7 examples of supply chain activities that impact marine ecosystems

Assessing the impacts of business on nature is complex and for many organisations requires a completely new way of thinking.

This is nowhere more true than understanding business impacts on marine ecosystems. Few businesses are aware that their supply chains even interact with ocean life let alone create marine impacts.

This is an oversight and one with increasing regulatory consequences, given that CSRD disclosures require businesses to include marine impacts in their double materiality assessments.

So to help businesses get their head around the relationship between their supply chains and the marine environment, I have outlined below some key value supply chain hotspots and their marine impacts.

Energy supply
Using fossil fuels to power business operations & supply chains contributes to increased ocean acidification.

Fossil fuel usage is the #1 contributor to climate change and climate change is the #1 driver of ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification changes the pH of water. The increased acidity eats away at calcium carbonate: the key ingredient in shell production for marine species like shellfish, coral and plankton. There are two pretty scary consequences of this:

  • A crash in plankton populations leading to crashes in dependent marine species populations: as plankton form the bases of aquatic food webs (along with algae), nearly every marine species could be indirectly impacted by ocean acidification and humans as we eat fish which rely on stable plankton populations
  • A reduction in coastal resilience as coral reefs are less able to defend coastal communities from storms: calcium deficient corals are much weaker and thus more likely to be damaged in storms. Healthy corals provide a key ecosystem service by the reduce the velocity of waves prior to reaching the shore. Calcium deficient corals are not able to provide this ecosystem service, despite the increased prevalence of climate-induced severe storms.
Using renewable energy suppliers that do not mitigate biodiversity impacts beyond minimum compliance requirements.

Many people think that using renewable energy is only a positive for nature, as it's not fossil fuel. However, this is untrue: it takes purposeful design, implementation and procurement practices for renewable infrastructure to prevent highly damaging impacts on ecosystems.

Solar-powered renewables are an increasing cause of marine chemical pollution: as chemicals from panels leach into the ocean via waterways. The full impacts of this on marine ecology are yet to be fully determined.

Renewables are currently a key sector driving demand for deep sea mining for rare earths. We need to require our renewable companies to make commitments to preventing deep sea minerals entering their supply chains. Deep sea mining is one of the biggest risks to marine ecosystems due to threat of:

  • Deep sea light pollution
  • Deep sea noise pollution
  • Destruction & fragmentation of habitats
  • Disruption of nutrient flows
Sourcing
Sourcing marine resources for products & services from unsustainable sources

This is the most visible impact area for businesses on marine ecologies and species, and one where most businesses have control and influence over.

Here are some examples of common marine resources across different sectors:

  • Cosmetics sector: Guanine, collagen &macro-algae, non-vegan squalene (derived from sharks)
  • Beverages sector: Isinglass
  • Construction sector: Builders sand & aggregates
  • Tech sector: minerals & rare earths (if in future come from deep sea mining)

Every marine plant or animal plays a role within the ecology it is found. When we harvest or kill a marine species in significant numbers, we don't just impact their population, but we also create indirect impacts on the marine ecosystem at large.

The specific impacts of sourcing marine impacts depends on the marine resource, its conservation status and the location which it was harvested. when sustainable practices are not in place, the impacts generally are:

  • Chronic depletion of species population due to over hunting or harvesting.
  • Damage to ecological systems and species through due to:
    • Over extraction of marine resources that are key to an ecosystems functioning
    • Destructive hunting or harvesting methods (e.g. bottom trawling & dredging)
Sourcing agricultural commodities that do not have effective watershed management strategies

Here, the primary issue for marine ecosystems is nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

This occurs when farmers put these nutrients on fields and then the compounds wash-off into rivers when it rains. The nutrients flow downstream towards the sea, eventually accumulating in estuarine and marine ecosystems, leading to 'eutrophication'.

Eutrophication leads to species being suffocated due to depleted oxygen levels in water. In extreme cases whole ecosystems can die leading to the creation of ‘dead zones’.

Product Design

The product design stage is key for determining the marine impact of a product. This phase is where decisions on ingredients (and thus sourcing) and packaging are made.

An example of how critical product design decisions are, reflect on the fact that 50% of marine plastic is from single-use plastics mainly for packaging. The usage of  plastic packaging was a design decision. Yes, perhaps it was chosen for reasons of commercials or industry norms, but its usage is an active decision none the less. Like sourcing, the product design stage is a part of the value chain many businesses have high levels of control and influence over.

Choosing to use plastic derivatives in products, particularly if selling in geographies without robust collection and recycling infrastructure.

Plastic derivatives include:

  • Virgin plastic: manufactured from previously unused materials
  • Recycled plastic: the recycling process discharges up to 75 billion particles of microplastics in a cubic meter in the wastewater of recycling facilities.  

The result of our plastic design choices is that 14 million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans every year. The impacts of this are:

  • The severe injury and death of one million marine animals every year by ingestion, suffocation or entanglement with plastic debris.
  • The wide scale ingestion of microplastics by marine species, with currently unknown long term impacts. Studies have shown marine animals from whale sharks to plankton are ingesting microplastics. Blue whales can ingest~43kg of microplastics a day (that's the weight of an average 13 year old) . The long-term impacts of microplastics on plankton and marine microbes are hypothesised to potentially disrupt key Earth systems like ocean carbon storage and nitrogen cycling.

Production
Releasing toxic or poor quality wastewater from production sites

Whilst marine impacts can originate from businesses using too much freshwater upstream, the primary impacts on marine ecosystems are the result of poor quality wastewater flowing downstream. For example, agricultural nutrient pollution and highly toxic industrial pollution travels down rivers and out to sea. Depending on the composition of the industrial wastewater, this pollution can cause:

  • Eutrophication: see 'Sourcing' for details
  • Poisoning of marine species: due to ingestion of chemical compounds and heavy metal in the wastewater
  • Degradation of marine ecosystems: through plant species and animal species being poisoned by wastewater

Transportation
Utilising shipping companies that do not have nature impact action plans in place

More and more companies are using shipping as a mode of commercial transport. A key driver of this is the desire to reduce GHG associated with other modes of transport like air freight.

However increasingly busy shipping lanes are having significantly negative impacts particularly on cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises).

These impacts include:

  • Death by collision: an estimated 20,000+ whales are killed every year from vessel collisions
  • Disrupted 'echo-location': acoustic pollution caused by shipping sonar interferes with cetaceans' primary form of communication 'echo-location'. The disruption inhibits their ability find food and navigate underwater, while also drowning out their communication with each other, displacing them from habitats, and in extreme cases causing physical harm, including temporary hearing loss
  • Poisoning from shipping pollution: shipping activities can release pollutants such as oil, chemicals, and plastics into the ocean, which can accumulate in the bodies of cetaceans and cause health problems, include respiratory and digestive problems. While exposure to plastic shipping debris can cause entanglement, ingestion, or suffocation.

Hopefully this blog post has helped to reveal the many ways that businesses impact marine ecosystems.

The good news is there are lots of ways that businesses can start to reduce their impacts!

If you want to start to reducing yours, then please reach out at hello@bemari.co.uk

Written by Elspeth Alexander

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