Episode 11 – 13 July : The Oceans,our giant rubbish dump?

It’s difficult to care about something we can’t see. What do I mean?  Well, we all have precious memories of holidays at the beach or scuba diving getting up close and personal with beautiful marine creatures but because we don’t actually live in the ocean we don’t SEE the damage we are doing. It’s not as obvious as the plastic packets we see littered on land and it’s so vast that we almost cant imagine that anything can really have a negative impact, but unfortunately that is not the case. Marine pollution is a phantom menace that we don’t see, know or hear about unless, of course, an oil tanker spectacularly discharges its cargo into the ocean and it’s covered on prime time television. Let’s look at a couple of facts:

The Oceans, which cover 70% of Earth’s surface, are our life support system without which there would be no life. More than one billion people worldwide depend on fish as their main source of animal protein, and four out of every five of our breaths rely on the oxygen a healthy ocean produces. Want more reasons to care? The oceans absorb carbon dioxide, they control our weather and climate and stabilize temperatures, they provide the fresh water we drink, and they have sustained many incredible animals and plants for millions of years. And yet we treat it like a global dumping ground. I know lists can be boring, I personal hate them, but I think it’s important to just look at a few of the major causes of marine pollution and then maybe we understand it better – thanks to AOCA, the AfriOceans Conservation Alliance:

Pipelines: In South Africa alone there are over 60 licensed pipelines that discharge 656 million tons per day of domestic, industrial and mixed effluent into the sea.
Storm water: Runoff from urban and industrial areas containing heavy metals, oil, toxins and disease causing organisms is discharged over beaches and rocks into the sea.
Polluted rivers: Many rivers are seriously polluted, carrying pesticides, fertilizer, faecal bacteria and industrial effluent into the sea.
Dumping:  At sea, oil, sewerage, toxic waste, fish bait packaging, old fishing nets and garbage is thrown overboard.
Poor waste management: In many parts of South Africa poor waste management and lack of environmental responsibility has resulted in litter being dropped onto streets and into the drains, finding its way into streams and rivers and into the sea.
Oil spills: A very serious one, a release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into ocean or coastal waters due to human activity. Because oil floats on top of water, most birds and marine mammals affected by an oil spill die unless there is human intervention.  Along with death by ingestion and suffocation, oil reduces the insulation abilities of animals and leads to body temperature fluctuations, hypothermia and death. An example, and who can forget this massive oil spill, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. on 20 April 2010 ,111 workers were killed and months worth of oil leaked into the ocean. It has the dubious distinction of being the worst oil spill in US history, estimated that over 1 billion liters of oil were released into the Gulf with devastating results. Our coast has also suffered from devastating spills: In 2000 in Cape Town, the tanker the MV Treasure sunk off Robben Island oiling tens of thousands of endangered African penguins. The good news is that whilst many died, over 19 000 penguins were successfully rehabilitated and released.

My personal bugbear however is Plastic pollution  – one of the biggest pollutants in our oceans. There are over 20 different types of plastic which come from crude oil and all are non-biodegradable, which means they accumulate in the oceans. Yes, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, but never really disappears. It also enters the food chain at every level, affecting everything from filter feeders like mussels and sea anemones to birds, fish, seals, dolphins, whales and sharks, you name it! Some pieces like plastic shopping bags are swallowed whole by turtles and dolphins, while plastic strapping and old discarded plastic fishing ropes get wrapped around the necks of animals such as sharks, turtles or seals. As the animal grows it cuts into their flesh causing them to die a very slow and excruciating death and I promise you really devastating to see.

But also on the microscopic scale, plastic is just as dangerous, because these tiny micro-beads of plastic look identical to phytoplankton or krill. Birds are particularly susceptible because this plastic fills their bellies but offers no nutrition till sometimes the animal dies of starvation. This is really just the basics I touched on but If you’re keen to learn more, I can recommend Midway, a great film by Chris Jordon, which shows how the plastic crisis is affecting albatrosses and then Plastic Oceans, a documentary still in production, highlights the general plastic problem.

And then some sad statistics: When a research team went through the “categories” and percentages of plastic beach debris they collected around the world, they found cigarette filters made up 20% of the items, Plastic bags 11%, food containers, caps & lids, and plastic bottles 9% and disposable plastic cups, plates, forks, knives and spoons 5%. All signs of humans being a “throw away” society, 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced annually and half of this will be used just once and thrown away. And it’s not only harmful to the animals…health risks caused by the accumulation of plastic particles in the oceans has been associated with cancer, diabetes, altered immune systems and genital defects.

It’s not a quick or easy problem to solve, but I think identifying where marine debris originates from is the key to tackling plastic pollution. And it’s going to need a combined effort – environmental NGO’s, the public, you and me, scientists, educators, and industry and government officials. I think the 3 main things we can start to look at it is,

We need to fight for effective waste management: Many communities do not have proper refuse removals, street cleansing or recycling facilities, which would divert solid waste away from the streets and drains.

Then there’s education: Providing relevant knowledge to learners is critical and successful educational interventions should be geared towards taking responsible action by reducing and managing our waste.

We need to nurture a culture of caring: Marine pollution is an issue that affects us all and a culture of care and responsibility needs to spread so that future generations inherit healthy oceans. Participating in regular cleanups helps to foster a culture of community participation.

I also think we can be mindful as consumers and try not to be a throw-away society if we know our plastic is ending up in the ocean! Just a thought….do we really need to buy water as a grocery item in plastic bottles every day / every week instead of re-filling only one?

Some international ocean news:

I think you all know The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, blessed with breathtaking beauty, is the world’s largest coral reef.  It’s also one of the seven wonders of the natural world, and the only living thing on earth visible from space. It’s truly remarkable! But there’s great concern as the shrinking coral and failing government may land the reef on a “list of shame.”  The Australian Institute of Marine Science report  concluded that the reef had lost half of its coral cover during the past 27 years. It has been battered by storms, faces global challenges like warming temperatures, as well as more localized problems like water-fouling runoff pollution, coastal port development, dredging, and increased shipping because of a booming local coal industry.

I think this challenge with regards to the Great Barrier Reef is a good example of the type of problems we are going to face again and again on the planet, Environment versus Development. I don’t want to blindly fight for either side but history has shown that development tends to win most battles. But it’s crunch time now on the planet so whether it’s for reefs or forests or oceans, I just want it to be a fair fight!

But on the brighter side we can also be proud as South Africa does take ocean conservation seriously. Marine protected areas (MPAs) also known as marine parks, form part of a commitment to protect the natural environment in much the same way that nature reserves and national parks protect examples of terrestrial habitat types. There are 21 marine protected areas (MPAs) in South Africa which really form the backbone of South Africa’s marine conservation strategy and are augmented by comprehensive fishery regulations, and controls on pollution, shipping and mining. The concept of “no take” is important in South African MPA’s. Eight of the 21 MPAs are completely “no take” areas. I think that is great news and we know we are moving in the right direction! If you’re concerned about our oceans – go and check out AfriOceans at  www.aoca.org.za, their aim is to join like-minded people to make a difference with a focus on the oceans.

But you can also help in your individual capacity !

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– Organize a beach or river cleanup where you live
– Cut down on the amount of plastic disposable items you use in your home, school and business
– Encourage others not to litter in your community
– Contact your local authority to encourage better waste management and establishment of recycling centers
– Set an example by reducing, reusing and recycling all your household waste.
– Consider only using cosmetics and face washes that do not contain polyethylene micro-beads
Do you think there is reason to be concerned when it comes to our oceans? Is it “ok “to buy plastic bottled water? I would love to hear your thoughts….

And remember, take care of the earth, and she will take care of you!