Healthy, vibrant oceans are a must
It is unfortunate that mankind has valued the oceans merely for their mineral wealth or for lucrative economic corridors they provide between continents. We must understand that healthy and vibrant oceans are critical for life sustenance and it is in our interests to ensure that they are in good shape
In spite of being the world’s largest carbon sinks and treasure house of stunning biodiversity, the oceans of this world are a neglected and polluted lot today. Over the past two centuries, oceans have absorbed 525 billion tonne or about half of the carbon emissions released due to human activities. Additionally, oceans have been at the receiving end of over eight million metric tonne of plastic every year. At present, as much as 80 per cent of all the litter in the oceans consists of plastic and more than 800 species have been affected due to the plastic debris.
According to statistics available with the Un, by 2050, plastic waste in oceans would not only kill up to one million birds, 100,000 sea mammals and countless fish but continued dumping of non-biodegradable material in the seas would result in plastic entities becoming more than the number of fish in the sea.
Making an already bad situation worse is the land-based activities of humans, which are responsible for almost 80 per cent of the entire pollution in the oceans, leading to spiralling levels of ocean warming and acidification. This, in turn, is destroying nearly 60 per cent of the coral reefs, besides reducing the fishing areas as fishes are unable to grow to full potential due to a mix of low oxygen level, acidification and rising water temperatures.
It is clear that the importance of oceans has long been forgotten. It is also true that the absence of oceans would mean an unbearable spike in earth’s average temperatures, making the tropical regions inhabitable. Given the sustained pollution with garbage, carbon dioxide and effluents from the land for decades, the stressed seas and the ecosystems therein may not safeguard mankind for long, nor provide the insulation against rising temperatures.
Unfortunately, for mankind, oceans have always been valued for their mineral wealth or the lucrative economic routes and corridors they provide between continents. The South China Sea is an example where almost all nations are vying with each other to stake claim. In the rush for oceanic hegemony, regard for the delicate marine biodiversity and ecology is lost.
The oceans provide a compelling case for a multitude of economic benefits, right from fisheries, tourism, minerals, medicines, renewable energy, transport and trade. The estimated gross marine product of the oceans is $2.5 trillion a year — this is equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of major economies like France and Australia. This blue economy is no doubt critical to the global economic development but it is equally important to ensure that the oceans remain protected from the damage caused by the quest for economic benefits of different parties.
Recently, 193 members of the United Nations, coupled with academia, scientists, civil society activists and business executives congregated to find ways to ensure that the oceans remain healthy and vibrant. The meeting assumed greater significance in the light of the US pulling out of the Paris agreement, as after all, the health of our oceans, which cover almost three-quarters of the planet, is inexorably linked with the state of our world climate.
In fact, not only the temperature pattern of the oceans, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian, the Arctic and the Southern oceans influence and drive the climate and weather systems. They also act as a buffer against climate change by absorbing carbon emissions. Scientists present at the conference also raised concerns about the growing extent and duration of dead zones. According to a study conducted by Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany, the oxygen content globally in oceans has reduced by more than two per cent since 1960 with large variations in oxygen loss in different ocean basins and at different depths respectively.
These zones are hypoxic regions that exhibit oxygen levels that are too low to support aquatic organisms. One trigger for the dead zone is eutrophication or excessive growth of plants and algae due to nutrient loads that may eventually result in oxygen depletion in the water body. The report has identified five large marine ecosystems, including the Bay of Bengal, which comes under the most at risk oceans from eutrophication.
India, with its 7,500km coastline, has a major role to play in preserving the oceans. Marine fishery wealth in India is estimated at an annual harvestable potential of 4.412 million metric tonne and an estimated four million people depend on fisheries for their livelihoods. In order to make a global mark in its efforts, India must increase its oceanic research and development facilities and infrastructures.
India must ensure that in addition to expediting the development of new ports it must also preserve the country’s 3,288 marine fishing villages and four million people who depend on marine fishing and related occupations for livelihood. Healthy and vibrant oceans are critical for life sustenance and it is in our interests to ensure that the oceans are in the shape and position to provide us the life support.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)
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