Friday, March 09, 2012

Troubled Waters - The State of Our Oceans

The Pacific as seen from the air en route to Vanuatu

In doesn’t take much reading to discover that oceans are in trouble all over the world. Just trying to write a bit of a summary about the main issues seems to be taking forever, so I am going to do it in three parts.  The first part will be about some of the threats to the marine environment itself, the second will  be about some of the effects on marine life and the last one will be about things we could do. At the end of each post there will be some petitions related to topics raised. Links to source material  and or further reading, will  mostly be shown in orange

The Closing of the Commons

There was a time when everyone believed that the earth was flat and that if you ventured too far out to sea, you would fall off the edge. Then, as ocean -going technology improved and the Magellans of the world ventured ever farther from shore, most people eventually came to understand that the world was round and much larger than previously thought. This led to four centuries of relentless plunder. A minor setback came in the early 1900’s as the whales which were being hunted for their oil almost became extinct, but at the same time, or because of it, the happy discovery was made that there were also large stores of oil under the ground and that electricity could be used for lighting. Other fish could still be taken for food. Garbage could still be thrown into the sea, along with untreated sewerage and industrial waste from ever growing cities. The catchcry of many local authorities, at least until the mid eighties was still “Dilution is the solution to pollution” until the cumulative effect of putting ever growing quantities of effluent into the sea became more and more obvious. 

Since 1900 the world's population has also increased from 1.6 Billion to 7 Billion in 2011 and it is still growing. Instead of looking for spices and new territory to plunder, our modern day Magellans, the oceanographers and marine biologists, are scouring the seas for information. Not a few are wondering how on earth we are going to feed all these people while destroying the very foundation of the food supply upon which much of the world depends. They have also noticed that in the relentless quest for food or wealth or both, much else is being lost. However, just as there are probably still a few folks out there who believe that the earth is flat despite the evidence, there are also still far too many who think that the oceans' resources are infinite, that all development is good, that global warming is non existent, and that science or God or Gaia will always save us from ourselves.  I suppose some people still believe in the tooth fairy too.

While overfishing remains the biggest cause of fish decline and loss of other species and problems such as illegal whaling and poaching have already been mentioned in connection with Antarctica , this is not the only reason our oceans are in decline. As population pressures mount and material expectations rise – better living standards, better food, more goods, more cars and televisions, there is also widespread and growing destruction of fish breeding grounds. Intensified industrial and agricultural activity also create more pollution as well as contributing to additional threats such as acidification and global warming.  These issues will only be touched on briefly here as others have already written extensively on these subjects. A few excerpts follow:

On Overfishing and Declining Fish Catches

For a detailed discussion of this topic see the excellent article by Janet Larsen at the Earth Policy Institute, website. I will just add a few excerpt from one of their publications, Plan B. 3.0 Mobilising to Save Civilization

"As fishing fleets expanded through the late 1980s and as fish-finding and harvesting technologies became more efficient, the world’s fishers have systematically gone after their catch at greater depths and in more remote waters. Over the past 50 years, the number of large predatory fish in the oceans has dropped by a startling 90 percent. Catches of many popular food fish such as cod, tuna, flounder, and hake have been cut in half despite a tripling in fishing effort. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the 4 million vessels scouring the world’s waters are at or exceeding the sustainable yields of three quarters of all oceanic fisheries.

Of particular concern to the Animal Welfare Institute are the use of driftnets, longlines, trawls, explosives, and purse seines. Until the 1950's fish such as tuna and cod were largely caught by line and hook, but since then more efficient techniques using nets which can be up to ten kilometres long, have been used instead. Sophisticated technology such as sonar, satellite imagery and aerial spotting have also come into use, along with FADs - fish aggregating devices which cause more fish to collect in one place. A sad by product of these methods is a large amount of "bycatch," -27,000 million tonnes of it annually or around 10% of the catch. These non -target species are usually killed and dumped back into the ocean to reserve space for economically valuable species. Unfortunately, bycatch does not just involve many other species such as dolphins, turtles and seabirds such as the albatross, but the young fish of the desired species, thereby leaving fewer to reproduce. 

As their own fisheries have collapsed, many countries such as Japan, members of the European Union, the United States, Taiwan, China and Korea, have been sending their well-equipped commercial fleets to the Pacific which now accounts for around 60% of the global catch. In addition, illegal fishing -"undocumented, unreported and unregulated" is believed to account for  a further 46% of it. For a glimpse into such activities read the blog by Taiwanese activist YuFenKauo. It is little wonder then that these fisheries too   are collapsing at an alarming rate.
With an estimated 90% of large predatory fish now gone from our oceans, many countries are turning to fish farming, yet this too contributes to destruction of the marine environment. As Janet Larsen explains:

“To meet increased demand, humankind has turned to farming fish within artificial enclosures. Far from being a solution to overfishing, however, the methods used in industrial aquaculture are environmentally destructive - adding to rather than easing the burden on ecosystems. Also, as with industrial agriculture on land, the rearing of fish in close quarters can have severe animal welfare implications.”

“Nonetheless, aquaculture will alleviate pressure on wild fish only if it is done wisely. The construction of near-shore fish farms frequently requires the razing of sensitive wetlands. These farms also harbor diseases and concentrate fish wastes that can lead to harmful algal blooms and low-oxygen dead zones. Making matters worse, farmed carnivorous fish can eat several times their weight in wild fish, which only adds to pressure on such resources. Though salmon, trout, shrimp, and prawns currently account for just 9 percent of world aquacultural output, production of these carnivorous fish is doubling almost every eight years, rapidly increasing demand on wild stocks.”
Destruction of Habitat

This just adds another layer of stress to an already stressed environment. The impact of development on tidal flats, estuaries and mangroves and the consequent destruction of fish breeding sites has also been mentioned in the previous post on wetlands. Other forms of habitat destruction include industrial activities such as drilling for oil, the building of ports, pipelines, and sewerage outfalls, dredging and shipping activity.
I will just mention two types of habitat now which are of special concern in this regard. Both are particularly sensitive and rich in biodiversity. The first are seagrass beds which are not only breeding grounds for fish, dugongs and turtles, but like krill in Antarctica, form the basis of the food chain. The second are the world’s coral reefs, most of which are endangered and threatened by activities such as tourism, mining and shipping.

Here's what Janet Larsen has to say about these:

“Damage to coral reefs from higher ocean temperatures and ocean acidification caused by higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, as well as damage from pollution and sedimentation, are threatening these breeding grounds for fish in tropical and subtropical waters. Between 2000 and 2004, the worldwide share of destroyed reefs, those that had lost 90 percent of live corals, expanded from 11 percent to 20 percent. The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network reports that 24 percent of the remaining reefs are at risk of imminent collapse, with another 26 percent facing significant loss in the next few decades, due to mounting human pressures. As the reefs deteriorate, so do the fisheries that depend on these. 70

"A World Resources Institute report on coral reefs in the Caribbean notes that 35 percent of these reefs are threatened by sewage discharge, water-based sediment, and pollution from fertilizer and that 15 percent are threatened by pollution from cruise ship discharges. In economic terms, the Caribbean coral reefs supply goods and services worth at least $3.1 billion per year. 71

"The spectacular coral reefs of the Red Sea, some of the most strikingly beautiful reefs anywhere, are facing extinction due to destructive fishing practices, dredging, sedimentation, and sewage discharge. Anything that reduces sunlight penetration in the sea impairs the growth of corals, leading to die-off. 72”

Australia’s own Barrier Reef, which runs for 2600 km. down the East Coast, has been described as one of the ‘seven wonders of the natural world." Despite being inscribed in the World Heritage Register in 1981 it is also facing new threats. It was recently announced that coal mining and coal seam gas extraction are set to increase in the region by a factor of six, meaning that shipping would vastly increase along with the risk of damage and accidents. Now there are concerns that the Reef's World Heritage listing might be at risk. As Crikey naturalist Lionel Elmore has said:

“In June last year, the WHC had expressed extreme concern over the federal government’s failure to notify it of Curtis Island liquefied natural gas project at Gladstone in the southern Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. Scrolling through the issues before that committee, Australia has found itself in the company of African states at war and a large number of other countries that are failing to manage their World Heritage assets. If it is of any comfort, another rich nation, the US, gets a mention for stealing water from the Florida Everglades."

 The concerns about dredging are about the enormous quantities and where the spoil will be dumped, especially since dredging mobilises old wastes and given that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority which manages the Reef has made dumping costs exceptionally cheap. The direct economic value of tourism from the Reef is estimated to be around $5 billion a year, and Greenpeace has recently agitated to slow down this rapid expansion, saying that it will only hasten global warming when we should be doing more with renewable energy. This has been seen in some quarters as being tantamount to treason, so

Meanwhile, inspectors from the World Heritage Commission are currently in Australia to determine if the Reef still deserves Heritage listing. A one degree rise in sea temperatures results in coral bleaching, while a mere two degrees will kill coral completely. Warming will also make oceans more acidic. This is bad news for "the one-quarter of marine life that depends on coral reefs for food and shelter, as well as all animals that depend on carbonate to build their shells and skeletons, like corals, pteropods, and shellfish like oysters, so here is a petition specifically about putting Acidification on the national agenda."  

The next four petitions are specifically about Coral Reefs and some more general ones follow. Many of these relate to the creation of new marine reserves and the reason for that is this. Although oceans cover three quarters of the earth’s surface area, only 2% of this area is protected at present. More reserves especially in biologically rich areas are our best hope, in theory at least, of saving a little for the future. If you have not yet done so, don't forget to support reserves in Antarctic waters either. Oh yes, and just because I have listed another country doesn't mean you shouldn't sign it, especially in the case of World Heritage Areas, since they technically belong to all of us. It just refers to the location of a site. Sometimes the people within those countries just don't have enough power to do it all themselves. The Arctic regions are also under threat, mostly from global warming with over 75% of the total area being lost over the last 30 years. Now oil drilling also threatens the remainder, so there is a petition about this as well.

USA Ask President Obama to pass the Coral Reef Conservation Act 

This is another World Heritage site. Fomenterra is a small island off the coast of Spain - Cached

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