Warship wrecks and their munition cargos as a threat to the marine environment and humans: The V 1302 “JOHN MAHN” from World War II

Matthias.Brenner [ at ] awi.de


In addition to endangering sea traffic, cable routes, and wind farms, sunken warship wrecks with dangerous cargo, fuel, or munitions on board may emerge as point sources for environmental damage. Energetic compounds such as TNT (which could leak from these munitions) are known for their toxicity, mutagenicity, and carcinogenicity. These compounds may cause potential adverse effects on marine life via contamination of the marine ecosystem, and their entry into the marine and human food chain could directly affect human health. To ascertain the impending danger of an environmental catastrophe posed by sunken warships, the North Sea Wrecks (NSW) project (funded by the Interreg North Sea Region Program) was launched in 2018. Based on historical data (derived from military archives) including the calculated amount of munitions still on board, its known location and accessibility, the German World War II ship “Vorpostenboot 1302” (former civilian name - “JOHN MAHN”) was selected as a case study to investigate the leakage and distribution of toxic explosives in the marine environment. The wreck site and surrounding areas were mapped in great detail by scientific divers and a multibeam echosounder. Water and sediment samples were taken in a cross-shaped pattern around the wreck. To assess a possible entry into the marine food chain, aged mussels were exposed at the wreck, and wild fish (pouting), a sedentary species that stays locally at the wreck, were caught. All samples were analyzed for the presence of TNT and derivatives thereof by GC–MS/MS analysis. As a result, we could provide evidence that sunken warship wrecks emerge as a point source of contamination with nitroaromatic energetic compounds leaking from corroding munitions cargo still on board. Not only did we find these explosive substances in bottom water and sediment samples around the wreck, but also in the caged mussels as well as in wild fish living at the wreck. Fortunately so far, the concentrations found in mussel meat and fish filet were only in the one-digit ng per gram range thus indicating no current concern for the human seafood consumer. However, in the future the situation mayworsen as the corrosion continues. Fromour study, it is proposed that wrecks should not only be ranked according to critical infrastructure and human activities at sea, but also to the threats they pose to the environment and the human seafood consumer.

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DOI 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.159324

Cite as
Maser, E. , Bünning, T. H. , Brenner, M. , Van Haelst, S. , De Rijcke, M. , Müller, P. , Wichert, U. and Strehse, J. S. (2023): Warship wrecks and their munition cargos as a threat to the marine environment and humans: The V 1302 “JOHN MAHN” from World War II , The Science of The Total Environment, 857 (Pt 1), p. 159324 . doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.159324

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