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Protecting our marine environment – information for students

Marine pollution can be caused by discharges of sewage, dumping of rubbish from vessels, as well as spills of oil and other harmful substances. Learn about the main maritime environment pollution issues.

What’s meant by the "maritime environment", versus the "marine environment"?
What are the main types of marine pollution from ships?
Are there laws to stop marine pollution?
What other threats are there to the marine environment?
When was the last big oil spill in New Zealand?
What’s so bad about oil?
Who’s responsible for the maritime environment?
How can I get involved?
Keeping our waters, beaches and coastline clean
World Maritime Day
Links to more information

What’s meant by the "maritime environment", versus the "marine environment"?

The maritime environment and the marine environment are both about the sea. The "maritime environment" is about ships and boats and other man-made things such as oil drilling platforms.

The marine environment refers to the bigger picture of all the living things that live in or on the sea, eg seabirds, marine mammals, fish, snails, shellfish, sponges and seaweed.

The world’s oceans cover 70% of our planet. As New Zealand is an island nation, the health of our ocean, land and people are all linked together. We use the ocean for trade, fun, fishing and food gathering. The beauty and cleanliness of New Zealand's marine environment brings people from all over the world to visit. It is the responsibility of all of us to protect and preserve that environment.

What are the main types of marine pollution from ships?

Unfortunately not everyone is careful about keeping our seas clean and also accidents sometime happen. The main types of marine pollution are listed below.


Every year hundreds of diesel, petrol and oil spills pollute our harbours and coastline. Between July 1998 and October 2008 there were 1581 oil spills reported to Maritime New Zealand! Most of these were for only a few litres, but it all adds up.

Learn more about oil


Chemicals and other noxious liquid substances can be a hazard to the marine environment. This includes a wide range of products such as vegetable oil, raw materials from manufacturing and waste or by-products from industry.


We’re talking toilets. Sewage from ships, fishing boats and recreational boats is not just an environmental issue; it’s a public health issue!

Learn more about sewage


No plastic or garbage that is classed as harmful to the marine environment is allowed to be disposed of at sea at any time.

Learn more about garbage

Ballast water

Ballast water is carried in empty ships to provide stability. It is pumped into special tanks in the ship before the voyage begins. Tiny stowaways in the form of marine organisms are also taken on board in the ballast water. When the ballast water is pumped out of the ship into the sea, some of these organisms may become pests, threatening seas, inland waters and fisheries.

Antifouling paints

These paints are applied to the underwater parts of the hulls of commercial and recreational vessels. Antifouling paints prevent or slow down the growth of things like barnacles. They can be poisonous to other sea life, especially if they are scraped off when the boat is being cleaned and not properly disposed of.

Air pollution

The engine exhaust from ships contains greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide as well as sulphur and nitrous oxides. There may also be remainders of unburnt fuel and soot particles. These can be harmful to human health.

Are there laws to stop marine pollution?

All vessels, from the smallest recreational boat to the largest containership must comply with the environmental regulations that protect New Zealand’s seas for everybody.

New Zealand's Marine Protection Rules are made by the Ministry of Transport to stop or control discharges of waste, including oil, chemicals and garbage. Anyone who breaks these rules could have big fines to pay.

Maritime New Zealand also has a responsibility to prevent marine pollution caused by the dumping and disposal of waste in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). New Zealand’s EEZ goes out to 200 nautical miles from land.

There are also other groups who have responsibility for our coastal and marine environment:

Learn more about the regulations, standards, legislation and conventions for our marine environment

What other threats are there to the marine environment?

Water pollution comes from a lot of different places. The number one reason why our rivers, lakes and beaches get dirty is from pollutants that flow into storm drains in cities as well as urban and rural areas. In addition, farming and the resulting runoff from agricultural activities is a major pollution problem.

Let’s not forget climate change and the greenhouse effect, which affects ocean temperatures and sea levels. This will have a major impact on marine ecosystems and species.

When was the last big oil spill in New Zealand?

On the evening of 6 February 2002 huge waves caused the log ship Jody F Millennium to break free from its moorings in Gisborne harbour. Tugs tried to hold the ship steady, but she became unsafe and authorities decided that the best place for her was back out at sea.

The ship left the harbour, was hit by the heavy swell and ran aground on the beach. The incident was reported to Maritime New Zealand and a Tier 3 oil spill response was declared. Tier 3 means that the oil spill (or the threat of one) is really serious and Maritime New Zealand takes control of the situation!

Maritime New Zealand’s Marine Pollution Response Team swung into action to co-ordinate the containment and clean up of the spilled oil. This was a huge and complex exercise. Pictured below is the Jody F Millennium aground on the beach before the spilled oil was cleaned up.

Waves crash over the stranded Jody F Millenium

Learn more about major oil spills around New Zealand

What’s so bad about oil?

One of the most visible and distressing effects of an oil spill can be the suffering of oiled wildlife.

Oil damages the waterproofing on birds’ feathers so they get cold and can’t swim, float or fly. The toxic components of oil can render birds unconscious and cause serious or fatal illness. If oil from a bird’s feathers gets into the eggs when it returns to the nest, those eggs probably won’t hatch.

Rehabilitiation of oiled wildlife

The rescue, care and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife – like the duck pictured – require special training.

Learn more about oil including the following topics by clicking on the link below:

  • what is oil
  • properties of the oils that are commonly spilled in New Zealand
  • what spilled oil looks like
  • oil and its behaviour when spilled
  • identifying spilled oil
  • oil storage and disposal.

Learn all about oil [PDF: 60Kb, 4 pages]

Who’s responsible for the maritime environment?

Maritime New Zealand is the government agency that helps makes sure New Zealand’s marine environment is safe, secure and clean.

Did you know that Maritime New Zealand owns over $12 million dollars of equipment to contain and clean up spilled oil? This equipment includes booms, pumps, oil skimmers and dispersant chemicals.

Maritime New Zealand is based in Wellington, but also has a team of experts based in Te Atatu. The team is called the Marine Pollution Response Service and is made up of experts in dealing with marine oil spills. As well as cleaning up oil spills, they run training courses to teach others who might be involved in cleaning up marine oil spills. All of the regional councils in New Zealand also have trained oil responders.

Learn more about responding to spills and pollution

How can I get involved?

Marine pollution and oil spills are not just a problem for big ships. If your family has a boat, or you know someone who does, you can help to protect our marine environment by reminding them to dispose of all waste correctly. Don’t just throw your waste overboard. There are special requirements for dealing with oil, oily water, plastics, food waste and sewage.

Most pollution spills by recreational boaties are because of careless refuelling or pumping oily bilge water overboard.

Learn more about the requirements for vessels, installations and ports

Keeping our waters, beaches and coastlines clean

A look at the causes, consequences and prevention of marine and waterway litter and what you can do to make a real difference.

Keeping our waters, beaches and coastlines clean [PDF: 407Kb, 2 pages]

World Maritime Day

Every year many countries around the world (including New Zealand) celebrate World Maritime Day. Each World Maritime Day has a theme, which is set by the International Maritime Organization, to focus attention on an aspect of maritime safety and the marine environment.

In 2007 the theme was the challenges to the maritime environment and in 2009 the theme was climate change. The 2011 theme was "Piracy – orchestrating the response" and the 2012 theme is "One hundred years after the Titanic".

Links to more information

The following list of websites can provide you with more information about protecting our marine environment.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority

See their resources for kids and teachers, including some games to play.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority is the government agency that helps make sure Australia’s marine environment is safe, secure and clean.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority

Ministry for the Environment

Learn what you can do to reduce marine pollution.

Ministry for the Environment

Global Marine Oil Pollution Information Gateway

See their pages for kids about oil in the sea. It includes links to lots of other websites.

Global Marine Oil Pollution Information Gateway

International Maritime Organization

Get in-depth information about the International Maritime Organization and the marine environment.

International Maritime Organization