Ocean warnings grow but actions are far behind

Posted: 29 June 2009

Author: Henrylito Tacio

"Without healthy oceans, humanity would be doomed. Yet we keep on destroying our most precious resource before we even know what we are losing," wrote newsweekly Time in a special report.

The alarming situation is happening all over the world. Even in the Philippines, home to more than 7,000 islands, the same story is taking place. "The present status of coastal ecosystems in the Philippines is a cause for alarm," warned the World Bank in 2005.

Part of the executive summary of the Philippines Environment Monitor released that year read in part: "Almost all Philippine coral reefs are at risk due to the impact of human activities, and only 4 to 5 percent remain in excellent condition. More than 70 percent of the nation's mangrove forests have been converted to aquaculture, logged, or reclaimed for other uses. Half of the seagrass beds have either been lost or severely degraded, and the rate of degradation is increasing."

Ninety-seven percent of the Earth's water is ocean. It also comprises over two-thirds of the planet's surface. "From afar, aliens might see the obvious: the sea is Earth's life support system," claimed American marine biologist Sylvia A. Earle. "The services provided are so fundamental that most of us who live here tend to take them for granted."

In a way, the ocean is the source of all life. Out of it, the forebears of humankind stumbled. From it, humankind draws living resources for food. It is the key factor in maintaining the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the atmosphere. It maintains the stability of the earth's climate. It provides the medium for transport between continents. It is a source of recreation and holidays.

"Once thought to be so vast and resilient that no level of human insult could damage them, the oceans are now crying out for attention," said a report released by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. "While the public eye is periodically turned to large disasters, it is routine assaults that most threaten the marine environment."

Daily chemicals and biological pollution is damaging the oceans "at a frightening rate," while ongoing coastal development and overfishing hamper their ability to recuperate, the Worldwatch deplored.

"Accidents at sea such as oil spills, chemical spills or operation discharges from ships are only a small percentage, and affect only limited areas," noted marine biologist Stjepan Keckes. "They are far less serious than slow insidious pollution which people get used to because it is progressive. In warm waters, oil evaporates or degrades and is broken up very quickly by bacteria to harmless substances - carbon dioxide and water."

Environmentalists around the world cite sewage as one of the major causes of ocean pollution. "Sewage oftentimes contributes to over-enrichment of waters," wrote Nicholas Lenssen, author of the Worldwatch report. "In the process, an overabundance of nutrients cause algal blooms and rapid growth of other aquatic plants. When these plants die, decomposing bacteria can deplete the water of oxygen, killing fish and other marine life."

Chemical pollutants constitute another assault on the marine environment, especially in the uppermost layer of water. Most of these chemicals come from industries, airborne pollutants, shipping accidents, pesticide runoff, mine tailings, and waste incineration.

"Once toxic chemicals enter the marine environment, it's very hard to get them out, since they seep into the sediments, enter the food chain, or simply flow with the currents," noted Lenssen.

Oil is another widespread pollutant in the oceans. In the Philippines, the sinking of a Caltex oil tanker in Limay, Bataan, in 1990 gave the country a preview of the potential hazards of oil spills. "The oil spill in Bataan wreaked havoc on the lives of the fishermen on that part of the Manila Bay area," said former senator Heherson T. Alvarez, who was once a head of the country's environment and natural resources department.

Growing amounts of litter have also been found in the marine environment. Researchers say there is six times more plastic than plankton in the ocean. Plastic persist up to 50 years and, because they are usually buoyant, they are widely distributed by ocean currents and wind. "Discarded plastic bands encircle mammals, fish, and birds and tighten as their bodies grow," reminded the World Resources Institute, also based in Washington, D.C. "Turtles, whales, and other marine mammals have died after eating plastic sheeting."

One of the more recent threats to marine life, however, is noise pollution. Several studies have shown that the noise produced by boats interferes with many species of marine life. The number of large tankers cruising the oceans creates a significant level of noise that may make it difficult for whales to communicate. The other source of noise pollution comes from the testing of loud noises in the oceans (mostly by the military) which have been linked to the deaths of dolphins (a type of small whale) due to massive internal hemorrhaging.

Climate change is also compounding the problem. Oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which reacts with water to make carbonic acid, which lowers the oceans pH. As the pH drops, dissolved calcium carbonate decreases - impairing the ability of the ecologically-fragile coral reefs to rebuild themselves.

"The climate is like this big ship. We are all on this big ship and the problem is once you hit the brakes it takes a long time for the ship to actually slow down and stop," says Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia during the International Coral Reef Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "In our case the ship is the Titanic and we are going to hit the iceberg. It is going to be almost impossible for us not to hit the iceberg at this point. What we need to do is everything we can to put the brakes on, to slow the ship down and - to hope for the corals to help us - move the iceberg a little bit."

The United Nations most optimistic plans to curb carbon dioxide emissions hope to stabilize the gas at a concentration of 450 parts per million by the year 2100. "To save itself, the planet has to shift, almost exponentially, to zero-carbon systems," Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, vice chair of World Wide Fund (WWF) Philippines, suggested. "Each nation, each community, each individual must play a role. Each business must, similarly, ensure that its methods and systems do not make things worse."

Overfishing has also contributed to the annihilation of the world's oceans. Fishes from the ocean provide over eighty million tons of food for the world's population each year. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization has warned that the demand for fish is outstripping the natural replenishment of fish resources.

Total fish production rose from 70 million tons in 1979 to 100 million tons in 1990. But fish production from the high seas is unlikely to grow at the same rate since industrial pollution and urban growth are damaging fish breeding stocks, and some fish stock are being over exploited (such as catching young fish before they have had the chance to breed).

In the Philippines, the economic loss of overfishing is estimated at about US$125 million per year in lost fish catch, according to the World Bank. "The productivity of the country's fisheries is declining as coastal areas become increasing degraded and pushed beyond their production capacity," the Population Reference Bureau adds.

Experts from around the world are sounding for the protection of the oceans. "The fact that less than one percent of the world's oceans are covered by marine protected areas is a catastrophe waiting to happen," says Dan Laffoley, chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas. "Just because these places are under water and not highly visible does not mean they should be ignored. It's time to expand marine protected areas and save our oceans from threats like over-fishing and climate change."

"We are destroying the ocean," says world-renowned marine wildlife photographer and cinematographer Tom Campbell. He believes too much damage has been done to the ocean over the past few generations for the sea to recover enough to return to its original balance, but he does hope to stop the damage from progressing.

Before his death in 1997, the famous Jacques Cousteau told Time: "The oceans are in danger of dying. In the past, the sea renewed itself. It was a continuous cycle. But this cycle is being upset. Some scientists think it's too late. I don't think so." -- ###