January 26, 2021

The next steps to protect coastlines and waterways

Written by Chris Reeder, Regional Business Development Manager, Ecocoast

The marine environment is facing unprecedented change as a result of direct human activity and climate change. Marine pollution is a global challenge, which needs to be addressed from multiple angles, both behavioural and technological, and from prevention to restoration. The marine environment is under threat from climate change, pollution and over-fishing. It is vital that we are proactive in taking advantage of new technology opportunities to drive change.

Based on current projections, these challenges if not met, will have major implications for global biodiversity, infrastructure, human health and wellbeing, and the productivity of the marine economy.

The current state

Globally, at least 24 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year, and make up 80 per cent of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. This is an issue because marine species ingest or are entangled by plastic debris, which causes severe injuries and deaths. Plastic pollution also threatens food safety and quality, human health, coastal tourism, and contributes to climate change.

However, plastic is not the only issue. Many pesticides and nutrients used in agriculture end up in the coastal waters, resulting in oxygen depletion that kills marine plants and shellfish. Factories and industrial plants discharge sewage and other runoff into the oceans. Oil spills pollute the oceans, though water-sewage treatment plants discharge twice as much oil each year as tanker spills. Invasive species have entered harbour waters and waterways and disrupted the ecological balance. We also need to consider silt, sediment, pollutants and other debris that enter the waterways and oceans through construction, development and everyday living.

As a restoration measure, marine booms were developed to aid debris and pollution control at vulnerable sites where a constant risk exists. These include industrial areas, nature reserves, harbours or marinas, pumping stations, water treatment works, and dam spillways, just to mention a few. Our innovation has focused on creating fully flush faced debris booms because the design ensures they are self-clearing when installed at a suitable angle to the current flow. Easy debris collection, or deflecting debris away from sluices or intakes to stop them from getting blocked, makes them more effective in the battle to reduce the impact of pollution on the marine environment.

What is next?

The future sea will be busier, with new technology opening it up for greater exploration and exploitation. Its resources will be more in demand from a growing global population. Ocean warming of 1.2–3.2°C, depending on emissions, is projected by the year 2100. Evidence shows that this causes decline in cold-water fish species, coral bleaching, and is likely to lead to new species in unfamiliar waters. Plastic in the ocean is projected to treble between 2015 and 2025. Chemical pollution is an ongoing issue, as pollutants can persist in the oceans for decades after their use is restricted by legislation. This list of chemicals deemed to be persistent organic pollutants (POPs) continues to grow.

The shores will continue to develop. In the last 30 years, 12,741 m.sq. has been added to the coastline, with this rate set to accelerate due to reclamation activity and climate change. Future reclamation activities include the luxury tourism islands of The Maldives as well as a brand-new development in The Red Sea, set to develop 50 new islands. Continuing into the future, effecting the marine environment is port development activities such as the deep-water port at Ndayane, Senegal to serve as a major logistics hub and gateway to West and North-West Africa. These developments, critical to e-commerce and human development must work in harmony with the marine environment which will see a tightening of marine protection regulations to protect marine ecosystems against the effects of these developments. Another positive development is the growth of sustainable industries such as aquaculture to curb overfishing commercial habits and the increased investment and reliance on sustainable energy sources such as floating solar farms, offshore wind power and hydropower.

New technologies can help to sustainably meet the long-term challenges associated with growing resource demand. For example, marine biotechnology has the potential to provide solutions to food production, cleaner fuel, and the development of new pharmaceuticals and could even be used to genetically engineer coral to be more resilient to bleaching. Autonomous debris collection devices are also one area in which engineering is working hard to find solutions to difficult challenges at sea.

Using an autonomous, environmentally-friendly floating device, floating plastic pollution can be scooped out of rivers before it reaches the sea and help battle linear economies. One such project can be seen in Flanders, Belgium. DEME has implemented the longest Bolina boom which serves as a floating funnel that covers part of a river to catch and collect floating debris. The debris, once ‘caught’, is transferred to the riverbank for collection and processing. Initiatives like 24-hour plastic catchers are helping to clean European waterways and provide a solution for river pollution.

A call to commitment

In the face of increasing pollution from plastic to pesticide run-offs, current commitments are not enough to effectively mitigate the crisis we are facing. These commitments would only have a substantial impact if water contamination was halted completely. Therefore, a fundamental transformation of the waste economy and water environment is essential, while also developing an effective cleanup strategy, for removing what is already in the water. With a history built on innovation and delivering new ways of protecting marine environments, the engineering community – including Ecocoast – has ensured that the science and technology exists to deliver this. Looking ahead, corporate enterprises and governments need to join in and universally commit to protective schemes that will support our oceans and waterways for years to come.