Last modified: 19 April 2013
Almost unrecognisable as birds, these guillemots are among the most severe casualties of pollution with PIB.
Image: BTO Image Library
Three leading wildlife organisations have joined together to call for the ban on the discharge of a substance which has killed hundreds of seabirds.
The unfolding disaster of hundreds of seabirds floundering and dying along England’s southern coast because of marine pollution has prompted the RSPB, the RSPCA and The Wildlife Trusts to write to Stephen Hammond MP – a minister at the Department for Transport – alerting him to the growing threat posed by the discharge from ships of polyisobutene (PIB).
The three charities are urging the minister to take a lead in driving an international reclassification of the man-made substance to prohibit the discharge of PIB at sea. PIB renders seabirds helpless, restricting their mobility and preventing them from feeding as the chemical coats their plumage.
This year, two pollution incidents involving PIB have been reported along the South West coast. Research has also revealed that at least three other incidents have led to mass seabird deaths around European coasts in recent years. In calling for action, the three organisations also cite the predicted 40 per cent growth in the international transport of polyisobutene in the next four years. The chemical is used in the manufacture of a range of products including lubricants to football bladders, chewing gum to cling film, and it is also used to control the thickness of oils.
This material is a killer which has claimed the lives of thousands of seabirds, causing many to suffer a lingering death
It can be legal to discharge PIB when ships wash out their tanks at sea, but these permissions are based on tests carried out under laboratory conditions. Bizarrely, there is no consideration of what happens when the chemical meets sea water, beyond whether the substance floats or sinks. In the sea, however, the polyisobutene transforms into a glue-like, ‘waxy’ formation, coating the feathers of birds, preventing them from diving and finding food. The longer-term effects of legal PIB releases on other parts of the marine environment are largely unknown.
Alec Taylor, the RSPB’s marine policy officer, said: “This material is a killer which has claimed the lives of thousands of seabirds, causing many to suffer a lingering death. It cannot be right that it is legal to release it in any quantity into our seas.”
The RSPCA has treated many hundreds of birds at its West Hatch wildlife centre in Somerset. RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant said: “The dumping at sea of this lethal chemical has to stop. It was heart-breaking enough after the first incident in February to see so many birds arrive at our centres in such a poorly state. But for it to happen again and so soon is inexcusable and unacceptable.”
Joan Edwards, Head of Living Seas for The Wildlife Trusts, said: "Dead and dying seabirds may be the most visible victims of our mismanagement. Impacts on other parts of marine life support systems may be just as widespread, and more serious. Firm controls must be implemented to minimise future disasters such as this and which allow deliberate offenders to be held to account."
The RSPB, the RSPCA, and The Wildlife Trusts are urging Stephen Hammond MP to write to the International Maritime Organisation to request a review of polyisobutene’s hazard status under the MARPOL Convention, which states it is legal to discharge PIB when a vessel’s tanks are flushed at sea.
The issue has attracted a great deal of public concern and the campaigning group 38 Degrees has also launched an e-action urging the government to take action, while a separate petition on Avaaz has received over 2000 signatures in the last four days.
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