IMAGE: Brian Yurasits
It's Time to get Serious about the Seas
September 22, 2021
Remember the positive side of COVID-19 lockdowns?
You know: all those media reports on the clearer canals, increased birdsong, quieter roads, and the reduced pollution and carbon emissions.
Unfortunately, while lockdowns may have felt lengthy to us, the whole period was less than the blink of an eye to the earth. The brief, half-hearted respite we gave our planet was nowhere near enough time to undo the decades, if not centuries, of damage we’ve done to it, and did nothing to slow the impending climate crisis. In fact, disposable PPE, most of it consisting partly or entirely of plastic, has become another source of marine pollution, with disposable masks washing up on shores in their thousands. Between late July and December 2020, Ocean Conservancy volunteers collected more than 107,000 pieces of PPE from beaches and waterways around the world.
But ‘COVID waste’ has only added to the massive marine pollution problem that already exists—and it’s a problem we can’t ignore. Our seas are showing alarming signs of damage and decline, and those impacts will soon be felt here on land unless we take action.
IMAGE: Naja Bertoly Jensen
Our Life on Land Depends on the Sea
Half of the oxygen we breathe. A fifth of the protein needed for nearly half the world’s population. This is what oceans provide for us, and it’s mainly thanks to phytoplankton, oxygen-producing sea plants that are a vital part of the marine food chain. But phytoplankton, like land plants, need light to produce oxygen, and they’re increasingly struggling to thrive in polluted, cloudy water.
Our oceans also play a huge role in stabilising our climate. They absorb 90% of the heat that enters our atmosphere, transfer heat around the globe, and absorb at least a quarter of our CO2 emissions. While their role as a carbon sink may seem a good thing, it’s causing acidification, changing the delicately balanced chemical make-up of our seas and causing harm to their underwater residents.
We use the water, and its shores and banks, for dozens of recreational activities that are worth an estimated £8 billion a year, and watersports are growing in popularity. But climate change and pollution form a vicious circle that’s already making our seas, rivers and coasts a less healthy place to be.
IMAGE: Rasande Tyskar
Marine Pollution and the Threats it Poses
Pre-COVID, plastic pollution was already one of the biggest polluters of our oceans and waterways. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that at least 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year, representing 80% of all marine debris. This plastic comes from the land via runoff, sewer overflows, industrial processes, and illegal or inadequate waste disposal, and from ocean users via fishing, nautical and aquacultural activities.
Sea creatures can be injured or killed by entanglement with larger pieces of plastic. But damage from plastic doesn’t end there. Plastic is broken down by currents, wind, UV and natural processes into microplastics (under 5 mm) or nanoplastics (under 100 nm). Recent studies have shown there’s 60 times more microplastic in the ocean than there was 15 years ago. Microplastics are ingested by fish, not only causing harm to the food chain, but ultimately ending up on our plates and in our cups. Studies have found them in tea, salt, seaweed, milk, seafood, honey, sugar, beer, vegetables, soft drinks, tap water and bottled water—and in our stool.
So, it’s unsurprising that researchers at Arizona State University found microplastics in 100% of the human tissues they sampled. Plastics often contain a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including neurotoxins, carcinogens, and endocrine disrupters. While it’s not clear yet that we absorb enough of these chemicals from microplastics to cause health issues, laboratory tests are indicating they may cause problems. Many experts take the same view as Prof Mark Taylor, an environmental contamination expert from Sydney’s Macquarie University: “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
IMAGE: Yogendra Singh
Microorganisms and chemicals
Many of the pollutants in our seas and waterways come from the land: agricultural runoff (fertilisers pesticides, waste), industrial waste, manufactured chemicals, pharmaceuticals, petroleum, sewage, toxic metals, and urban waste. Surveys carried out by Surfrider Foundation Europe in 2019 and 2020 revealed that two out of five respondents had already suffered health impacts from spending time in the water. Similarly, ocean conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) received 153 reports of ill health from water users in the 12 months prior to the publication of their 2020 Water Quality Report.
Pollutants can build up around the coast, unfortunately in those very areas where many of us work and play, causing the growth of harmful algae. These algae produce toxins that accumulate in seafood, Studies have shown they can cause amnesia, dementia, paralysis, and even death. There’s been a worrying rise in antibiotic-resistant organisms found in the digestive tracts of swimmers.
Mercury pollution is usually a consequence of burning fossil fuels, particularly coal. Mercury is released into the atmosphere and transferred into streams or oceans by rainfall. Unfortunately, once in the ocean, it accumulates in some of the larger fish we eat, such as tuna. Eating these fish regularly can cause accumulation in our own bodies. Mercury is one of the World Health Organization’s top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern, and it can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. Its primary health effect is on neurological development, and adverse effects are most commonly seen in foetuses and children in subsistence fishing populations.
Even some supposedly ‘safe’ chemicals can harm the oceans in large enough quantities, because they change the chemical balance and pH of the sea. These changes can damage ocean creatures and their habitats, and change the way the sea ‘behaves’.
IMAGE: Sergei Tokmakov
Making a Difference: Governments
In general, governments just aren’t doing enough to protect the oceans and waterways. There are few restrictions on fossil-fuel burning watersports, inadequate policing of agricultural and industrial run-off, pitifully poor legislation concerning emissions from maritime traffic, and little done to keep beaches and riverbanks clean and well-maintained. Much of the good work done in these areas is by local authorities or volunteer groups, and most of the responsibility is left to the general public. Too often, the maritime economy is given priority over environmental concerns.
The EU is at least reviewing its Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which “aims to maintain healthy, productive and resilient marine ecosystems, while securing a more sustainable use of marine resources for the benefit of current and future generations.” It’s initiated an online public consultation, seeking views on how to make the Directive more efficient, effective and relevant to the ambitions set out in the European Green Deal. The consultation is open to all until the 21st of October.
The review of the Directive will look at how it’s performed so far, taking into account the findings of the European Commission's June 2020 Report on the Marine Strategy, and assess the Directive’s suitability to tackle the cumulative impacts of human activities on the marine environment going forward. We can only hope it will bring about some swift and decisive actions to clean up and conserve Europe’s waters.
A polluting fossil fuel-powered PWC
IMAGE: Dimitris Vetsikas
How You Can Make a Difference
While governments and companies must do more, there are actions you can take and choices you can make, in the sea and on the land, that will make a difference.
Combustion engines have even less of a place in the seas than in the skies. Jet skiing is still increasing in popularity, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re really good fun. But conventional jet skis are also noisy, polluting, and physically damaging to the environment. These effects are magnified by their ability to be used in shallow waters.
Jet skis can transfer invasive, non-native species between bodies of water, and cause direct injury to aquatic mammals. Both the turbulence and engine vibrations they create can disturb sediment, erode shorelines, disturb wildlife, and damage habitats and aquatic plants. They can reach noise levels of up to 115 decibels (noisier than a jackhammer at 105 decibels), upsetting timid or nesting birds and marine or riverbank creatures and disturbing their communication.
Last but very much not least are their fossil-fuel-burning engines. Jet skis with older, inefficient two-stroke engines can dump up to 30% of their fuel unburned into the water. The environmental group Blue Water Network (now merged with Friends of the Earth) has estimated that running a two-stroke motor on a jet ski for one hour causes as much hydrocarbon pollution as a 5,000-mile car journey. But any jet ski with a combustion engine will dump some fuel and oil in the water, aside from the harmful carbon emissions they produce. In short, their monetary cost is nothing when compared to their environmental cost—and it’s a price we can’t afford to pay.
Choose electric watersports, such as electric jet boarding, power-free watersports like stand-up paddleboarding, and less impactful diving options such as using MiniDive equipment.
IMAGE: Sean Oulashin
Reduce your use of plastics and eliminate single-use plastics from your life. Think renewable, reusable and eco-friendly, from water bottles to dishwasher tablets!
Go organic. Organic farming is hugely important to reduce dangerous agricultural runoff into the sea, and demand will drive supply. If prices mean you can’t afford to go fully organic, then pick an item or two you eat regularly and commit to always choosing the organic option.
We can all make a difference, and we must—because time is running out. Our seas and waterways have reached a critical point, and while everybody deserves to have fun on the water, we can no longer afford for that fun to be at the cost of the environment.
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