Cleaning up the coasts

Posted: 12 January 2004

Author: Linda B. Bolido

In late September, thousands of people from more than a hundred countries throughout the world spent a Saturday at the beach. Instead of building sandcastles and playing in the ocean, however, these people were cleaning up trash and working to protect the coasts. Linda Bolido reports.

Almost 2 billion people - 40 per cent of the world's population - live within 100 kilometres of a coastline, an area that accounts for only 22 per cent of the land mass. As such, pressure on the coastal environment has been intense. Around the world expansive stretches of shoreline have been polluted, overfished, or developed for shelter, industry, recreation, or agriculture.

Cleanup effort

In the face of declining fish yields, polluted beaches, and other threats, a growing number of people are beginning to pay attention to the threats facing coastal ecosystems. That's why in September more than 400,000 volunteers spent the day trying to repair some of the damage being done to coastal resources, as part of the annual International Coastal Cleanup.

The cleanup effort, organized by the US-based The Ocean Conservancy, aims to increase awareness of environmental threats to coastal ecosystems, which provide an array of crucial goods and services: they host the world's primary ports of commerce; they are the primary producers of fish and shellfish for both humans and animals; and they also provide the raw materials for a number of products, from fertilizer to cosmetics.

Combing more than 12,400 miles of shoreline, volunteers in 2002 collected 8.22 million pounds of trash, about the weight of 37 blue whales. The 100,000 participants from the Philippines, Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Palau and Papua New Guinea picked up over 1.3 million pounds of debris from the coastline and underwater.

Number one on the top ten list of debris items collected was cigarette filters. Volunteers gathered more than 1.6 million of the filters, 1 million plastic bags, and close to 50,000 pieces of fishing line. Filipino debris hunters also found clothing and shoes, shotgun shells, toys, crates, fishing nets, light bulbs, pallets, plastic sheeting, rope, cigarette lighters, 55-gallon drums, appliances, batteries, cars and car parts, tires, diapers, and syringes. "People don't realize the impact of their actions," said Mark Tedesco, director of the US Environment Protection Agency's Long Island Sound office in New York. "They don't realize where things go."

Hawaiian Monk Seal caught in fishing tackle© Michael Pitts, BBC/Naturbild
Hawaiian Monk Seal caught in fishing tackle© Michael Pitts, BBC/Naturbild
Hawaiian monk seal caught in discarded fishing tackle off Kure Atoll (U.S.-Canadian Pacific)© Michael Pitts, BBC/Naturbild

Habitat destruction

Coastal pollution and waste constitutes more than just an eyesore. Debris can cause habitat destruction, covering and smothering coral reefs and sea grasses, which act as nurseries for many fish species. Coastal ecosystems have already lost much of their capacity to produce fish because of overfishing, destructive trawling techniques, and destruction of nursery habitats, according to the WRI report, World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems.

Nutrient pollution, especially nitrates and phosphates from agriculture and sewage discharges, has increased dramatically in the last century. Excessive nutrient concentrations in water can cause rapid algae and plant growth, which reduces oxygen concentrations in the water and can "suffocate" other aquatic species when the plant matter decomposes.

A growing concern to the health of coasts is the impending threat of climate change. Increased ocean temperatures are stressing many coral species, causing them to lose their colour, or "bleach." Before 1979, there were no records of mass bleaching of entire reef systems, but since then scientists have observed mass bleaching in 6 of the 10 major coral reef concentrations around the world. Global climate change may compound other pressures on coastal ecosystems through the additional effects of altered ocean circulation patterns, changing storm frequency, and rising sea levels.

Linda B. Bolido is an environmental reporter for the Philippines Daily Inquirer and a contributor to WRI Features.

Source: WRI Features (November/December 2003, Volume 1, Number 10).

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