Our oceans are critical to our very existence; it’s a simple matter of healthy oceans = healthy people. Besides providing us with food (today almost one in six people in the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein), oceans provide us with many other important services that our survival depends on. They maintain our renewable supply of fresh water through the water cycle, regulate our climate, and produce more oxygen than the world’s rainforests. With growing concern over climate change, we are turning more and more towards the oceans for clean, renewable energy.
In addition to being an important source of protein, many marine organisms have been found to provide therapeutic uses in antioxidant, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, or antibiotic medicines. Additionally, the marine and coastal ecosystems offer endless recreational opportunities such as sea kayaking, sport fishing, surfing, whale watching and scuba diving, activities which not only feed our souls, but also drive economic benefits through employment for local peoples.
Although critical to our existence, our oceans are in desperate trouble. Depleted fishery stocks, habitat destruction, pollution, coastal development, climate change and invasive species, are some of the major issues threatening the healthy existence of our oceans. In the Pacific Ocean for example, there is an area 1000 kilometres from the US coast which is larger than the entire land mass of South Africa and which is covered in plastic. It contains six times more plastic than plankton, and is growing all the time as more than 10 million tonnes of plastic finds its way into the sea each year.
This current state of affairs is largely as a result of the dilemma known as “The Tragedy of the Commons”, in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.
Overfishing, together with global climate change and habitat destruction, are considered as the three major risks facing our oceans. When looking at this, obviously the first thing that we have to do is to control our own levels of exploitation. That means fishing within the biological limits of a fish population and assuring that the gear that we use does not destroy habitats. Today, many stocks are just hanging on to survival because of regulations that were inadequately or not properly enforced in the past. We need to abide to these regulations and support good science that guides the future regulatory parameters around fishery off-take.
Globally, as human populations continue to grow, along with the popularity of seafood, fish stocks are coming under increasing pressure and can no longer keep up with pressure of current commercial fishing operations. A recently published report on the state of the world’s fisheries by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), estimated that approximately 80% of the world’s fisheries were fished at (52%) or beyond (28%) their maximum sustainable limits.
Increased levels of fishing do not only result in the overexploitation of our marine resources, but also results in the destruction of marine habitats. More than 50% of the world’s total marine catch (81 million tons) is harvested using towed fishing gear. Studies have shown that fishing can damage the seabed by, for example, breaking deep-water coral reefs and other fragile habitats.
Habitat destruction is not only about the physical loss that may come from the destruction of a reef or the damming of a river, but also from pollution, diverted stream flows, and even the introduction of invasive species. Through habitat destruction, biodiversity is negatively impacted which ultimately is the cornerstone of a productive ecosystem that in turn drives the fishery resource upon which we depend. We know that 85 % of all commercially valuable fish are dependent upon wetlands and estuaries during some part of their lifecycle. Two-thirds of our estuaries and bays are already severely degraded through torrents of chemical and other poisonous runoffs and irresponsible development and agricultural practises.
Protecting our oceans and coast is more than stopping pollution and regulating fishing. It also means controlling our activities onshore and controlling unregulated coastal development. With all of these poisonous pollutants running into the oceans, “dead zones” have been created where only some of the smallest marine organisms can survive. These areas are created in significant part by synthetic nitrogen fertilizers flowing into the sea and nourishing massive algal blooms which then decay and cause oxygen- depletion, killing everything except the hardiest in its vicinity.
Although these kinds of reports on the state of our marine resources may be disheartening, it is important for us to realize that there are solutions, and that if we all work together, we can turn things around. Marine Protected Areas are globally recognised as an essential tool for marine conservation and for helping restore the health of our oceans. They allow for the protection of habitats and provide areas where fish species can grow and breed without disturbance. As habitats are able to re-establish back to their natural state, they help in preventing damage from severe storms, reducing the impacts of pollutants while also aiding in reducing the impacts of climate change.
Where fishing is concerned, it is important that all stakeholders abide by set fishing regulations and laws- we need to build a culture of voluntary compliance and self-regulation. Fisheries need to start implementing what is known as an Ecosystem Approach to fisheries (EAF), which seeks to protect and enhance the health of our marine ecosystems as a whole, to ensure the long-term survival of marine life and the communities that depend on it.
It is also important that we promote a sustainable seafood trade. By simply asking questions about our seafood and making more informed choices about the fish that we trade, buy and eat, we could make a huge impact in influencing positive change in the seafood chain of custody. But this requires urgent and concerted effort from all parties involved- from the fishing industry all the way to the consumer.
Our oceans are a common heritage, and we all have the responsibility and the ability to help conserve and protect them- if not for our sake, then for the sake of future generations- our children.
More tips on what you can do to help save the oceans:
1. Support South Africa’s Marine Protected Areas
2. Eat sustainable seafood: Support the South African Seafood Initiative (SASSI) and only eat and buy the healthiest and most well managed fish populations. For further information visit: www.wwf.org.za/sassi
3. Don’t dispose of trash or toilet waste in the ocean.
4. When enjoying recreational fishing, obey regulations and try to enjoy only catch-and-release fishing and use care when releasing fish back into the ocean. Take photos, not fish
5. Keep beaches clean. Plastics and other debris harm sea life and pollute the ocean. Clean up after yourself. Get involved! Participate in beach cleanups if you live in a coastal area.
6. Don’t purchase items that exploit marine resources unnecessarily such as shell and coral jewellery and sharks teeth.
7. Spread the word: Tell people what’s going on with the world’s oceans and what they can do to make a difference.