Mexico’s ineffective response to maritime pollution

VERACRUZ (Mexico), Dec 5, 2022 (IPS) – Mexico boasts more than 11,000 km of coastline and a high level of maritime traffic. This Latin American country received 12 045 vessels in July, as compared to 11 971 at the same time in 2021.
According to data from the General Coordination of Ports and Merchant Navy of Secretary (ministry), in 2022, five ships dock daily at the port of Veracruz. It is the second-largest Mexican port by freight received.

Veracruz in southeast Mexico saw maritime traffic increase by 5% in July. Veracruz received 1 254 vessels in 2022, compared to 1192 in 2021.

However, the country does not have any measurements of the pollution that the shipping industry has emitted into the atmosphere or the water.
The shipping industry is responsible for around 3 percent of the global greenhouse gas (GHG), comparable to aviation’s total emissions. Shipping would be ranked sixth globally if it were its country for contributing to climate change. The international goal is to reduce GHG emissions in this sector by 50% by 2050.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) mandated in 2020 that ships reduce sulfur content in fuels to 0.50% m/m. This is a significant decrease from the previous limit of 3.5%.

Mexico has yet to make plans or roadmaps to reduce its sulfur content.

Mexico will have to overcome these challenges to meet the IMO’s goals to reduce GHG emissions from human activities that have heated the planet.

The IMO will review their plan and will endorse a new one next year. This is because it estimates that GHG emissions from shipping increased from 977 million tonnes of CO2 in 2012 to 1 076 million in 2018, an increase of 9,6% – which could rise to 90%-130% by 2050. The overall level increased from 2,76% to 2,89% over that time.

Based to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, SO2 emissions from high-sulfur fuel burning can cause sulfurous particles (SO2) to build up in the atmosphere. These sulfurous particles can trigger asthma, worsen heart disease and other respiratory problems, and threaten marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Hydrocarbons in water block light entry and limit photosynthesis. In fauna, they can also cause poisoning and alterations to reproductive cycles.

Although SO2 isn’t considered a GHG, it is incredibly polluting and lasts only a few days in the air. However, dissolved in water produces acids that can harm human health.

When mixed with ground-level oxygen, the NOx emissions from hydrocarbon combustion can create smog. Multiple scientific studies have shown that NOx is still present in the atmosphere for 114 years.

Issues that are underestimated

IPS confirmed these impacts by analyzing data from 30 public information requests to different government agencies. It also consulted satellite images of oil spillages from ships in various areas of the country between 2019-2022.

In collaboration with Orbital EOS, a Spanish company specializing in finding this kind of pollution on high seas -IPS has identified four marine discharges in Mexico due to satellite images. These were between 2019-2021.

According to the Sentinel-1 satellite image, a vessel that was not identified spilled 3,14 cubic meters of a substance believed to be a hydrocarbon on December 14, 2021. It occurred almost 79,000 km2 and was located 147 kilometers from the Mexican coast. The incident took place off Acapulco in the southern state of Guerrero.

On April 14, 2019, another oil accident was observed by the Sentinel-2 satellite. A ferry dumped between 0,81 to 6,08 m3 of light (distillate fuels like diesel) and between 17,65 and 176,6 m3 of heavy fuel (heavy oils) 35 km off Sinaloa state’s coast in the Sea of Cortez. This area is home to many biodiversities being threatened by overfishing and real estate development.

According to Orbital EOS analysis, the light hydrocarbon covered 2026 km2 while the rest covered 3,53 km2.

The vessel, whose legal name IPS conceals, was able to get away with it because it’s not on Semar’s list of incidents or the Attorney General’s Office’s (prosecutor’s) sanctioned ships.

The ship was constructed in 2001 and changed its navigation flag and name in May 2019. This happened weeks after the accident. It was last reported to have been located in central Italy.

Sentinel-1 also detected a spillage on December 8, 2021, by an unidentified ship that spilled 1,15 M3 of probable hydrocarbons over 28.6 km2, 180 kilometers from the Veracruz coast.

This satellite also recorded, on September 27, 2021, another probable hydrocarbon spillage at 7,1 km2, 390 km from the coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

The most recent incident occurred in Balandra in Southern Baja, California, on August 21, 2022. This area is protected for its biodiversity and has been sunk by a private yacht.

The non-governmental US SkyTruth, primarily focused on tracking spills, also recorded 11 oily wastewater discharges into Mexican waters between December 2021 and July 2020.

Ian McDonald, a researcher in the Department of Terrestrial, Oceanic, and Atmospheric Sciences at Florida State University (United States), highlighted the presence of oil due to the operation of wells and platforms for hydrocarbons decades. Oil leaks from natural cracks in the seafloor and shipping in Mexican maritime areas are also reasons.

“Preventive maintenance of the facilities has been lacking. The problem is the cumulative effect on an area. The cumulative impact of waste generation and dredging on marine ecosystems can be significant. He said the potential impact could be enormous and spoke from Miami to IPS.

McDonald’s co-authored the “Chronic Oiling in Global Oceans,” research that found 97% of oil slicks are from land and vessels, and 3% come from seafloor fumes near the Aztec coast.

A spokesperson for the IMO stated to IPS that it could not comment on a country’s situation and informed that the organization will review Mexico in 2024. The Mexican shipping industry association and the navy declined to comment on this reportage.

The volume and location of hydrocarbon pollution in the high seas depend on their severity, and long-term effects can be expected.

Any spillage will have an impact. It is more evident in open water because of more significant dilution. However, it can accumulate in the ocean depths and cause some harm to organisms. Because it is less mobile, the impact of spillage at beaches is more significant,” Adolfo Gracia from the Institute of Sea Sciences and Limnology, National Autonomous University of Mexico, explained.

He spoke from Mexico City and highlighted one key aspect: the analysis and reduction of chronic pollution from shipping, industries, and agriculture as a growing threat to marine flora, fauna, and flora.

Worrisome sample

Only 16 of the 819 incidents Semar has monitored since 2017 are marine pollution. According to data obtained via public information requests, these were oil spills and severe environmental damage. Semar sanctioned only two cases but didn’t specify the nature of the penalty.

Veracruz was the only place where there was a hydrocarbon leak and a pollution incident.

Semar also recorded 42 fires on vessels and 13 sinking ships, which may be a risk to the environment.

“There is legislation (Law on Dumping Mexican Marine Zones), but no enforcement. It is impossible to measure accurately. The non-governmental organization Comunicar para Conservar director Rodolfo Navarro stated that Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) is not investigating the matter.

Semar stated that it does not have any registries for violations of this law.

Navarro’s environmental organization focuses on the Cozumel region in the southeastern State of Quintana Roo. This area is home to one of the world’s largest recipients of cruise ships and is a witness to the effects of shipping on the environment.

Semar has been responsible for managing the ports, including pollution control, since 2017. The Ministry of the Environment (Semarnat), the State-Owned Pemex, and the port administrations of the facilities in the Gulf of Mexico all have no pollution records.

They also need a roadmap to reach the IMO’s initial strategy to reduce CO2 (CO2) emissions. The IMO adopted this in 2018.

A decisive convention

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) has been in force since 1978. It contains Annex I, which covers oil pollution prevention; II, on hazardous liquid substances transported in bulk; and III, on harmful liquid substances transported in packages.

It also includes Annex IV, V, and VI on shipping-related atmospheric pollution. Mexico is a signatory of annexes I to IV and II but not III to V and VI.

The IMO will apply regulations to limit the sulfur content in cargo ships from 3,5% to 0,5% starting in 2020. The body seeks to reduce sulfur content by 77%, equivalent to 8,5 million tons of SO2.

Annex I is violated if the country fails to manage hydrocarbon pollution. The government must be a member of IMO to achieve its goals.

The Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (T-Mec), Chapter 24 on the Environment, which has been in force since 2020, replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement. It stipulates that substances that harm the ozone layer must be controlled, consumed, and traded.

This section outlines air quality priorities, including reducing maritime traffic emissions.

Mexico does not have regulations to limit shipping emissions. Mexico also didn’t sign the Glasgow climate summit’s “Clydebank Declaration for Green Maritime Corridors” last November. This declaration was only signed by 24 countries and aims to establish at least six low-emission routes by 2025.

This omission in the control of pollution means that it is challenging to achieve Sustainable Development Goals 13 and 14 (SDGs) 13 and 14, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, to be reached by 2030.

13 of 17 SDGs focus on fighting climate change and its consequences, while 14 focus on the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas, and marine resources to support sustainable development.

Busy docks

According to Semar figures, the Aztec port system handled 169.77 million tons of cargo in July 2017. This is a 3% increase over the same period in 2021.

Export cargo amounted to 66.4 million tonnes, 2,6% less than 2021 – 68.19 million – while imports increased 8,8% – from 66.6 million to 72.36. This has been growing in the Port of Veracruz since 2008 when it has 17 docks. The row of boats awaiting their turn at the port can be seen off the coast. The harbor is marked by a line of buoys and headlights in red and green.

The hustle and bustle of the port area never stop. The port area is bustling with vehicles, trucks, trains, cranes, and other equipment that move to take and place cargo. This is where the region’s economic activity and a part of the second economy of Latin America depend.

These vessels transport fuel, goods, vehicles, or raw materials through their bowels. They also pose a threat to the environment, as evidenced by numerous reports.

The seaport handled 26,2 million tonnes in 2020. This number increased by 22% to 32 million the year after. It had mobilized 19,97 million as of last July. This is 7,6% more than in the same period in 2021. Mexico’s maritime industry accounts for 5% of its GDP.

Mexico’s urgency is also reflected in the projected increase in emissions. The Commission calculated this in Environmental Cooperation for North America’s (CEC) report “Reducing emission from the goods movement via sea transportation in North America,” which focused on 35 ports in Mexico between 2011 and 2030 due to an increase in maritime traffic.


Annexe VI, which has been in effect since 1997, applies to Mexico because it addresses the control of SO2, NOx, and particulate matter (PM) emissions. It also implies the creation of an emission control zone (ECA) in Mexico’s maritime area.

ECA refers to adopting specific technological methods that prevent marine pollution of ships by oil, waste, or garbage. These include low-sulfur fuel oil and an onboard incinerator of sludge. The ECA is based on the particularities of maritime traffic and oceanographic and ecological conditions.

The U.S. EPA and Semarnat argue that ECA creation would benefit public health, the environment, and Mexico’s economy without imposing high costs.

With the support of NAFTA’s CEC, the US and Mexico collaborated between 2009 and 2018. This collaboration resulted in Mexico adhering to Annex VI and creating the ECA.

Enrique Pena Nieto’s 2012-2018 government did not submit that request to Senate for approval, nor does the current administration under Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The Mexican Senate sent six appeals to the Executive between 2010 and 2019. They asked them to vote for Annex VI.

The 2016 North American Leaders Summit saw then-U.S. President Barack Obama, Pena Nieto, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agree to collaborate to complete the design of the Mexican ECA and send it to IMO. This never happened.

Navarro, the expert on Cozumel, stressed that Mexico needs to be on the right track to achieve global goals. It could, but it doesn’t have the will. He said that nobody watches anything in international waters.

McDonald’s urged people to pay attention. The government must fix it. Mexico is blessed with vast marine resources. It’s a shame that Mexico doesn’t protect them. Conservation of marine ecosystems has economic benefits. He said that while ships are a good source of revenue for governments, the environmental damage they cause can be severe.”

Gracia doubts the effectiveness of high-seas surveillance. It all depends on everyone’s good conscience. It can be confusing. Mexico’s sole control is when a ship arrives at port. He said that there is no general surveillance plan.