By Huey Ying Kok
Remember Blue Planet II? Yes, that documentary series showcasing the diverse life in the oceans, narrated by David Attenborough and featuring a dramatic yet calming soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. Well, you see, often, we realise and appreciate the beauty of nature, and are probably aware that our actions have been detrimental to the environment. However, we really do not know what exactly should be done to reduce our impact, without compromising the quality of our lives. Should we really stop driving? Can we really ban plastics? Is it feasible to not eat seafood at all?
“You and the planet: oceans” is part of a series delivered by The Royal Society. Joined by two biologists, Diva Amon and Richard Thompson; Jahawi Bertolli, a professional wildlife film-maker; and Angela Hatton, a representative from the management team at the National Oceanography Center, this discussion is held to make the public aware of the true extent of issues concerning the oceans, and to educate us on what we should and can do to help the oceans recover. Here, I summarise a few main points from the session.
What is the situation?
Undeniably, a major threat to the oceans, and marine life, is climate change. Excess heat and carbon dioxide produced on land are absorbed by water. This changes the chemical composition of the oceans, for example, increased concentration of carbon dioxide results in higher acidity. Ultimately, such changes lead to alteration in the abundance and distribution of marine species, and their interactions with one another. As an example, it is more difficult for corals and shellfish to form skeletons and shells in a highly acidic environment, which means that their populations decrease, leading to a downstream effect on the numbers of other species along the food chain.
Litter and debris pose another major problem in the oceans. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 80% of all marine litter and debris are plastics, and approximately 8 million tons of plastics end up in the oceans annually. Large pieces of plastics can be harmful to marine life. Images of sea turtles ingesting plastic bags, which resemble their food, or of small animals entangled in disposed fishing nets, are no stranger to us. Worse still, plastics in the ocean can break down into tiny particles known as microplastics, jeopardising the lives of marine animals in various ways. Once ingested, microplastics can accumulate in the stomachs of animals, resulting in the feeling of fullness, despite not eating sufficiently, and thus, cause malnutrition and starvation. Besides, the accumulation of microplastics on water surfaces prevents sunlight from penetrating the water, so plants and algae at the seabed are unable to photosynthesise and transfer energy to other organisms.
The third major issue is unregulated commercial fishing, which leads to overfishing. By catching too many sea creatures, they do not have sufficient time to recover their populations, and risk becoming endangered. For example, the bluefin tuna, which has a strong demand in parts of the world where high-end Japanese cuisine is prevalent, is currently listed as an endangered species due to overfishing. By causing species endangerment or extinction, overfishing may ultimately result in the collapse of ocean ecosystems. Besides, many fishing practices create large amounts of waste. For example, bottom trawling, which involves dragging a giant net along the seabed, catches many unwanted fish or other animals, which are then discarded. Whilst being disposed of, such creatures, often dead or injured, can damage coral reefs at the seabed. On another note, discarded fish and animals further contribute to species endangerment or extinction.
In relation to plastic pollution and overfishing, it really is almost impossible and non-feasible to ban plastics or to stop eating seafood at all. In some situations, plastics can be the best material to use. For example, plastic packaging keeps food fresh and hygienic, thus reducing food spoilage and wastage. Subsequently, seafood is one of our major protein sources. If all of us were to stop eating fish, how can we accommodate everyone’s needs without overwhelming other natural environments? Also, there are people whose livelihoods depend on fishing. So, what can we do? Wash and reuse plastic containers; eat responsibly caught or farmed fish. Essentially, the goal here is to strike a balance in our actions, not to go to either ends of the extremity.
Scientists play a major role in tackling all three issues. Taking plastic pollution as an example, scientists should design plastics as materials which can be reused or recycled cheaply and easily, not as convenient, disposable items. Currently, pigmented plastics are economically challenging to recycle, as it is difficult to change their colours, so these often end up in landfills. On another note, scientists are also responsible for conveying scientific knowledge to the general public. Technical concepts must be broken down into easily understood pieces of information, to persuade the people why they should do certain things, but not others, and why it is so important to protect the oceans. Through education, it is hoped that we, the general population, can make choices in our daily lives that are better for the environment, and more importantly, that we can lobby for changes, by pushing governments to impose regulations to protect the oceans.
When making decisions, governments must consider both cultural and scientific knowledge. Cultural values and indigenous perspectives should be incorporated, not belittled, because local communities, whose livelihoods depend on the oceans, have years of experience. On the other hand, evidence-backed science should also play a major role when making policy decisions and setting political agendas. On a greater scale, governments need to cooperate on an international level to achieve a common aim – to protect the oceans.
To finish off, the guest speakers of “You and the planet: oceans” highlighted that here on land, the oceans must not be kept out of sight, out of mind. The Earth is a system, which means that the land and the oceans are connected, and thus the decisions that we make on land can greatly influence life in the oceans. We are not the Earth’s ecosystem, we are a part of it, and yet our impact on the environment is massive, and largely negative. Now is the time for us to rethink and reconsider our decisions, while keeping in mind that going extreme is not the way out. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have shown that we are capable of adapting to changes, so we should be able to do the same in other situations. Most importantly, stay positive – together, we can, and we will, protect the oceans.
A recording of the event is available here.