by Rachael Millson
Over the last 3 weeks, I’ve had the great privilege of spending time with family in Mozambique. This was a road trip that took us on a journey towards an even greater appreciation and understanding of marine life and the incredible underwater world.
Mozambique is blessed with many kilometers of white-sand beaches, and oceans that are alive with reef fish, larger ‘game’ fish, and sea creatures such as manta rays, whale sharks (the largest living species of fish), whales, sea turtles and dolphins.
Being in the presence of these awe-inspiring animals was a reminder once again of the incredible beauty and magic found on this magnificent planet. Schools of brightly-coloured fish, appearing almost as if they had been painted. Each one playing a unique role in maintaining the equilibrium of the fragile ecosystem in which they live.
On one of our dives we came across this beautiful loggerhead turtle. Recently bitten by a shark (likely a bull shark), she was still adjusting to swimming with no front flipper. Her wound was fresh, but will heal fully with the help of the cleaner fish, who remove dead skin, ectoparasites, and infected tissue from their ‘clients’ in the water. A perfect symbiotic relationship.
At the same time, our visit brought closer to home the immense human-created dangers that threaten the health of our oceans, and the ecological stability of our planet. Amongst others – ocean plastic, the continued drilling and search for oil and gas, chemical pollution including oil waste from the shipping industry, ocean warming and acidification as a result of climate change, and the problem of unsustainable fishing.
The Perpetual Plastic Problem.
We all know about the plastic problem in the ocean. Anyone that has ever walked on a beach, no matter where they are in the world, cannot fail to see the plastic debris washed up on the high-tide line. Every year around 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean. It’s the equivalent of one rubbish truck being dumped in our oceans from land-based sources, every single minute. If trends continue, plastic will likely outweigh fish by 2050.
Plastic in the ocean either floats around and is eventually caught up in one of the 5 gyres (oceanic vortexes), in huge collections of plastic and floating trash (46% of which is discarded fishing gear), or breaks down into microplastic particles. Plastic doesn’t EVER fully degrade but the toxic microplastic particles become more and more difficult to clean up.
Plastic pollution in the ocean has a devastating impact on marine life and ecosystems. Let’s take the example of our loggerhead turtle – her favourite food is jellyfish. Turtles like her often mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, ingesting these. If a sea animal ingests plastic, it can eventually die of starvation, unable to eat actual food due to its stomach being clogged up. Several sad stories of whales who have died this way draw our attention. Other dangers that plastics cause to sea animals include suffocation, entanglement, laceration and internal injuries.
For those animals such as whale sharks, manta rays, whales and all other plankton feeders, there is no way for them to avoid the microplastics that float in the ocean. Some experts estimate humpback whales could be eating up to 300,000 pieces of microplastic per day. And, what’s worse, a specific type of plankton, called zooplankton have been found to readily ingest microplastics. Rather than being digested, it is excreted. As a consequence, the plastic waste produced by us, may end up in some of the deepest parts of the ocean, which has so far remained untouched by humans. Bad news for marine wildlife. It goes without saying that microplastics inevitably end up being ingested by humans as they make their way through human food chains.
The good news is there is growing awareness of this issue and some great initiatives exist. The Ocean Clean Up is an inspiring non-profit dedicated to cleaning up ocean plastics, and preventing more plastic entering our oceans from the most problematic rivers.
But the responsibility remains with each one of us to cut out single use plastic and severely reduce our use of all plastics.
What you can do:
- Swap plastic bags for reusable ones, made of cloth or fibre.
- Reduce (or ideally completely cut out) the use of disposable plastic cups, plates, cutlery and bottles. For example, bring your own reusable bottle to work and a reusable coffee cup for your morning take-away!)
- Put pressure on companies you buy from to provide plastic-free alternatives.
- Buy food and cleaning products in bulk to avoid useless plastic wrappings.
- Buy fruit and veg that has not been packaged in plastic.
- Choose metal or glass food containers and storage options instead of plastic ones.
- Avoid buying and using cosmetics that contain plastic microspheres or microbeads.
- Buy clothes that are made from natural material (e.g. cotton, linen), rather than synthetic material, e.g. polyester, acrylic). Just by washing clothes made of synthetic material releases microplastic fibres on a huge scale, which end up in rivers and eventually the ocean.
- Join in beach clean ups to clear our beaches of plastic wash-up.
Fishing is one of the most significant drivers of declines in ocean wildlife populations. Catching fish is not inherently bad for the ocean, except when we catch fish faster than they can replenish their population – overfishing. Since large scale commercial fishing began in the 1950s, 90% of the large fish that people love to eat (such as tuna, cod and swordfish) have been fished out.
Overfishing doesn’t only have an impact on the particular fish species that is overfished, it also has serious effects further up the food chain. Herring, for example, is a vital prey species for cod fish. When herring are overfished the cod population suffers as well.
Overfishing is closely tied to bycatch—the capture of unwanted sea life while fishing for a different species. For example, dolphins, sea turtles, and other non-target fish are often hauled up in nets meant for pollock. Similarly dolphins have often ended up in the fishing nets for yellowfin tuna, as these two sea animals often travel together.
What you can do:
- Buy fish the same way you would buy fruit and vegetables – only buy what’s in season. Buying in-season seafood helps keep overfishing down by keeping the demand for that particular seafood high only when its catch is naturally high.
- Only eat and buy fish placed on the SASSI Green List. These fish come from healthy stocks and the list is monitored continuously.
- If you buy tuna, only ever buy tins that state ‘line-caught’ or ‘pole caught’
One of the biggest threats to our ocean ecology on the West Coast of South Africa, is that of mining. There is currently ongoing industrial-scale extraction of minerals such as zircon, ilmenite, rutile, magnetite and garnet happening along huge tracts of coastline between Columbine and the Orange River. Parts of this are officially designated Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas. The impact on marine life, coastlines and local economies which rely on small-scale fishing, is extensive. This is the subject of our upcoming Films that Reconnect event, where we will be showing ‘Ours Not Mine’ a documentary detailing the current situation as regards mining, at the Camel Rock in Scarborough, on 18 August. After the film we will have the opportunity to share ideas on how we can protect, interact and ‘interbe’ with our coastlines with experts from the field. Check out Protect the West Coast | Nature Conservation where you can also find the trailer for ‘Ours not Mine’.
The oceans need our help. Covering 71% of the planet, oceans are home to important species and ecosystems, and are crucial in the planet’s ability to regulate and maintain equilibrium. Of course, we rely on the health of the oceans for our own species’ to thrive –food and livelihoods, as well as climate regulation – but it’s time we stopped looking at the oceans from a humancentric perspective. The oceans are much more than purely somewhere to find resources humans need. These fragile ecosystems are deeply connected to all life. It’s up to each of us to recognise and honour the rights of the ocean to protection from the harmful actions undertaken by humans, and do all we can in our lives to support the oceans to return to health.