Experts Rue Untold Damage to Marine, Coastal Ecosystems
Analysis by Pankaj Sekhsaria
NEW DELHI, June 12, 2010 (IPS) - In mid-April this year, MV Malavika, a cargo ship of the Essar Shipping Corporation, a major sea logistics firm in India, leaked an estimated eight tonnes of furnace oil after being struck by a barge near the Gopalpur port on the eastern Indian coast of Orissa.
Within a few hours, a huge slick had washed up along the Olive Ridley Turtle nesting beach at Rushikulya, a major turtle nesting site in Orissa, where over 150,000 turtles had nested just a few weeks earlier. The fear of the impact this would have on the turtle nests was confirmed about a month later.
In spite of claims by authorities that the beach had been cleaned up, local researchers say that more than half the eggs laid could have been damaged by the oil spill.
"This is the first time we’ve experienced a slick of this kind, and the damage has been immense," says Rabindranath Sahu, the secretary of Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee, of the oil spill in Orissa. Only about three kilometres of the beach had been cleaned up whereas the turtle nesting had occurred along a five km stretch, he tells IPS.
The livelihoods of nearly 10 fishing villages in the area had been completely destroyed as the fish catch had collapsed while salt production units in the area had to shut operations for about 20 days, he adds.
This environmental disaster in Orissa may pale in comparison to the damage that has been inflicted on the Gulf of Mexico in the United States, where thousands of barrels of oil have been leaking out every day from British Petroleum’s oil rig for nearly two months now, following the rig’s explosion.
A rich coastline has been laid waste, hundreds of birds have been found dripping with the oily residue, sea turtle mortality has been significant and a fishing and shrimp industry has been crippled, if not completely destroyed, according to media reports.
"This is where the precautionary principle comes in," says Greenpeace India’s Ocean Campaigns manager Sanjiv Gopal. "Offshore installations should be kept out of critical marine ecosystems and from the migratory, breeding and spawning habitats of commercial fish and other species," he says.
"From the experience in Orissa, we also feel that no new ports or port expansion projects should be allowed within 25 km of ecologically sensitive areas."
The economic value of coastal and marine environments is enough to justify the need for their sustainable use and management.
According to the ‘Global Diversity Outlook 3’ (GDO3), a report released in May by the Convention on Biological Diversity, coral reefs, for instance, are estimated to provide services worth 18 million U.S. dollars per square km a year for natural hazard management, up to 100 million dollars for tourism, more than five million dollars for genetic material and bioprospecting, and more than 300,000 dollars for fisheries.
"The world’s ﬁsheries," states the report, "employ approximately 200 million people, provide about 16 percent of the protein consumed worldwide and have a value estimated at US$82 billion." Yet, about 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited or have been fully exploited.
Coral reefs cover a miniscule portion of the world’s continental shelf and yet, as GDO3 notes, up to a billion people depend on them for food and nearly 300 million for basic livelihood support.
Research reveals that coral reefs are coming under increasing stress from a range of damaging human activities: overfishing, pollution from land based sources, reef dynamiting for fishing, coral bleaching due to temperature rises and ocean acidification on account of global warming.
Scientists at the Phuket Marine Biological Center in Thailand noted in early May that coral bleaching in this South-east Asian country was the worst in Thai waters in the last two decades. A similar situation has been confirmed in the adjoining Andaman and Nicobar islands in India.
A Jun. 4 report released by Reuters news agency listed 20 of the most significant oil spills around the globe. "The spill (Gulf of Mexico) stands out," it said, "for its proximity to U.S. shores and the publicity it has generated by comparison with other large, ongoing leaks in more remote parts of the world."
Dr Jack Frazier, a noted turtle biologist and member of the International Sea Turtle Society, agrees: "This sort of problem has been occurring regularly in other parts of the world, with hardly a murmur on the daily news." He asks: "How many people, for instance, have even voiced concern about the decade- long disaster in Nigeria?"
The Ibeno beach, for example, in the coastal state of Akwa Ibom in Nigeria has seen a series of serious oil spills since December 2009. Its coastline has been devastated by oil leaks from offshore operations, and fishing activities have been seriously impacted.
Says Oluseun Onigbide, director of Media and Advocacy at Green Acts, an environmental group based in Nigeria: "The Ibeno oil spill is a clear example of how the pursuit of economic growth destroys the work of nature, impacts livelihoods and compromises people’s health."
"The recent developments are indicative of the fact that we have failed to regulate sea and land based activities that can damage the fragile marine ecosystem," says Chandrika Sharma, secretary of the India-based International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, a non-governmental organisation advocating the rights small-scale artisanal fisherfolk.