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Oil Spill Intervention in the Mediterranean Sea

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Oil Pollution in the Mediterranean Sea: Part I

Part of the book series: The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry ((HEC,volume 83))


It is axiomatic that maritime transportation is essential for international trade. As the global economy and commerce continue to grow, significant pressure falls on maritime transportation. The types of goods conveyed by maritime transportation are innumerable. Oil is one of the transported commodities that rank high among import–export items. Without oil, the world’s energy supply is predicted to slowly run dry and in that instance, the ever-expanding global economy might lose its raison d’être. Marked by its versatile utility, oil supply has been in high demand in the international market for a considerable period of time. Occasionally, oil transportation via tankers does not always go as expected. Even though accidental discharges from incidents such as the Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz, and the Exxon Valdez are considered to be less when compared to other types of vessel-source pollution, those incidents have nevertheless, demonstrated the need for a comprehensive national contingency plan to combat the deleterious effects of oil pollution at sea. Hence, they have been the reason behind the outcry of affected coastal communities and increased public attention to the threat of oil spills.

Although studies show that oil tanker incidents have been declining significantly, accidental spills as a part of the broader “oil spill” regime have been a contentious issue for decades and therefore, the “cause and effect” cannot be overlooked by Coastal States. While operational spills can be regulated through stringent laws and regulations, an accidental spill due to its unpredictable nature cannot be fully regulated by stringent policies. Again, compared to operational spills, the quantity of oil spilled from a single accident can be more than a number of operational spills combined and far more devastating. Researchers are, therefore, leaving no stones unturned to help the shipping industry lower the number and volume of accidental oil spills. While maritime engineers, scientists, and researchers are focusing on technical defects and human errors, governments of Coastal States are trying to develop ways to protect the marine environment through immediate response. More recently, countries within North America are studying an emerging concept related to oil spill immediate response. This modern concept entitled “oil spill intervention” is a combination of first response prior to a spill and rapid response in the immediate aftermath of a spill. In other words, governments are looking at advanced ways of dealing with oil spills, which go beyond the concept of ordinary “oil spill response.” Since the semi-enclosed Mediterranean Sea, bordered by 23 states, consists entirely or primarily of Territorial Seas and Exclusive Economic Zones, an accidental oil pollution incident in any part of the Mediterranean Sea is likely to effect a significant number of States whether they are adjacent, opposite, or located at a far distance. The marine ecology of the semi-enclosed Mediterranean Sea is known to science as unique and there is a limit to how much oil contaminants these sensitive sea areas can absorb. Therefore, the Mediterranean Sea areas are in need of better governmental control and advanced rapid response plans. This is where the national laws of the Mediterranean States and regional cooperation need further scrutiny to confirm whether they contain the required elements of “oil spill intervention.” Furthermore, Mediterranean national measures aimed at preventing, limiting, or responding to oil pollution needs to be cross-examined against the backdrop of status quo international law, which governs immediate response and intervention.

Although there has not been any major maritime oil spill incident within the Mediterranean region, accidents are considered as inevitable occurrences and the risk of one happening in the near future cannot be ruled out. Past incidents have taught us that an oil tanker accident is a force to be reckoned with. So, time not only runs against first responders who jump into immediate action in the aftermath of a maritime incident, but it also runs against the concerned governments of the Mediterranean Sea region. They need to review their current action plans and look into a functional and effective intervention plan before any future occurrence impacts the quality of the marine environment. This review is needed mainly because maritime traffic in the Mediterranean is increasing and the shipping industry will continue to take advantage of the Mediterranean transportation corridor.

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  1. 1.

    A series of occurrences in any maritime zone of a state having the same origin, which results or may result in the discharge of oil and may pose a threat to the marine environment, or to the coastline of related interests of one or more states, which may require an emergency action or other immediate response.

  2. 2.

    Delivering effective and fit-for-purpose oil spill response preparedness and capability to contain oil already discharged.

  3. 3.

    Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, the European Community, Croatia, Egypt, Spain, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Monaco, Montenegro, Slovenia, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.

  4. 4.

    Through Annex I of MARPOL 73/78, the Mediterranean Sea proper including the gulfs and seas therein with the boundary between the Mediterranean and the Black Seas constituted by the 41°N parallel and bounded to the west by the Straits of Gibraltar at the meridian of 5°36′W” as a “special area” in which, “for technical reasons relating to their oceanographic and ecological condition and to their sea traffic, the adoption of special mandatory methods for the prevention of sea pollution is required.”


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Correspondence to Neil Bellefontaine .

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Bellefontaine, N., Donner, P., Hildebrand, L., Johansson, T. (2016). Oil Spill Intervention in the Mediterranean Sea. In: Carpenter, A., Kostianoy, A. (eds) Oil Pollution in the Mediterranean Sea: Part I. The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry, vol 83. Springer, Cham.

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