“It is the worst of times, but it is the best of times for we still have a chance”
Dr. Sylvia Earle, American marine biologist
The Earth is 4.6 billion years old. Let’s scale that to 46 years. We (humans) have been here for four hours. Our industrial revolution began one minute ago. In that minute, we have destroyed more than 50 percent of the world’s forests, 40 percent of the world’s coral reefs, and 90 percent of the ocean’s big fish.
The above paragraph made the rounds on the internet a while ago, and while its source has been difficult to ascertain, just imagine for a minute if it were true—even if only partially. The ramifications are horrifying.
On the brink of the sixth extinction
The Earth is currently teetering on the edge of what is called the sixth extinction. While credit for the previous five (referred to as the Big Five mass extinctions) is owed to to geological conditions, the current one is mostly thanks to man. Science Advances published a report earlier this year, which stated that the current extinction rate may be 100 times higher than the natural extinction rate (which is the rate of extinction if man were taken out of the equation). Author Elizabeth Kolbert, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Sixth Extinction, agrees that man’s irresponsible attitude towards hunting, climate change, overfishing , and his commitment to mono-culture agriculture are leading us down a path that we may not be able to turn back from.
Still, in the face of indisputable scientific data, countries around the world continue to pillage the environment in favour of economic progress. While there is definitely more awareness today than a hundred years ago, along with initiatives to halt the rapid disappearance of wildlife, much of it is land-based, and ocean conservation is comparatively neglected. What’s worse, this disregard is not a luxury the Earth can afford, since the clock is ticking and nobody seems to be listening.
While statistics and numbers are important to shed light on the facts of this issue, their technical nature can be overwhelming, making a brush with the ground reality essential for a holistic picture. Marine biologist, scuba instructor and writer Nayantara Jain, the Executive Director at ReefWatch Marine Conservation, and underwater photographer Sumer Verma, who is a managing partner at Lacadives and a board member at ReefWatch Marine Conservation, provide a more in-depth understanding of the grave situation, having spent significant time actively working to rectify man’s mistakes.
Can we have a spotlight on Ocean Conservation, please?
Jain and Verma have been diving for years, earning first-hand experience with our oceans’ rapid and dramatic changes . As Verma testifies, “In 1997, I did my first dives in the Lakshadweep Islands. When I returned in 1998, the big El Nino had struck and had completely devastated the reefs. Over just a few months, the reefs had suffered about 90 percent mortality and what had once been paradise, turned into a graveyard. The scale and magnitude of it was truly devastating to witness.”
“Carbon dioxide levels have gone from 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution up to 400 ppm as of 2015. This concentration is the highest it has been in the last 800,000 years . Currently, with present emission levels, CO2 concentration is increasing by 2 ppm every year and it is accelerating “ Jain says. In turn, this is causing sea levels to rise, as seawater expands with higher temperatures.
Going further, Jain explains “Forty percent of this excess CO2 dissolves into the ocean, and creates the other CO2 problem—ocean acidification. This is the phenomenon of reducing alkalinity of seawater (not actually making it acidic), which affects all calcifying organisms like corals, shellfish, crabs, and molluscs. By the end of the century, scientists expect sea level to rise by 1.3 to 3.9 feet. This may not sound like much, but 147 to 216 million people worldwide can expect to see their homes submerged by 2100. In India, 12.6 million people will be directly impacted.”
While most of the dialogue on environmental conservation is focused more on wildlife preservation on land than in the ocean, this skewed spotlight exists in government policies as well. Terrestrial ecosystems are easier to delineate, their borders can be demarcated, making it easier to fence in and protect them. Marine ecosystems are different: for starters, they are extremely vast. These habitats have many migratory species, and it can be frustrating for governments to put in time and funds into protecting something which could just swim out to be slaughtered legally in the neighbouring country. Financial restrictions prevent governments from carrying out effective research and studies, as ocean surveys are more expensive than land-based ones And if you think we’re exaggerating the step-sister treatment marine ecosystems receive compared to land ones, here’s some clinching evidence. In India, marine habitats fall under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department—we have no separate provision for our oceans.
“The government is very inactive with ocean policy. We don’t know anything about fisheries, or how badly our ocean life is being obliterated. All our fish contains a high level of mercury. But beyond a point, you can’t blame the government any more. It’s the apathy that needs to be tackled. The middle class wants to mimic the west and consume endlessly. Dr Slyvia Earle famously said ‘It is the worst of times, but it is the best of times for we still have a chance’, and I agree with her. It’s the best of times because we are as scientifically advanced as we have ever been. We have the tools to be able to fight this, but it’s the worst of times because our apathy will be the death of it all. Nobody cares as long as they can have their seafood every day, right?”
Destroying marine ecosystems one fish thaali at a time
To state the obvious but overlooked fact, statistics show that being a seafood lover as well as an environmentally conscious person at the same time is pretty contradictory. On average, the by-catch rate for prawns is 1:9, which means that for every plate of prawns you eat, nine plates of other sea life—ranging from sharks, to turtles, even sea urchins— are killed. Incidentally, India is the world’s second largest exporter of shark fins, and global figures estimate that humans kill approximately 100 million sharks every year—that’s 11,417 sharks per hour. While this statistic is jarring enough, the process of how these sharks are finned is even more disturbing. Once caught, a shark’s fins are mercilessly hacked off and the still-alive shark is tossed back into the water . Since it cannot swim without its fins, the helpless mammal drowns . Finning is one of the most brutal, wasteful fishing practices in existence and is currently outlawed in many countries. Still, shark fin soup (the main reason behind finning) finds its way onto the menus of many restaurants, and all for nothing—the fin itself adds no flavour, most soups are flavoured with stock; it is only the texture that is so coveted.
“The worst thing for me is not the things I see, but the things I don’t. I dive twice a day everyday, in the Andamans for about half the year. Yet, I almost never see sharks. Predators are so integral to an ecosystem and their stark absence is tragic. When there are no apex predators acting as agents of natural selection, the entire ecosystem suffers. Many new divers ask me, fearfully, “Are there sharks in these waters?” And I am more scared than them to have to reply: ‘No’,” Jain shared.
The infinite gaps in India’s marine conservation story
In June, a blue whale washed up on the shores of Alibaug only to meet its death at the hands of severely lacking facilities and expertise. In the past year, at least ten porpoises have washed up along Mumbai’s coast. The reaction of civic authorities to such beachings gave on-lookers a crash course in the significant need for provisions and knowledge to deal with such instances, which are currently grossly inadequate. “We have such poor infrastructure in this regard. There is no facility for marine animal autopsy. Whatever basic results the Forest Department gets from vets looking at these animals, it does not share with the public. I have tried so many times to get this information from them. Journalists are quick to report these beachings, but never follow up to get the results of the investigation and publish them,” Jain expressed. Cetacean beaching is a common worldwide occurrence, with estimates a number as high as 2,000. We still do not completely understand what pushes these highly sentient beings towards the shore, but there are various theories, ranging from underwater sound pollution that interferes with their sonar, to internal distress, and even shifts in the earth’s magnetism.
We tend to compartmentalize the environment into forests, mangroves, terrestrial, oceanic, freshwater, seawater, and so on, but the fact is that we live on one large living planet, of which the ocean is the birthplace and the heart. To ask how its conservation helps land is like asking how a healthier heart can help your legs or your arms. Coral reefs absorb more CO2 than rainforests per square metre—a whopping 22 million tonnes each day. Even our pharmaceuticals owe so much to the ocean. Fifty percent of today’s drugs are dependent on natural products that are synthesised or extracted from the ocean—the antiviral drugs Ara-A and AZT, and the anti-cancer agent Ara-Cwere some of the first modern medicines to be developed from chemicals found on reefs. So while the glaring need to protect ocean ecosystems cannot be refuted or debated, we turn to the real problem: the lack of participation, interest and awareness.
Dialogue and awareness: The needs of the hour
As with most things, the key is public participation, and while it seems so plainly logical that since we are responsible for this catastrophic global mess we should be the ones cleaning up after ourselves, there seems to be a widespread disregard for taking this step. Jain and Verma both agree that it’s time India’s citizens raised their voice for better marine awareness and practices, since the onus to rectify our mistakes is on our collective conscience.
“There is a lack of awareness,” said Jain. “When the outcry on the devastation of the tiger population became huge, when people started to care, so did the government. They worked with experts, scientists, NGOs and common people to protect our national animal. Such a mandate for the sea is largely missing because not enough people care. But I sense the beginnings of unrest amongst the youth, who are finally listening to what the scientists are saying – there is a murmuring of fear about what we are doing to our planet. And this murmuring is what I hope will give rise to a new generation with changed priorities. The Internet helps—we can change the status quo even with all the oil lobbies and entrenched industries. Young people are becoming TED fellows for designing sustainable ways to clean up the great garbage patches of the oceans, for protecting large blue whale congregations off the coast of Sri Lanka. I hope more people become engineers and inventors and figure out ways to power our lives without coal and oil, and to learn how to fish without harming the sea. I hope architects find ways to make our homes when sea levels rise. Essentially I think we have it in us to find a way to live with this planet and its life instead of seeking to conquer it as prior generations tried to do. Tried being the operative word here.”
ReefWatch Marine Conservation is a non-profit organization involved in research, outreach and awareness-building activities It works with children in the Andamans and educates them about the ocean and its ecosystem, monitors coral and creates artificial reefs, and works with Mumbai fishermen to understand the changes in Mumbai’s coastal waters in terms of pollution, garbage, and biodiversity. For more information, check out the website.
If you’re interested in doing your bit to help our fragile oceans, ReefWatch accepts volunteers and donations. See here.
For a deeper understanding of the precarious condition of our oceans and its inhabitants, The Cove, Blackfish, Blue Planet, and End Of The Line are documentaries worth watching.