By Baher Kamal
MADRID, Jun 7 2022 – Imagine a patient connected to a vital oxygen device to keep him or her breathing, thus alive. Then, imagine what would happen if this patient unplugged it. This is exactly what humans have been doing with the source of at least 50% of the whole Planet’s oxygen: the oceans.
But oceans do not only provide half of all the oxygen needed. They also absorb about 30% of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming while alleviating its consequences on human health and that of all natural resources.
The carbon — and heat– sink
The world’s oceans capture 90% of the additional heat generated from those emissions.
In short, they are not just ‘the lungs of the planet’ but also its largest carbon sink.
The ocean is the main source of protein for more than a billion people around the world.
And over three billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods, the vast majority in developing countries.
Oceans also serve as the foundation for much of the world’s economy, supporting sectors from tourism to fisheries to international shipping.
Despite being the life source that supports humanity’s sustenance and that of every other organism on Earth, oceans are facing unprecedented real threats as a result of human activity.
This report is also based on data from several specialised organisations, such as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), among others, as well as a number of global conservation bodies, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Too many causes. And a major one
Oceans as dumping sites: There are several major threats leading to suffocating the world’s lungs.
Such is the case –for example, of overfishing, illegal fishing and ghost fishing–, human activities have been transforming world’s oceans into a giant dumping site: untreated wastewater; poisonous chemicals; electronic waste; oil spills, petrol leaks, oil refineries near rivers and coastal areas, ballast waters, invasive species, and a very long etcetera.
Of all these, plastic appears as one of the major sources of harm to oceans. See the following data:
As much as 75 to 199 million tons of plastic are currently found in our oceans.
Unless the world changes the way how to produce, use and dispose of plastic, the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems could nearly triple from 9-14 million tonnes per year in 2016 to a projected 23-37 million tonnes per year by 2040.
How does it get there? A lot of it comes from the world’s rivers, which serve as direct conduits of trash into lakes and the ocean.
In fact, around 1.000 rivers are accountable for nearly 80% of global annual riverine plastic emissions into the ocean, which range between 0.8 and 2.7 million tons per year, with small urban rivers amongst the most polluting.
Plastic everywhere: Wherever you look and whatever you see, buy and use, there is plastic: food wrappers, plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic grocery bags, plastic straws, stirrers, cosmetics, lunch boxes, ballpoints, and thousands of other products.
Cigarette butts: Then you have the case of cigarette butts, whose filters contain tiny plastic fibres, being the most common type of plastic waste found in the environment.
Today, the world produces about 400 million tons of plastic waste … every year.
Plastic addiction: Such human dependence on plastic has been steadily increasing. Since the 1970s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. If historic growth trends continue, global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1.100 million tonnes by 2050.
“Our seas are choking with plastic waste, which can be found from the remotest atolls to the deepest ocean trenches,” reminds the United Nations chief António Guterres.
Fossil fuel: As importantly, some 98% of single-use plastic products are produced from fossil fuel, or “virgin” feedstock. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to 19% of the global carbon budget by 2040.
Mare Nostrum: This small, semi-closed sea –the Mediterranean is considered as one of the most affected regional seas by marine litter.
In fact, the annual plastic leakage is estimated at 229.000 tons, 94% of which consist of macroplastics. Plastics constitute around 95% of waste in the open sea, both on the seabed and on beaches across the Mediterranean.
COVID-19: The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) February 2022 publication: Global Plastics Outlook reports that the increase in the use of protective personal equipment and single-use plastics has exacerbated plastic littering on land and in marine environments, with negative environmental consequences.
Rivers: The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that, flowing through America’s heartland, the Mississippi River drains 40% of the continental United States – creating a conduit for litter to reach the Gulf of Mexico, and ultimately, the ocean.
Electronic waste: should all this not be enough, please also know that the world produces 50 million tons of e-waste, a portion of it ends up in the ocean.
Fishing gear accounts for roughly 10% of that debris: between 500.000 to 1 million tons of fishing gear are discarded or lost in the ocean every year. Discarded nets, lines, and ropes now make up about 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Alexander Nicolas explains.
This marine plastic has a name: ghost fishing gear.
“Ghost fishing gear includes any abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear, much of which often goes unseen.
“Ghost fishing gear is the deadliest form of marine plastic as it un-selectively catches wildlife, entangling marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles, and sharks, subjecting them to a slow and painful death through exhaustion and suffocation. Ghost fishing gear also damages critical marine habitats such as coral reefs.”
Overfishing is yet another major damage caused to the world’s oceans threatening the stability of fish stocks; nutrient pollution is contributing to the creation of “dead zones.”
Currently, 90% of big fish populations have been depleted, as humans are taking more from the ocean than can be replenished.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing: A fugitive activity that further adds to the abusive overfishing, causing the depletion of 11–26 million tons of fish… each year.
IPS article The Big Theft of the Fish provides extensive information about these two major activities that deplete the oceans vital natural resources.
Untreated wastewater is another example of the damage made by humans to the oceans.
It has been reported that around 80% of the world’s wastewater is discharged without treatment, a big portion of it ends up in the oceans.
The oceans in a conference
All the above facts –and many more– are on the agenda of the United Nations Ocean Conference 2022 (27 June- 1 July), organised in Lisbon and co-hosted by the Governments of Kenya and Portugal.
According to its organisers, the Conference seeks to propel much needed science-based innovative solutions aimed at starting a new chapter of global ocean action. Cross your fingers!