Sunday, December 12, 2010

The decline of the oceans

The decline of the oceans
The New Indian Express, Dec 11, 2010

Pankaj Sekhsaria

If there is one thing that the milestone international Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in 1992 is remembered for it, is the forceful statement by the then President of the United States of America, George H W Bush. “The American way of life is non-negotiable,” he had said as nations around the world demanded that the USA contain its runaway consumption in general and that of fossil fuels in particular. Nearly two decades have passed since and promises and commitments notwithstanding, it could well be argued that not much has changed on the ground. In some ways the most powerful nation in the world has managed to bulldoze its way through world opinion even as the global climate crisis has exacerbated and even though climate change has finally came on to the global agenda.

It was at the same 1992 summit that the northern neighbour of the USA proposed an idea that was to be formally accepted more than 15 years later. The concept of the World Oceans Day as proposed by the Government of Canada in Rio was finally approved by the United Nations General Assembly only in December ’08 and June 8 became the day that the world would come together to highlight the importance of the oceans and to commit itself to their conservation.

The Gulf of Mexico disaster

The crisis that the oceans face was highlighted most starkly in April this year (and as World Oceans Day 2010 came and went) when billions of barrels of oil spluttered up from the dark depths of the Gulf of Mexico. The waters of the gulf were covered with endless sheets of oil for weeks choking the rich marshes and causing unprecedented damage to wildlife and commercial fisheries. The problem does not seem to be visible anymore but only time will indicate the long-term damages that may have been caused.

And the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is by no means the only one, even though it has garnered maximum attention and concern. Nearly a 100 significant spills have been documented worldwide since the early 1970s and at least 20 spills (big and small) have been observed in just the last five years. These have occurred at sites as far apart as the Timor Sea off Australia (August 2009), the Yellow Sea off the Korean coast (December 2007) and the waters off the coasts of Alaska in the USA (March 2006). The shoreline of the Ibeno local government area in Nigeria was recently devastated by an oil spill from the companies operating offshore in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the issue garnered huge attention in India following the vast oil spill off the Mumbai coast just a few months ago. The world's appetite for oil and gas seems insatiable and many have argued that such disasters are only waiting to happen.

A rich and diverse ecosystem

The ocean, we often forget is the source of life for millions around the planet. The Global Diversity Outlook 3 (GDO3), report released recently by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has pointed, for instance, that the world’s fisheries provide employment to nearly 200 million people and account for about 16 per cent of the protein consumed worldwide. The report estimates the value of these fisheries to be nearly US$ 82 billion and also notes that about 80 per cent of the stocks for which assessment information is available are over exploited or have been fully exploited.

Coral reefs under stress

The situation with coral reefs is just as alarming. They cover a miniscule portion of the world’s oceans but are estimated to house a quarter of the marine fish species in the world. Researchers have also estimated that nearly 30 million people living along the coast are dependant on reef-based resources as their primary means of food production, income and livelihood. Reports from the around the world — from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the reefs in the waters off Indonesia and Thailand — indicate that they are being severely impacted. A wide set of reasons ranging from overfishing, soil and chemical run-offs from land to increasing global temperatures are putting these reefs under increasing stress. The Wildlife Conservation Society reported in early October that an initial survey carried out by them had revealed that more than 60 per cent of corals off the northern tip of Sumatra were found bleached due to an unprecedented rise in ocean temperatures. Researchers have suggested that the whole of Southeast Asia is experiencing one of its most deadly coral die-offs — something that could be the worst such event known to science. The CBD report notes similarly that prominent species like the dugong, sea turtles and some sharks among others have experienced significant declines in Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

To say that the health of the world's oceans is not in good shape is to make a statement of the obvious. For long the human species has been taking the ocean for granted and it would be worth reminding ourselves in this, the International Year of Biodiversity, that the ocean can devastate just as ruthlessly as it can give generously. We can continue to take it for granted but the price that we might have to pay might be larger than we can afford.

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