The Greek shipping industry, representing by far the world's largest merchant fleet, has launched a global initiative for the prevention of marine pollution, starting with oil spills.
The project, which may well be followed by the merchant marines of other countries, is being developed under the independent guidance of Dr. Edgar Gold, professor of maritime law at Daldousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The project could affect significantly the future health of the oceans.
It was launched in Athens with a declaration of accord uniting hitherto largely opposed forces of the shipping industry and the environment lobby in a practical common endeavor. Its progress will be watched closely by the world's marine interests.
At the heart of the plan is the newly formed Hellenic Marine Environment Protection Association (HELMEPA), representing Greek shipowners and trade unions who run one-fifth of the world merchant fleet.
The association will establish a computerized statistical data bank to monitor oil spills and other ship-created environmental problems. Members of the Greek shipping community responsible for deliberate marine pollution would be severely disciplined.
A declaration of intent, asserting that ship-generated marine pollution can be ''virtually eliminated with sufficient effort and goodwill,'' has been signed by HELMEPA as well as the Club of Rome, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, the International Institute for Environment and Development and the International Ocean Institute.
The global conservation groups will be represented in the operation of the plan by Professor Gold - himself a former tanker captain - acting as an independent expert.
Dr. Gold describes the Hellenic initiative as a bold experiment and probably the most important voluntary environmental accord on oil pollution involving the shipping industry for a decade. ''Environmental problems can be overcome,'' he said, ''only with the realization that pollution is everyone's problem and that those operating and working in potential polluting industries are affected as well.
''At best, this initiative could set an example to other countries and other industries - but even at worst, it has united the Greek shipping community in a worthwhile common endeavor.''
The declaration was made public at a historic conference attended by leaders of the environment protection organizations, the national shipping industry, and the Greek government. It has come at a crucial time.
The bulk of oil pollution affecting the oceans originates not from the rare and widely publicized supertanker disasters, but from unspectacular and unnecessary discharge of oily water from bilges or cargo and ballast tanks. Thousands of such spills account for millions of tons annually.
A prime mover in the project is shipowner George P. Livanos. He explains that a principal function of HELMEPA is to educate and inform. But he emphasizes that the rules of the association are to be strict, and that it would seek out ships willfully causing marine pollution and deny membership to those convicted of such offenses.
The statistical data bank will also indentify global trends in an effort to control marine pollution.