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Restoring the Seas for the Sake of Life on Earth.

By September 1, 2021Editorial

Sailing for science—NOAA’s research vessel Henry Bigelow. Despite our urgent need to uncover the ocean’s secrets, on average a paltry 1.2 percent of national research budgets is allocated to understanding the marine environment. © NOAA.

Some months ago, I incurred the wrath of some friends and colleagues because of my enthusiastic support for Seaspiracya powerful documentary film cataloging the many and varied abuses the human species visits upon our oceans. There is much to admire in the film regarding what can only be described as the rape of the seas by the world’s fishing fleets, primarily by illegal, covert operators, but also, it must be said by unscrupulous operators within the fishing establishment. However, what disappointed many commentators was the filmmakers’ disregard for positive actions to curb the worst transgressions. Many N.G.Os, particularly those promoting the packaging labels intended to guide consumers towards sustainably caught options. They also stood accused of making misleading claims based on outdated, erroneous statistics and interviews taken out of context.

Most vehemently challenged has been Seaspiracy’s suggestion that we should stop eating fish altogether, at least until stocks recover. I thought this a rather good idea and got roundly chastised for saying so. Of course, a universal blanket ban on eating fish is neither practical nor sensible, nor would it by any measure be enforceable. I failed to convey sufficiently clearly that I never meant that everyone on the planet should stop eating fish, just those of us who have alternative protein options. This, too, was probably unrealistic, and I have since moderated my views. I still maintain, however, that for those of us privileged enough to have a choice, we should choose carefully, and only from fresh and frozen seafood products that, to the best of our knowledge, have been caught as sustainably as possible. We should, of course, also apply sustainable thinking to all food consumption, especially animal protein. I believe that Michael Pollan (Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at U.C. Berkeley) has the best advice on dietary behavior: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

In the developed world, responsible consumerism regarding marine foods is possible to a degree thanks to suitably labeled supermarket products and (usually N.G.O. introduced) guides as to the abundance and suitability of individual species. Here, for example, in my part of the world, we have an excellent advisory in the Southern Africa Sustainable Seafood Initiative (S.A.S.S.I.), developed and promoted by W.W.F. South Africa. It offers a green, orange, red signaling system of alerts conveniently packaged in a smartphone app, and I urge everyone to download and use it, especially in restaurants and seafood markets. And by everyone, I mean all South Africans as well as visitors to our shores (when, hopefully, one day fairly soon, the good nations of the North deem it safe for citizens to venture beyond their Covid-19 induced cordon sanitaire).

Addressing the generally parlous state of our oceans is no trivial matter. Yet, we tend to dismiss what is happening below the sea’s surface, probably because we can’t see what’s going on. A case of out of sight, out of mind, perhaps. But this doesn’t make sense. After all, oceans cover about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface—essentially, our continents are nothing but large islands in this vast, single body of saltwater. Even more astounding is that the oceans make up almost all of the biosphere. How so? N.A.S.A. oceanographer Gene Feldman explains it rather well: “Life on land exists in this thin layer that begins a few feet below the surface of the soil and extends up into the tops of the trees. But in the ocean, life is found all the way from the surface to the very bottom of the deepest part. The deepest part of the ocean is nearly seven-and-a-half miles down. Because of this, the oceans contain 99 percent of the living space on the planet.”

Yet, we know so little about this great room in our cosmic home. Indeed, there have been remarkable discoveries in recent decades, but our lack of knowledge about it and the secrets it holds has prompted the much-repeated aphorism that we know more about space than we do about the deep ocean. While this can’t possibly be true given the apparent infinity of the universe (not to mention the possibility of infinite universes), this hyperbole has a grain of truth to it. Consider that we’ve already sent more humans to the moon than to the deepest seabed. And, as Feldman remarks, “even with all the technology that we have today—satellites, buoys, underwater vehicles, and ship tracks—we have better maps of the surface of Mars and the moon than we do the bottom of the ocean.”

So, much of the world below the waves remains a mystery—more than 80 percent of the ocean has never been mapped, explored, or even seen by humans. It seems incredible that this is so, but again Feldman explains: “It’s really a hard place to work. In many ways, it’s easier to put a person into space than it is to send a person down to the bottom of the ocean. For one thing, the pressure exerted by the water above is enormous. It’s the equivalent of one person trying to support 50 jumbo jets. It’s also dark and cold. Unlike space where you can see forever, once you’re down in the ocean, you can’t see anything because your light can’t shine very far. It’s a challenging place to study.”

Of course, until very recently our ignorance of the ocean hasn’t given us any pause to slow down and consider the appalling devastation we have wrought (and continue to wreak) on the marine environment. This great reservoir continuously exchanges heat, moisture, and carbon with the atmosphere, driving our global climate in ways that should be measured and almost unnoticed. Instead, our blundering, careless, man-induced stress on ocean systems and life is having an alarmingly fast perturbing effect on our weather, and of course, our food.

Despite the critical importance of continuing marine science and the heroic attempts of marine biologists like Feldman,  Sylvia EarleGeorge BranchTerry Hughes, and the regiments of scientists like them, not to mention institutions like Wood’s HoleScripps, and NOAA, the ocean sciences are shockingly underfunded and neglected. On average, only 1.2 percent of national research budgets are allocated to their pursuit. Given we know with certainty that the great drivers of ocean destruction include plastic pollution, fishery collapse, acidification, eutrophication, and ocean warming, this shortcoming is unforgivable.

We cannot escape the fact that we have many mouths to feed on this planet, and it is an escalating challenge. As I write, the world population clock is climbing beyond 7.8 billion souls, and this time tomorrow, the netting of global births against deaths will have added another 230,000 or so. Looked at another way, by this time next year, more than 80 million citizens will have been added to Earth’s burden. That’s a population the size of Germany’s, all to house, clothe, care for, educate, and feed. What’s more, 38 percent of them, over three billion, rely on wild-caught and farmed seafood as a primary source of protein. No surprise then, when you add the fish consumed by the rest of the world living inland, that the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (F.A.O.) estimates that 85 percent of marine fish stocks are either fully exploited or overfished. Of the 600 marine fish stocks monitored by the F.A.O., only three percent are underexploited, with a mere one percent recovering from exploitation. On top of these frightening statistics, many fishing fleets throw away more fish than they keep. Hard to believe but true. This discarded haul of “non-target” species—known as bycatch—places a massive additional burden on fish stocks. And while aquaculture has helped to mitigate seafood consumption, on balance, it isn’t always beneficial as pollution from poorly managed and unsustainable seafood farms have caused the deterioration of coastal habitats, lakes, and rivers.

So while our attempts to reach some sort of sustainable relationship with the oceans are laudable and have to be encouraged, let’s not kid ourselves that we’re doing well. We’re not. The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG14) focuses on the ocean, its objective being to: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” But, in 2020, the Secretary-General summarized progress towards SDG14, as follows: “Oceans and fisheries continue to support the global population’s economic, social and environmental needs, while suffering unsustainable depletion, environmental deterioration and CO2 saturation and acidification. Current efforts to protect key marine environments, small-scale fishers and invest in ocean science are not yet meeting the urgent needs to protect this vast, fragile resource.” Not exactly a glowing report card.

We can’t abandon the SDGs. As elusive as they are, we need to achieve them with ever-growing urgency, but they have to be backed up, as in all matters to do with the environment, with global laws, and even more importantly, the capacity and will to enforce them. There have to be serious consequences for offenders, whether they be private companies or governments. And there has to be acceptance of maritime laws by all members of the U.N. without exception. If just one nation cocks a snook at a treaty, everyone fails. And if one of the major and most powerful nations in the world shows two fingers to the rest of us, the consequence spells disaster for all.

I wish this didn’t always raise the specter of China, but it does. The Asian giant is not the only offender, not by a long chalk, but it has the dubious distinction of heading the list of the top ten worst performing countries on the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (I.U.U.) Fishing Index. With its weak and pliable governments and minimal offshore patrolling presence, Africa is particularly vulnerable to exploitation of its territorial waters. A recent article by Mongabay on dubious fishing activity along Madagascar’s east coast provides a good example.

As with most African coastal countries, artisanal fishing is a way of life for the communities dotting the island nation’s shores. But beyond the horizon, the exploitation of Madagascar’s marine resources takes place on an industrial scale, especially during the tuna season. For decades it has been thus, and now China has entered the stage according to OceanMind, a U.K.-based not-for-profit specializing in marine compliance and fisheries management. Sadly, it seems that Madagascar’s government has been compliant in this, and though there has been no evidence of corruption, the authorization process was not public, raising renewed concerns about the lack of transparency in Madagascar’s offshore fishing sector. This is particularly so given the country’s irregular fisheries deals with Chinese-backed firms in recent years and a long history of opaque dealing with fleets from other Asian countries and the E.U.

Such exploitative and unsustainable I.U.U. activities have to be stopped. And along with them, the ridiculous system of subsidizing national fleets to the tune of  $41.4 billion a year, some 58 percent of which comes from just five countries: China, the E.U., the U.S.A., the Republic of Korea, and Japan.

But how and when? In the meantime, the rape of the oceans continues to the detriment of its ecological integrity, global climate, and the life and livelihood of billions of coastal-dwelling people.