Our blue planet is now 'tragically in peril'

Posted: 16 June 2011

Author: Don Hinrichsen

Don Hinrichsen, Contributing Editor to Planet 21 and author of the recently published Atlas of Coasts and Oceans, has spent the last 20 years tracing the declining health of the planet’s coasts and seas. Here he makes a personal plea to those in power to act with greater vision and resolve to address the dying of the oceans.

The largely unseen, and often ignored, destruction of the world’s ocean ecosystems and the wealth of plants and animals they support was underscored afresh over the past year as I travelled and researched my recently published Atlas.

Blast fishing, Bohol, Philippines<br>© ReefBase
Blast fishing, Bohol, Philippines.
© Reefbase

One of many observations stands out. While diving in the Lingayen Gulf, on the main Philippine island of Luzon, I was nearly blown out of the water by indiscriminate blast fishermen using dynamite to drive stunned and dying fish to the surface for easy harvesting. Though this does put food on the table for the moment, it utterly destroys the coral reef and seagrass communities upon which fisheries in this region depend. It is a Faustian bargain that confronts poor coastal communities throughout the world — the need to feed their families now at the expense of tomorrow.

Unfortunately this is exactly what most nations now do on a much larger and more destructive scale. The explosive growth of coastal urban populations, along with helter-skelter industrial and agricultural expansion, the generation of enormous quantities of waste (much of which ends up in our coastal seas), run-away coastal and marine tourism, topped off by an unprecedented rise in the world consumption of seafood, has resulted in the wholesale pillaging of our oceans. Add to this list climate change and its insidious impact on coastal and ocean ecosystems, and you have a recipe for an ecological Armageddon, a real ‘end of life as we know it’ scenario.

The trends are all in the wrong direction.

Deforestation adjacent to reefs increases <br>sedimentation. Palawan, Philippines<br>©   Lambert A.B. Meñez/ReefBase
Deforestation adjacent to reefs increases sedimentation. Palawan, Philippines
© Lambert A.B. Meñez/ReefBase

An increasing number of the world’s population, soon at 7 billion, lives along or within several hundred kilometres of a sea coast. Though calculations of the percentage of coastal dwellers is disputed, more recent demographic trends and population shifts indicate that increasing numbers of economic and environmental migrants are heading to coastal towns and cities in search of livelihoods and better opportunities. The resulting development pressures are taking a grim toll on coastal and near-shore ecosystems and the marine resources they harbour.

Dead zones

The interactions between land and sea are indeed very much part of the story. Agricultural runoff – mainly fertilizers, pesticides and animal wastes – are a good example. Stripped off farmland, sometimes far from the sea, these pollution-laden wastes are ferried to the coast by rivers and streams and once deposited in coastal areas rob the water of life-giving oxygen. The result is often a dead zone, devoid of life higher than bacteria and microorganisms.

It is true that some rivers, like the Thames, Danube and Rhine are less polluted. But many others, such as the Ganges-Brahmaputra, Mekong, Niger and Paraná grow steadily filthier from agricultural and urban runoff, untreated or inadequately treated sewage and industrial wastes and sediment.

Warming seas triggered by global climate change will also contribute to the proliferation of coastal dead zones. There are now more than 400 of these areas, most of them off the coasts of developed countries. The World Resources Institute reports that they have doubled in number in just one decade!

Looking ahead, I am now seriously alarmed at the state of our oceans and what our grandchildren and their children may inherit by 2100, if not before. Many of them will have to move or otherwise modify their lives to accommodate sea level rise.

Harbour for small scale fishers, Dakar
Harbour for small scale fishers, Dakar, Senegal. They are often outstripped on the ocean by large trawlers which haul in everything and killing bottom habitats (seagrasses and coral reefs in the process). Photo © Don Hinrichsen

Within two generations, the once-rich seas could be stripped of almost all productive fish life. We may see a future where our coastal seas are inundated by red tides and toxic algal blooms on a regular basis, every season. What remains may be nothing more than a gelatinous mass of jellyfish and other invertebrates.

The prediction by Stanford University’s Dr. Steven Palumbi may be all too prophetic: “Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the ocean species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood.”

Food security

Coastal communities, already facing precarious livelihoods, will also be hit by peak oil and in some cases peak freshwater, leading to a collapse of food security on both land and water.

It is time to wake up to the fact that for generations, humanity has treated the oceans with a cavalier disregard that has resulted in seriously damaged ecosystems, ecosystems the rest of the planet depends on for survival.

In 2008, a group of marine scientists, led by Ben Halpern from the University of California Santa Barbara, mapped the impact of 17 anthropogenic drivers of ecosystem damage and change across 20 vital marine ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, mangrove forests, coral reefs, seagrasses, and seamounts, among others. Their conclusion: approximately 41 percent of the world ocean is suffering a moderately-heavy to heavy impact either directly, from human activities (such as . over-fishing and habitat destruction) or indirectly, from human induced effects (such as climate change).

The worst hot spots in terms of degraded habitats and persistent pollution include: the North Sea, South and East China Seas, the East Coast of North America, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Red Seas, the Bering Sea, part of the western Pacific around Japan, and the Persian Gulf.

Only four percent of the ocean remains relatively unaffected by human activities. The polar seas are among those areas experiencing only low impacts from most of the drivers examined. However, due to the fact that cold waters absorb more carbon dioxide than warmer ones, they are disproportionately affected by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, resulting in acidification. It is also feared that as the climate continues to change, the areas of sea ice will dwindle, opening up more of the polar seas to destructive fishing, as well as oil and gas exploitation.

Mangrove forest loss
The rate of mangrove loss is higher than the loss of any other forest type. Photo ©FAO/ G. Grepin

The picture gets grimmer. Over the past 60 years the world has lost one quarter of its salt marshes and 30 percent of its mangrove forests. We are losing these fecund coastal ecosystems two to fifteen times faster than the rate of tropical forest loss.

  • Mangrove wetlands have been annihilated. These rich habitats that shelter over 2,000 species of fish, shellfish, invertebrates and plants, have been decimated by development – clear cut for agricultural land, converted into aquaculture ponds for fish and shellfish or exploited by fuelwood collectors and charcoal makers. The world’s mangrove area has decreased by 3.6 million hectares since 1980.
  • Seagrass beds (such as eel and turtle grass), kelp, seaweeds, and Posidonia colonies – the underwater meadows of the ocean – have declined by one-third. With a few exceptions, these diverse ecosystems appear to be in retreat near virtually all inhabited coastal areas.
  • Over half of all coral reefs, the rainforests of the sea, are either degraded beyond recognition, in critical condition or threatened. The remaining 46 percent could very well be lost by mid-century, killed off by climate change (increasing water temperatures, acidification and coral bleaching), over-exploitation, including reef-based fisheries, pollution from the land and sedimentation, among other impacts.

Managing better

Coastal and ocean areas can be managed better to preserve key habitats, conserve species and manage fisheries on a sustainable basis. However, this is only possible if governments, civil society organisations and the scientific community join forces with major stakeholders in concerted efforts to actually manage ocean resources instead of simply exploiting the commons.

Malta, showing tourism infrastructure along the coast. Photo © Don Hinrichsen

At present government inaction on ocean management and an inability to enforce existing coastal regulations make problems of overuse, pollution, and resource degradation worse. As of 2002, 145 of the 187 nations, territories and semi-sovereign states with a coastline, had launched integrated coastal management programs. While this number has grown considerably since the 1990s, most countries have yet to move from planning to implementation.

The blueprint for a sustainable management system has been outlined by countless national and international organizations over the past three decades. The UN Environment Programme’s Regional Seas initiative was a sound idea when launched in 1975, with the advent of the Mediterranean Action Plan. Since then, UNEP has launched 12 more regional seas plans. Unfortunately, a review of them in 2010, revealed that only a handful were actually in operation, with a secretariat, a budget, personnel and management capacity on the ground both nationally and regionally.

Jens Sorensen, one of my long-time colleagues and friends (and the author of the Foreword to the Atlas), is not sanguine about our capacity to manage the current crises that afflict our coasts and oceans, not to mention what lies ahead with global warming and sea level rise. He points out that over the past four decades over a billion dollars has been spent by hundreds of international, national, sub-national and local institutions on at least 700 specific efforts for the ‘integrated management’ of coasts or maine areas.

“We must improve the effectiveness and efficiency of future Integrated Coastal and Marine Management (ICMM) efforts,” states Sorensen, “by exchanging information on those arrangements, approaches and methods which actually work -- and those that don’t. Most importantly we need to know why these fail.”

Although the ‘oceans are dying’ litany has been heard since the late 1960s and early 1970s with such notable books and reports as Silent Spring, Frail Ocean, Water's Edge, Thin Edge and Our Nation and our Sea, we are reaching a point of no return, and in some cases have gone beyond it. It is time to put political muscle and money, guided by the lessons learned over the last four decades, behind renewed ICMM efforts.

Don Hinrichsen’s recent book, The Atlas of Coasts and Oceas — Ecosystems, Threatened Resources and Marine Conservation, is published by Earthscan in the UK, University of Chicago Press in the US, and Haupt Verlag in Germany.