Protecting Our Oceans | Daily News

Protecting Our Oceans

We know more about the far side of the Moon than we know about the oceans on Earth. This is a fact. The oceans cover 75 percent of our planet yet we still know very little about them. Only about 5 percent of the Earth’s oceans have been studied in-depth – literally. The oceans are teeming with life (millions of marine species are yet to be identified) and other biological, chemical, medicinal and mineral resources. The study of oceans is a complex and extensive subject, encompassing everything from marine biology to marine archeology. If Space is the Next Frontier, the Ocean is the Frontier Within.

Today, there is renewed interest in Sri Lanka in the ocean as a result of the X-Press Pearl disaster off the coast of Colombo, which is believed to have decimated marine life in a large swathe of the sea. Some scientists believe that it will take 100 years or more to restore this marine ecosystem to its former glory. Apart from that, fishermen in the area and beyond have lost their livelihoods and it will be months before they can fish these seas again. This once again shows the intricate link between the ocean and our lives and livelihoods.

This tallies with this year’s theme of World Ocean Day, which falls today – Life and Livelihoods. As the ocean is the home to most of the Earth’s biodiversity, it provides a main source of protein (fish) for billions of people around the world. The ocean is the key to our economy, with an estimated 40 million people around the world being employed by ocean-based industries by 2030. With the possible extinction of 90% of big fish populations and 50% of coral reefs already destroyed, we are exploiting the ocean more than it can be replenished.

This factor will be even more important in the future, especially in the context of the Climate Crisis. The study of oceans is more crucial for Small Island Developing States such as ours, whose coastal communities already face the threat of slowly, but surely, rising sea levels caused by Global Warming. Equally importantly, Sri Lanka has access to a sea area, in the form of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), that is 23 times its land area (65,610 Sq km). If that were a country, it would almost match land-locked Mongolia. In the global scheme of things, the disadvantage we have in the lack of a large landmass hinterland (compared with bigger nations) can be offset by this large EEZ.

The ocean is crucial to our island eco-system, economy, national security and individual livelihoods. While our coastal waters need protection from the trafficking of things in and out of the country, it is the vast deep sea EEZ that needs both protection from illegal foreign exploitation of our oceanic resources and the careful exploitation of these many resources for our benefit. We also have to learn how to protect our surrounding ocean from global pollution as well as our own deadly infusion of pollutants into the sea. Sri Lanka has been ranked in the top 10 marine plastic polluting countries. Microplastics in the ocean are one of the biggest threats faced by marine life.

Meanwhile, many powerful countries and businesses are already homing in on the oceans as the next frontier for mining of rare minerals including copper, nickel, silver, platinum, gold, and yes, even gemstones. Robotic machines now being developed can literally sweep and scoop up the seafloor to extract minerals and materials. It is projected to become a US$ 15 billion industry by 2030.

A secretive organisation known as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is expected to regulate the industry, but there is no guarantee that such laws and regulations will be adhered to by the companies or countries involved. In our case, the Ocean University of Sri Lanka must take the lead in identifying and protecting our ocean resources in the face of these new developments. More students must be given an opportunity to study in this institution with the aim of creating a generation of Sri Lankan scientists who will learn more about our oceans and protect its fast depleting resources.

In fact, the overexploitation of ocean resources is a major problem for all ocean-based economies. Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is one of the biggest threats faced by marine ecosystems the world over. IUU fishing represents up to 26 million tonnes of fish caught annually all over the world. IUU fishing occurs on the high seas and in other areas within national jurisdiction, especially effecting coastal rural populations in vulnerable areas. To highlight the enormity of the problem, the UN proclaimed June 5 as the International Day for the Fight against IUU Fishing. Coincidentally, this also happens to be World Environment Day.

To protect and preserve the ocean and all it sustains, we must create a new balance, rooted in a true understanding of the ocean and how humanity relates to it. We must build a connection to the ocean that is inclusive, innovative, and useful for the ocean and the life inside it.