Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

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Response to marine pollution

One year after typhoon Haiyan, livelihoods regained with fishing boats and seaweed. © European Union/ECHO/Arlynn Aquino

Why is this important?

Accidental oil spills and cleaning operations are the main source of pollution from ships, placing enormous demands on the national authorities responsible for response and clean-up operations. Europe is the world's largest market of crude oil imports, transported from and to Europe mainly by sea. Inevitably, some of this makes its way into the sea, whether by accident or resulting from ship operations. "Prestige" and "Erika" are examples of the frightening environmental damage that can be caused by accidents of large oil spills.

How are we helping?

Since 1978, the EU has played a vital role in the response to marine pollution and today its role has become even greater with the response coordination ensured by its Emergency Response Coordination Centre and with marine pollution preparedness and response services provided by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

At the end of the 70s, an action programme against hydrocarbons pollution was set in motion and later extended to other harmful substances. EU efforts were reinforced in 1984 by setting up the "Urgent Pollution Alert Section" to provide operational support to Member States. Preparedness and response mechanisms in the field of marine pollution were reinforced by the Community cooperation framework that ran between 2000 and 2006.

EMSA was established by the European Union in 2002 in the aftermath of the Erika disaster. EMSA assumes the leading role in ensuring a uniform and effective level of maritime safety, maritime security, prevention of and response to pollution caused by ships as well as response to marine pollution caused by oil and gas installations and providing technical and scientific assistance to the European Commission and Member States.

EMSA manages a network of standby at-sea oil spill recovery vessels based in all the regional seas of Europe. These are normal commercial vessels which carry out day-to-day operations but, upon request, cease their normal activities and quickly move to the scene of the oil spill. The Agency also provides satellite imagery for detection and monitoring of oil spills, pollution response experts to give operational and technical assistance, and information service for chemical spills at sea.

Often, cleaning efforts and recovery from an oil spill require costs which go beyond what a single country can bear. Therefore, a number of regional and bilateral cooperation agreements were established between maritime states. The EU participates in these agreements and conventions that cover the regional seas around Europe like the Helsinki and Barcelona conventions, and Lisbon and Bonn Agreements.


The EU Civil Protection Mechanism also intervenes in marine pollution emergencies. When a request for assistance is received following a marine pollution incident, the Emergency Response Coordination Centre can quickly mobilise oil recovery capacity and expertise from the participating states and EMSA, and facilitate the deployment of these assets and the EU Mechanism team.

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