Ships Are Dumping Oil up to 3,000x per Year in Europe’s Waters, Investigation Finds

A large container ship
Commercial ships have been caught dumping oil into the ocean off of Europe. Art Wager / E+ / Getty Images

An investigation by Lighthouse Reports shows that commercial ships are dumping oil into European waters up to 3,000 times every year, equating to about eight oil spills per day. Each spill is about the size of 750 football fields, according to the report.

Lighthouse Reports, a non-profit news organization, conducted a six-month investigation using satellite imagery, machine learning, whistleblowers’ testimonies and freedom of information requests. They found hundreds of commercial vessels dumping oil in waters around Europe since 2020. 

SkyTruth, an environmental watchdog that worked in partnership with Lighthouse Reports on the investigation, further estimates that there are upward of 3,000 oil slicks per year from these vessels.

Most people surveyed in the investigation, including environmentalists and port authorities, confirmed that oil dumping is common. Six whistleblowers further shared that crew members might use certain pumps, falsify oil logbooks, or discharge oil waste at night to minimize their risk of being caught.

Even with AI technology, known as CleanSeaNet, designed by European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) to help verify and prevent oil dumping, the reporters found that multiple countries moved slowly to take action, and when they did prosecute ships for dumping oil in these waters, punishments were minimal. According to 2019 data, only 1.5% of potential oil spills were verified by EU member states within three hours.

“Even if an oil sample is taken after the fact and they find out which ship the oil came from, the likelihood of the polluters being fined a large amount is minimal,” Christian Bussau, a marine biologist with Greenpeace, told Lighthouse Reports. “There is still a certain incentive, for cost reasons, to illegally dump oil at sea.”

Yet while commercial vessels mostly get away with illegal oil dumping, the crew members are heavily punished by their shipmates if they refuse or speak out against the dumping.

“A culture of fear has discouraged people from speaking out: one person we spoke to, had been detained onboard his vessel for over 10 days when he refused to discharge oily water,” according to Lighthouse Reports. “Another source told us they had been fired three months into their contract for speaking out about illegal bilge dumping.”

Bilge dumping rarely gets as much attention as larger oil spills, but these dumps can still harshly impact marine life, particularly for smaller organisms, like plankton. One study confirmed that short-term oil spills can lead to a decline in plankton numbers, as reported by The Guardian. These effects make their way up the food chain, disrupting entire ecosystems.

Despite these environmental impacts and the risk of fines or imprisonment, ships continue to discharge oil into the water, and enforcement of laws against oil dumping remain low.

“Whether it is a lack of resources by relevant national authorities, or flaws in EMSA’s accountability system, bilge dumping remains an uncomfortable and toxic reality in our oceans,” Lighthouse Reports stated.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter