Intermediate Assessment 2017 reported a relatively consistent growth in the North Sea over the previous decade, with more uneven trends elsewhere.  Confidence in the data was, however, fairly low.   

6.13   A study on non-indigenous species published by the European Environment Agency in 2019 reported that, between 1949 and 2017, 256 non-indigenous species were recorded in the North-East Atlantic Ocean (EEA, 2019)    The highest proportion was of invertebrates, such as crustaceans and molluscs; followed by primary producers (marine plants and algae), and vertebrates (mainly fish).    The number of new recorded non-indigenous species dropped from 49 in 2006-2011 to 23 in 2012-2017.  For the Icelandic Shelf, no new species were recorded in the latter period.   There were also decreases in other European seas.   However, the EEA report does not comment on the reasons for this recent decrease or whether this is a long term trend resulting from implementation of better practices, in shipping or in other sources of non-indigenous species.  New reports of the spread of harmful non-indigenous species are still being received – for example, ICES (2019) noted recent new occurrences of the invasive tunicate Didemnum vexillum.    The OSPAR/HELCOM task group on ballast water has developed a robust monitoring system for port areas.   At the same time, monitoring of non-indigenous species is considered to be one of the particular gaps in knowledge for implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (European Commission, 2020).

Shipping Noise

What is the issue

6.14   Shipping is a major source of underwater noise.   The effects of underwater noise are not fully understood; only a few species of mammals and fish have been tested for their hearing range and sensitivity.  Potential impacts could include damage to hearing, or disruption to behaviour such as foraging, migration and reproduction, at an individual or population level. (European Commission 2019b, OSPAR 2020). Most of the underwater noise is caused by propeller cavitation – the formation and implosion of water vapour cavities as water moves across a propeller blade - but onboard machinery and operational modification issues are also relevant (IMO 2014).    A policy brief from the JOMOPANS project (2019) noted that the influence of various parameters, such as propeller, speed and draught, on shipping noise remains largely unknown.

6.15   At the time of QSR2010, it was estimated that there had been an approximate doubling (3 dB increase) of background noise per decade since 1950s in some ocean areas, with commercial shipping being the most probably source of that impact. (OSPAR, 2009).

Figure 9 Levels and frequencies of anthropogenic and naturally occurring sound sources in the marine environment. Specturum Noise Level ("Acoustic intensity per Hertz") versus Frequency (measured in Hertz or "cycles per second") (Source OSPAR 2020).

Figure 9 Levels and frequencies of anthropogenic and naturally occurring sound sources in the marine environment. Specturum Noise Level ("Acoustic intensity per Hertz") versus Frequency (measured in Hertz or "cycles per second") (Source OSPAR 2020).


6.16   Because of the uncertainties surrounding the scale and impact of noise, a better understanding of the level of ambient noise, including the contribution of shipping, in the OSPAR area is a key to better management of the issue.   In 2015, OSPAR adopted an ambient noise monitoring strategy, based on sound maps generated primarily by modelling, supported with measurements for validation.  On the basis of this, monitoring programmes for specific regions could be developed.

6.17   Work on monitoring in the North Sea is being carried out under the JOMOPANS project (Joint Monitoring Programme for Ambient Noise North Sea, using a combination of modelling and measurement.  This is a three year project running from 2018. By combining sound maps with distribution maps of sensitive species it will improve understanding of whether noise is compromising good environmental status of the sea, including high risk areas and times of year.   In the North Atlantic, the JONAS project, launched in May 2019, is carrying out similar tasks.

6.18   Specific measures targeting shipping noise have been taken through the IMO.   In 2014, IMO approved non-mandatory guidelines on reducing noise from commercial shipping, focusing mainly on propellers, the design of the hull, on-board machinery and operational and maintenance recommendations.   The guidelines also include definitions and measurement standards.  The largest opportunities to reduce noise are in the design phase for new ships (IMO, 2014 ).  In Europe, the AQUO project (Achieve Quieter Oceans by shipping noise footprint reduction) produced guidelines covering ship design, including for propellers, and traffic management.   A cost-benefit analysis of technical options and incentives for reducing shipping noise can be found on the Netherlands government portal on the North Sea (Strietman et al 2018), including incentives such as inclusion of noise in green shipping indices and voluntary or mandatory measures to promote slow shipping speeds.

Assessment of impacts of measures

6.19   To date, it is thought that these guidelines have not yet had an effect on overall shipping noise, and some modelling suggests that underwater noise has increased in EU waters since 2014 (EMSA/EEA 2021). The terms of reference for OSPAR’s expert group on noise (ICG Noise) include work on a regional action plan with proposals for measures.

Air pollution and exhaust gas cleaning systems

What is the issue

6.20   The European Environment Agency’s TERM report on the environmental impacts of aviation and shipping summarised evidence on air pollution from shipping (EEA, 2018).  It reported that, in the European Union, international shipping contributed 16 % of NOx, 4 % of particulate matter with a diameter of 10 μm or less (PM10), 7 % of PM2.5 and 16 % of SOx emissions.  

6.21   Most air pollutant emissions occur close to the shore: on average, 70 % of emissions are released within 400 km of the coast; in the North Sea, 97% of emissions are released within 100 nautical miles of the shore, due to increased shipping near ports and the nature of shipping activities in those areas.   Shipping emissions can therefore have a significant contribution to air pollution on land, as well as deposition at sea.   For Black Carbon, a component of PM, there also an impact from releases in Arctic shipping routes, as deposition on snow and ice reduces the reflection of sunlight and increases the rate of melting.

6.22   The EEA report suggested that emissions would increase over the period 2006-2020, with PM2.5 emissions increasing by up to 15 % in the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and surrounding coastal areas.   The 2010 QSR also anticipated increases in shipping emissions.    


6.23  Measures under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and/or EU Directives have been implemented to target air pollution from shipping.   For sulphur emissions:

  • a global cap of 4.5% on the sulphur content of marine fuels came into force in 2006; this was reduced to 3.5% in 2012;
  • passenger ships on journeys to or from any European Community port had a maximum sulphur limit of 1.5% since 2006;  
  • a 0.1% maximum sulphur requirement for fuels used by ships at berth in EU ports was introduced from 1 January 2010;
  • the North Sea and English Channel is a SOx Emission Control Area under MARPOL.  From November 2007, sulphur limits were 1.5%; reduced to 1% from July 2010; and to 0.1% from January 2015.  (There is also a control area in the Baltic Sea.) Higher sulphur contents are still possible, but only if sustainable exhaust cleaning systems are installed on board.   Revised guidelines on exhaust gas cleaning systems, including on wastewater discharge [are under consideration by IMO ]. The EU introduced mechanisms to promote support and compliance (detailed in European Commission 2018);
  • from the start of 2020, MARPOL requires ships in waters other than SECAs to use fuels with a sulphur content of no more than 0.5%.

6.24   For nitrogen oxides, MARPOL has a system of tiers setting emission limits.  Tier I applies to  ships constructed from 1 January 2000, Tier II to ships constructed from 1 January 2011, and Tier III  to ships operating in in NOx Emission Control Areas (NOx ECAs). In October 2016 IMO has introduced new NOxECAs for the North Sea (including the English Channel and Skaggerak) and Baltic Sea.  From 1 January 2021, all ships constructed after that date and passing through these areas must use Tier 3 standards. National measures are also being introduced – for example for world heritage fjords in Norway from 2020, with tighter regulations up to Tier III standards for all ships by 2025 (Norwegian Maritime Authority 2019)

Assessment of impacts of measures

6.25   Eurostat’s time series of emissions from international shipping, by country, show reductions in emissions of almost all air pollutants, in most OSPAR countries, from international and national navigation over the decade to 2017 (Eurostat 2020h).   

Unit: Tonne (data from Eurostat 2020h)

Figure 10 - Air pollutants from international maritime navigation in the OSPAR area

6.26   The 2018 report from the European Commission on the initial implementation of sulphur controls in SECAs reported that the measures were having an impact. Over 93% of inspected ships had complied with the measures, and SOx concentrations in regions bordering SECAs had been observed (e.g. 50% reduction at the German North Sea island 'Neuwerk' and over 20% reduction in the Rotterdam-Rijnmond region) (European Commission 2018). Early evidence of reductions was also summarised in a 2016 report by the ITF (ITF 2016). 

6.27   A recent report from EMSA and the EAA reported that during 2014-2019, air pollutant emissions from the maritime transport sector have generally stabilized in all regions of Europe.  SOx emissions had largely decreased from 2015 in the North and the Baltic Sea. NOx emissions had remained stable in all regions except in the Baltic Sea (EMSA/EEA 2021).

Discharges from exhaust gas cleaning systems

6.28   Reports by ICES and EMSA/EEA have highlighted that the increased restrictions on sulphur emissions have resulted in an increased number of ships installing exhaust gas cleaning systems, also known as scrubbers. These allow ships to use heavy fuel oil, while reducing emissions of sulphur oxides. The process results in discharges of large volumes of acidified water containing contaminants such as heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, oil residues and nitrates. The most common type of scrubber, open loop, discharges this water directly to the sea.   This can be particularly concerning in areas of high traffic density, and in ports close to environmentally sensitive areas (Hassellöv et al 2020, ICES 2020, EMSA/EEA 2021). The ICES work concluded that if scrubbers continue to used, then there is an urgent need for investment in technological advances and port reception facilities to allow zero discharge closed loop scrubber systems; improved measurement, monitoring and reporting of discharges, and regulations on scrubber water discharge limits considering the full range of contaminants.

6.29   IMO’s sub-committee on pollution prevention and response has also produced new draft guidelines covering discharge water quality from exhaust gas cleaning systems, and proposed work on evaluation and harmonisation of rules and guidance on the discharge of such water.


What is the issue

6.30   The OSPAR 2017 intermediate assessment reported that marine litter, in particular plastic, is abundant on beaches, in the water column and on the seafloor.  OSPAR’s strategic objective to substantially reduce marine litter to levels where it does not cause harm to the environment had not been met. Over 80% of items found in beach litter monitoring are plastics, and items from sea-based sources (fishing and shipping) make up a significant proportion: 44% of items in Arctic Waters between 2011-2017; 34% in the North Sea; 18% in the Bay of Biscay and Iberian Coast; and 12% in the Celtic Seas.  (OSPAR xxxx)

6.31   Measures restricting discharge of litter from shipping have long been in place. Annex V of the MARPOL Convention, which seeks to eliminate and reduce the amount of garbage being discharged into the sea from ships, came into force at the end of 1988. These have been supplemented by subsequent amendments and guidelines (e.g. IMO 2017b). Designation of the North Sea as a Special Area, with tighter restrictions, came into force in 1991. In 2000, the European Community adopted Directive 2000/59/EC on port reception facilities, with the aim of substantially reducing discharges of ship-generated waste and cargo residues into the sea, through improving availability and use of port reception facilities. Nonetheless, the evidence from the 2017 OSPAR Intermediate Assessment suggested that more needed to be done to address litter from shipping.

6.32   Losses of goods being transported, such as from container ships, also contribute to marine litter. According to the World Shipping Council, over 1500 containers are lost globally each year (DG MARE, 2019).   Individual incidents can be substantial: for example, in early January 2019, the MSC Zoe lost 342 containers north of the Wadden Islands while en route to Bremerhaven. Most of the containers were destroyed and cargo residues washed ashore on the Wadden Islands and Dutch coast. It was estimated that 3257 tonnes of material (containers and contents) entered the sea, mainly consumables and packaging, but also raw material for the plastics industry.  One container lost 22.5 tonnes of tiny polymeric beads.  By mid-November 2019, 87% of containers and 75% of the cargo had been recovered; it is expected that most of the rest will be irrecoverable (BSU 2020). There were also losses from Trans Carrier in February 2020 (Norwegian Coastal Authority 2020).  

6.33   The definition of marine litter includes petroleum waxes and vegetable oils. These can be discharged legally (under certain conditions) as a result of washing of cargo tanks, as well as through accidental releases.  These can have detrimental impacts on birds and marine species; around 3% of all beach litter retrieved in 2016 in the EU was paraffin waxes (EMSA/EEA 2021).


6.34   In 2014, OSPAR agreed a Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter, which includes actions to address litter from shipping, including collective actions as well as national measures (OSPAR 2014). Actions included:

  • coordination on implementation of Directive 2000/59/EC, including on a cost recovery system, analysing the implementation of compulsory discharge of waste in EU ports for ships leaving the OSPAR maritime area for non-EU ports;  and informing the revision of the Directive;
  • identifying best practice in relation to inspections for MARPOL Annex V ship generated waste;
  • improving implementation of ISO standard 201070:2013 in relation to port reception facilities;
  • analysing penalti¬es and fines issued by Contractin¬g Parties for waste disposal offences.

6.35   Issues addressed by OSPAR Parties during revision of the directive on port reception facilities included the need for a cost recovery system providing a sufficient incentive for ships not to discharge garbage at sea.  The revised Directive has now entered into force and will require a 100% indirect fee system for MARPOL Annex V waste (other than cargo residues) so that there are no additional charges based on the volume of waste delivered.  

6.36   OSPAR has also reviewed best practice policies to encourage advanced shipboard waste management in line with legislation and guidelines, including the revised ISO 21070 standard. It showed that several ports and governments facilitate and reward advanced onboard waste management, but suggested a more coordinated approach in the OSPAR region, including encouraging voluntary facilitation and reward for advanced waste management on board ships, and for OSPAR Parties to report on progress.  

6.37   OSPAR’s Intersessional Correspondence Group on Marine Litter (ICG-ML) provides a forum where the implementation of OSPAR’s Regional Action Plan can be considered.   A 2019 meeting on illegal waste disposal from ships looked at ways to strengthen the implementation of measures, including through better access to data and improved training  (OSPAR 2019).

6.38   Globally, in 2018, IMO adopted a new action plan to address plastic litter from ships (IMO 2018).  This addresses issues such as better record keeping and enforcement; the availability and adequacy of port reception facilities; enhancing public awareness, and consideration of a compulsory mechanism to declare loss of containers at sea.   Losses of containers have also been looked at in work by the European Commission (DG MARE 2019); recommendations on issues such as technical standards for container ships and on route-specific risks were also made in reports on the loss of containers from MSC ZOE (BSU 2020, DSB 2020).

6.39   The effectiveness of these measures, many of which are recent or still being developed, is not yet clear, particularly as there is no reliable baseline of litter inputs from commercial shipping.

Physical disturbance of the seabed - Navigational dredging

What is the issue

6.40   Dredging to maintain, create or deepen navigation access to ports and harbours can have multiple environmental effects. These could include:

  • the release of contaminants to the water column (such as heavy metals and TBT);
  • turbidity through suspended sediments;
  • local changes in benthic habitats and biological communities, in particular because of smothering when sediments are dumped
  • affects on sensitive communities when channels are deepened or new facilities created, for example through changes in tidal characteristics.

6.41   Most of the material dredged within the OSPAR maritime area is either uncontaminated or only slightly contaminated by human activity , but a smaller proportion is contaminated so that  major environmental constraints need to be applied when developing management options (OSPAR, 2014).

Unit: Tonnes dry weight (data from OSPAR Dumping and Placement of Wastes and Other Matter at Sea)

Figure 11 - Dredged Material - Quantities Dredged vs Loads


6.42   Control of dredging and disposal is managed in accordance with several European directives (e.g. the Birds and Habitats directives; EIA directive; Water Framework Directive; Marine Strategy Framework Directive; Waste Framework Directive) and national legislation.  OSPAR itself has produced guidelines for the management of dredged material (OSPAR, 2014b).  These set out a Best Environmental Practice approach for minimising both the amount of material dredged and the impacts of dredging and disposal.

6.43   The World Organisation of Dredging Associations has also published guidance on underwater noise associated with dredging (WODA 2013).   The Central Dredging Association has also recently published guidance on assessing and evaluating environmental turbidity limits (CEDA 2020).

Impact of measures

6.44   A report on the use of OSPAR guidelines was presented to EIHA in 2020. Returns from contracting parties reported that 2014 dredging guidelines were being fully implemented in the majority of the OSPAR maritime area8.

Physical disturbance of the seabed - other disturbance

6.45   The wakes produced by ships can result in suspended sediment in shallow areas, increasing turbidity and affecting organisms which depend on light.  This can have an impact on the productivity of habitats, such as rivers and estuaries near harbours, or in the vicinity of shipping lanes.   Analysis shows that, within European seas, the North Sea has the highest proportion of its area potentially disturbed by ship wakes.  This may affect some protected species and habitats, but there is no available information demonstrating this impact.   The North Sea also has the highest extent of protected areas potentially affected by anchoring (EMSA/EEA 2021).

Pollution by oil or other noxious substances

What is the issue

Pollution from oil or other noxious substances can occur through accidents or deliberate operational discharges. A 2016 review from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre summarised information on pollution of the sea by sea-based sources of chemical contaminants, including from shipping. Operational discharges can include releases from procedures such as tank cleaning, deballasting, or release of bilge water from machinery. While such discharges are subject to environmental regulations, discharges do sometimes occur. As well as oil, other contaminants also may be released: work has been done to identify and prioritise such contaminants according to their environmental toxicity. For non-oil pollutants, between 1978 and 2013, the most released substances in European waters were styrene, sulphuric acid, benzene, and phosphoric acid (Tornero & Hanke, 2016).   Ships also discharge grey water and sewage; nitrogen from sewage can have a significant impact in eutrophic environments (EMSA/EEA 2021).

6.47   The number of spills in European waters has dropped in recent years.   The European Maritime and Safety Authority reported that the numbers of oil spills detected by its CleanSeaNet, the European satellite-based oil spill monitoring and vessel detection service, had dropped by half between 2007 and 2017, and there were no incidents of the scale of previous oil spills from the Erika in 1999 and Prestige in 2002 (EMSA 2017).   For the area covered by the Bonn Agreement,  contracting parties observed 135 mineral oil slicks in 2018, and no spills over 100m3  were observed Most come from shipping or offshore installations, although in most cases the polluter could not be identified.   There were also 103 detections of other substances and 204 detections of unknown substances.   The number of slicks detected has fallen over the past decade (Bonn Agreement 2018).

6.48   While the number of incidents has reduced, there may nevertheless be emerging risks to consider.  The Bonn Agreement’s BE-AWARE II project noted that increasing competition for space, including from renewable energy installations, may increase the risk of collisions.  The ICES ecosystem review of the Barents Sea reported that transport of oil and other petroleum products from northwestern Russia has increased in the last decade, and that the capacity from Russian Arctic oil export terminals will increase in future.  ICES notes that risk of oil tanker accidents will increase unless measures are taken to reduce such risk (ICES 2019a).


6.49   Since 1983, MARPOL and subsequent amendments to it have mandated measures to limit the risk of pollution.   MARPOL Annex I covers prevention of pollution from operational measures as well as accidental discharges, including requirements on tanker construction.   The North West European Waters are a special area under the Annex, in which particularly stringent measures governing discharges apply.

6.50   Annex II covers the control of pollution by noxious liquid substances in bulk: discharge of residues is allowed only to reception facilities until certain concentrations and conditions are complied with, and no discharge of residues containing noxious substances is permitted within 12 miles of the nearest land.  An amendment adopted in 2019 will strengthen discharge requirements for cargo residues and tank washings containing persistent floating products with a high-viscosity and/or a high melting point that can solidify (e.g. certain vegetable oils and paraffin-like cargoes).   This will apply in specified areas including North West European waters, Baltic Sea area, Western European Waters and Norwegian Sea).   It is expected to come into force on 1 January 2021.     IMO’s sub-committee on pollution prevention and response has also produced new draft guidelines covering discharge water quality from exhaust gas cleaning systems, and proposed work on evaluation and harmonisation of rules and guidance on the discharge of such water .

6.51   The Wadden Sea (2002) and Western European Waters (the Western coasts of the United Kingdom Ireland, Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal, 2004) have been designated as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas by the IMO in light of the risks posed by the carriage of goods.   Area-specific routeing and reporting schemes are in place to reduce the risks to these PSSAs.   Moving of shipping lanes further out from the coast to reduce the risk of harm from factors such as oil spillage has also taken place in Icelandic waters (ICES 2019b).

6.52   For part of the OSPAR region – the Greater North Sea and its wider approaches including the Irish Sea, Celtic Sea, part of the Norwegian Sea and parts of the North East Atlantic, the Bonn Agreement provides a mechanism for cooperation in monitoring the implementation of the MARPOL Annexes.  Over the past decade, its strategic action plans have included actions on matters such as collaboration on enforcement, emergency preparedness and effective response to incidents (e.g. in Bonn Agreement 2016).   Its strategic plan for 2019-2025 includes operational objectives in matters such as surveillance and reporting of shipping, compliance monitoring, and common understanding of emergency response approaches (Bonn Agreement 2019).   As well as operating CleanSeaNet, EMSA also has a network of stand-by oil response vessels, as well as mechanisms for provision of rapid advice to support coastal states responding to incidents involving chemicals or hazardous and noxious substances. 

Impact of measures

6.53   The EMSA and Bonn Agreement reports mentioned above show a decline in incidents over the past decade.  EMSA’s report on the first decade of CleanSeaNet concluded that there had been significant progress by coastal states in addressing illegal discharges of oil and other substances through measures such as monitoring, inspection, enforcement, and pollution response plans (EMSA 2017).   EMSA also suggests that there has been a clear deterrent effect of the CLeanSeaNet satellite-based oil monitoring service.    Although the number of CleanSeaNet detections in the Bonn Agreement area actually rose between 2017 and 2018, this is potentially due to better resolution of images as well as increased volume of services (Bonn Agreement 2019).

Antifouling coatings

What is the issue

6.54   Environmental problems from past use of organotin compounds in antifouling treatments have reduced since the use of tributyltin was prohibited in 2008 under the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems on Ships (the AFS Convention).   The 2017 Intermediate Assessment reported that concentrations detected in marine sediments have fallen considerably and are often below the limit of detection.   In the Dutch part of the southern North Sea, the only area with sufficient monitoring data, data showed a decreasing trend in sediment concentrations.

6.55   Biocides used since the ban may still have environmental impacts, if less severe than TBT.  Copper is a major component of antifouling paints, and increasing concentrations of copper are now found in sediments near harbours and shipping lanes.   Other booster biocides can be toxic and persistent.

Measures and impact of measures

6.56   In 2016, an OSPAR report on copper in the marine environment considered that further legislation and research into antifouling systems is probably needed to reduce concentrations in  coastal waters with high shipping intensity (OSPAR 2016).

6.57   Measures have been taken to restrict the use of some booster biocides.   For example, in the UK, Denmark and Sweden, national measures were taken to restrict the use of cybutryne and, in 2017, the European Commission adopted a decision that effectively prohibits the marketing and use of anti-fouling paints containing cybutryne in all EU Member States.  The possibility of controls on cybutryne under the AFS Convention is being considered.    The scoring for the Clean Shipping Index (see para 4.9 above) reflects the type of biocide used, and non-toxic fouling release coatings get the highest scores.

6.58   Research has been carried out on the possibility of more sustainable antifouling solutions – e.g. the European FP7 collaborative project on low emission antifouling (LEAF).   The IMO has also funded research on the likelihood of microplastic release from marine paints, in particular anti-fouling systems, although this is at an early stage (IMO 2019).

Collisions with marine mammals

6.59   Ship strikes can cause death or injury to cetaceans, but the lack of good data on populations and on animals affected means that the impact is difficult to assess (OSPAR 2018). National reports under ACSOBANS (Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas) include deaths from possible ship strikes.   

6.60   The International Whaling Commission has developed a strategic plan for work on mitigating the impacts of ship strikes on cetacean populations.  The plan covers measures such as re-routing and speed reduction; better reporting of incidents; development and use of avoidance technologies; and identifying high risk areas where high volumes of shipping overlap with high numbers of whales.   None of the high risk areas so far identified in the plan are within the OSPAR region, although the Strait of Gibraltar is identified as a high risk area within the Mediterranean for fin and sperm whales (Cates et al 2017).   IWC also maintains a global database on ship strikes .   


Key messages

While global shipping is projected to expand in future years, the extent to which volumes of shipping in OSPAR waters will change remains uncertain;

As well as the volume of shipping, changes in the fleet composition need to be taken account of in understanding impacts and risks.   These include environmental improvements (for example, due to greenhouse gas or air pollution measures) but also changes in ship size (e.g. towards larger ships) or moves to alternative fuels.   OSPAR may want to better understand potential future trends;

While measures for the management of some impacts have developed significantly over the past decade (e.g. on ballast water, air pollution, litter) OSPAR should keep a close watch on how they are implemented and evidence of their success (or not);

Continuous noise from shipping remains an area which is poorly understood, both on scale/environmental impact and on the effect of measures to try and incentivise less noisy ships.   This may be an important area for continued OSPAR work;

The impact of ship strikes on cetaceans remains an area of concern given weaknesses in data;

Effective development and enforcement of the Polar Code is important for OSPAR Arctic Waters;

OSPAR may want to consider the significance of newly emerging issues and risks and any potential OSPAR involvement (e.g. discharges from scrubbers, microplastics in ship paints; potential increase in risks or impact from collision/accident due to expansion of wind farms or larger ships);

Assessments in other parts of the QSR on the state of the seas need to consider the overall impacts of shipping on state indicators.

Distribution and intensity of activity

OSPAR Regions II, III and IV (and parts of Regions I and V) continue to have a high density of shipping, with the highest densities in the English Channel, Southern and Eastern North Sea, and the entrance to the Mediterranean. The OSPAR region includes three of the twenty leading container ports globally, and ten of the twenty largest ports in Europe, with a particular concentration in the southern North Sea. (Paragraph 2.1)


In 2018, the gross weight of goods handled in OSPAR ports and the passenger numbers embarking and disembarking in OSPAR ports were little changed from 2008.  (Paragraphs 2.3, 2.6)

Scenario analyses anticipate an increase in the amount of shipping in future, but this is subject to uncertainty.   The composition of the fleet is likely to change over time, for example in response to measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  (Paragraphs 4.1 – 4.8)

Economic value

Maritime transport is critical to Europe’s economy, representing between 75% and 90% of the EU’s external trade and one third of intra-EU trade. (Paragraph 3.1)

Pressures and impacts

Shipping has multiple environmental impacts, including air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, introduction of non-indigenous species, marine litter, underwater noise, oil spills, and collisions with marine mammals.   The incidence of some of these has reduced as a result of measures taken (e.g. air pollution, oil spills) but some remain poorly understood (e.g. noise, collisions). (Paragraphs 6.1 – 6.61)


A range of measures have been taken, including by OSPAR, the IMO, the European Union, and national authorities, to address the impacts of shipping, such as controls on sulphur and nitrogen emissions; regulations on ballast water; measures to limit litter; and actions to reduce the risk of oil pollution.  Voluntary guidance or codes have also been developed to encourage improved environmental performance of the shipping fleet.  Some of these measures are reducing environmental impacts but the effect of others remains limited. (Paragraphs 6.1 – 6.61)

 OSPAR Regions
  Relative intensityMHHHL
  Forecast Trend to 2030?????
  Confidence Assessment

Very High
Very Low




 [TI1]This is a judgement of intensity based on para 2.1 but could be changed if wished – region II is particularly high so others could be downgraded?  I have put a roughly unchanged trend on the basis of figures of goods and passenger numbers.   There is some variation (up or down) between individual countries but the story still seems to be that changes are small rather than substantial

 [TI2]Analyses have predicted an increase but the fall out from Covid makes this hard to judge.   Or we could include an upwards arrow but make the confidence assessment low?


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1 Dataset Eurostat 2020a does not include Faroe Islands

2 Eurostat total figures for Denmark include the Baltic. For France, Spain, Germany and Sweden, Eurostat total figures separate out OSPAR area.

3 Dataset Eurostat 2020d does not separate Baltic/Mediterranean ports from OSPAR ports; does not include Iceland/Faroe Islands

4 Total of liquid bulk carriers, dry bulk carriers, container ships, specialised carriers, and general non-specialised carriers

5 The EMODnet shipping density maps do not distinguish between passenger traffic and cruise ship traffic

8 The guidelines were being fully implemented by Denmark, Germany, Greenland, Faroe Islands, France, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Reporting by contracting parties did not allow assessment of implementation elsewhere.