How we respond to marine pollution incidents

How to report marine pollution incidents, the response to an incident and how to get approval to use an oil spill treatment product.


Oil and other pollutants which are occasionally spilt into the sea can endanger environmental resources and property, as well as putting human life at risk. Where environmental resources, human health or property are at risk, a range of products and equipment are available to minimise the impact of the oil.

As a global leader in responding to marine pollution, however, the UK has well-tested systems in place to deal with incidents. The turbulent nature of UK waters means it is rarely possible to recover the spilled oil. However, treatment products work with the wave action by mixing the product with the oil and encouraging it to disperse.


Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres act as co-ordinators during incidents and circulate all pollution or situation reports to the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) for English waters. Marine Scotland, Natural Resources Wales and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency are responsible for their waters. Copies are also sent to national and regional statutory nature conservation agencies, and local councils that may be affected by the oil spill.

In the event of a major spill, these organisations set-up an environment group to give advice on the suitable response to changing circumstances.

MMO aims to approve or refuse oil spill treatment product use within 1 hour of being asked to authorise dispersant use. MMO can also give advice on the type of product most suitable for dealing with a particular incident.

MMO aims to ensure that damage caused by the oil or oil spill treatment product is minimised. MMO consults on the implications for fisheries and marine fauna and flora with:

  • Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas)
  • Food Standards Agency (FSA)
  • Natural England
  • Joint Nature Conservation Committee

In the case of major spills, any spraying of dispersants is normally supervised by the Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA). MMO and statutory nature conservation agencies will be closely involved when there are important environmental or fisheries concerns.

With less serious spills it is up to those dealing with the incident to make direct contact with MMO before any oil spill treatment products are used. In coastal waters, including areas within harbour limits, formal approval will usually be required.

Report and respond to a marine pollution incident

To report a spillage call your local coastguard. To request approval to use an oil spill treatment product call the MMO Marine Pollution incidents line on 0300 2002024. Out of office hours please call 07770 977 825. At all times or if other numbers out of order, please call 0345 051 8486 or 0845 051 8486.

MMO consults other organisations during an incident to make sure specific scientific, environmental and fisheries advice is used for every decision to use oil spill treatment products.

MCA should be informed immediately of any oil spill in marine waters through the nearest coastguard station.

MCA developed the National Contingency Plan for dealing with incidents, and to combine local plans into this national response.

Call MMO to request approval to use an oil spill treatment product or report a marine pollution incident on:

  • 0300 2002024 during office
  • 07770 977 825 outside of office hours
  • 0345 051 8486 at all times if other numbers out of order
  • 02920 491719 for incidents in Wales

MMO has a specific Marine Pollution Contingency Plan that describes MMO’s role in incidents.

Ports and harbours in England and Wales are required to have contingency plans ready to be put in place in the event of a marine pollution incident emergency.

Oil spill treatment products

If you want to use an oil spill treatment product, you will need to get approval from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO). For more information, see the section in this guide on MMO approval to use oil spill treatment products.

Use in the sea requires specific permission.

Treatment products include:

  • dispersants - chemicals which, when applied to oil floating on the surface of the sea, greatly increase the rate of dispersal and therefore breakdown of the oil
  • surface cleaners - chemicals which, when applied to oil-covered hard surfaces, increase the rate of dispersal from the surface, aiding cleaning
  • bioremediation products - these contain, or enhance the growth of, oil-degrading bacteria
  • loose sorbents - usually in the form of powder, granules or beads which absorb oil
  • degreasers - products used for cleaning grease from machinery of ships and marine structures

Equipment that may be used to control, contain or recover oil without approval or permission includes:

  • booms - barriers that sit on the surface of the water and block the movement of floating pollution, protecting certain areas, and making mechanical recovery of pollutants such as oil much more effective. Booms work best in calm conditions where oil and water do not splash over or move under the boom.
  • skimmers - machines that separate liquids or matter from the surface of a water body.
  • sorbent mats or pads - bags containing absorbent products, usually in the form of granules or beads, which are porous and allow water and pollution in without allowing the product to escape.

For advice on marine pollution, contact the MMO Marine Pollution Response Team on 0300 123 1032 or email them at

Rapid MMO approval to use oil spill treatment products

If a request to use an oil spill treatment product is made within English waters, the MMO will give a formal response within one hour. To ensure a rapid response, they have trained responders available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Other organisations that are consulted in marine pollution incidents include:

  • MMO offices - these provide information on marine and fishery activities in the local area
  • Cefas - advise on the likely impact of the pollution
  • Natural England - these provide advice on whether the local area is environmentally protected or sensitive (in cases where the pollution is within 12 nautical miles of land)
  • the Joint Nature Conservation Committee - this advises on whether the local area is environmentally protected or sensitive (in cases where the pollution is more than 12 nautical miles of land)
  • FSA - this advises on nearby fisheries that may be affected, and can take action to prevent contamination

For non-urgent queries you can contact the Marine Pollution Response Team by writing to the following address:

Marine Pollution Response Team
Lancaster House
Hampshire Court
Newcastle upon Tyne

Environmental response to marine pollution incidents

It is important to ensure that marine pollution salvage and clean-up operations do not cause unnecessary damage to the environment.

Where private property is affected by marine pollution, it is important to remember that only approved products may be used for cleaning, and then only with the MMO’s permission. The Green Blue has more information on cleaning boats.

Secretary of States’ Representative (SOSREP)

The role of the SOSREP is to oversee the response to accidents at sea.

SOSREP’s powers extend to UK territorial waters (12 nautical miles from the coast/baseline) for safety issues and to the UK Pollution Control Zone (200 miles or the median line with neighbouring states) for pollution.

SOSREP is empowered to make crucial and often time-critical decisions, without delay and without recourse to higher authority, where such decisions are in the overriding UK public interest.

Working closely with the MCA, its parent organisation the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), SOSREP’s key responsibilities include:

  • acting at the earliest point during a shipping or offshore incident to assess the risk to safety, to prompt the end of any such incident and to ensure that increasing risk is evaluated and appropriate measures taken to prevent or respond to escalation;
  • monitoring all response measures to significant incidents involving shipping and the offshore industry;
  • if necessary, exercising control by implementing the powers of intervention, acting in the overriding interests of the UK and its environment;
  • participating in major national and international exercises
  • reviewing all activities after significant incidents and exercises.

Environment groups

An environment group is set up to provide environmental advice to SOSREP during a serious marine pollution incident.

There are 14 standing environment groups (SEGs) around England and Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland each has their own group.

SEGs provide information and advice on issues such as:

  • conservation
  • fisheries interests
  • human health impacts
  • best practice for disposal of wrecked ships and spoilt cargo
  • oiled wildlife
  • environmental monitoring

SEGs include representatives from organisations including:

  • MMO coastal offices
  • the Environment Agency
  • the Health Protection Agency
  • Natural England/the Joint Nature Conservation Council/the Countryside Council for Wales
  • local authorities

Environmental Monitoring

Monitoring occurs during and after an incident to make sure that environmental effects can be identified, understood, and reduced.

PREMIAM (Pollution Response in Emergencies - Marine Impact Assessment and Monitoring) is an initiative funded by Defra to co-ordinate post incident environmental monitoring. PREMIAM aims to:

  • co-ordinate post-incident environmental monitoring
  • develop marine assessment and monitoring guidelines
  • develop and maintain a network of scientific and logistical partners to achieve the guidelines

For advice on marine pollution, call the MMO Marine Pollution Response Team on 0300 123 1032 or email them at

Further information

Marine Pollution Contingency Plan

Standing environment groups

Standing environment group contingency plans

How to use oil spill treatment products and equipment

Approved oil spill treatment products

Guidance on the dangers of oil spills to the environment on the MMO website

Download the Marine Pollution Contingency Plan from the MMO website

SEG listing on the MMO website

PREMIAM information on the PREMIAM website

Contact information

Marine Conservation and Enforcement Team / MMO Marine Pollution Response Team

0300 123 1032

MMO Marine Pollution Incidents Line (office hours)

0300 2002024

MMO Marine Pollution Incidents Line (out of office hours)

07770 977 825

Published 5 August 2014
Last updated 31 July 2018 + show all updates
  1. Text amended

  2. 0870 758 1050 telephone number removed

  3. Telephone number for Wales added

  4. First published.