The Accelerating Decline of World Oceans: Why It Matters for the Middle East
July 01, 2011
At a time when Arab media attention was focused on extended wars, failed states, and austerity measures, a recent report on the world’s oceans failed to gain considerable attention in the region. The news that the marine environment is in danger is not new, and may seem irrelevant to this part of the world. However, the report should raise global concerns as new findings show that urgent action is needed to avoid a “catastrophe unprecedented in human history”.
The alarmist statements of the report, released by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), met with objections from some climate change cynics.
But while some of the language may appear extreme, there is now solid scientific evidence that the seas are degenerating faster than ever before.
The combined effect of a number of factors, ranging from climate warming and sea-water acidification, to marine pollution and overfishing, is seen as responsible for the accelerating decline of the world’s largest ecosystem and its species, from large fish at one end of the scale to tiny corals at the other.
The waters of the Middle East are vulnerable
The seas surrounding the Middle East are very different. The Persian Gulf is a shallow semi-enclosed sea with little in common with the Red Sea or the Mediterranean, but the human impact on our waters has been substantial everywhere.
As Green Prophet has been reporting, pollution, over/unsustainable fishing, and remains from desalination plants are widespread and largely unregulated.
Examples abound, but some of the latest indications of things gone wrong:
- According to latest estimates, nearly two-thirds of the coral reefs in the Middle East region are at risk from local threats such as coastal development, overfishing/destructive fishing, marine-based pollution, and/or watershed-based pollution. The hardest hit is the Persian Gulf, where more than 85 percent of reefs are considered threatened, while the figure for the Red Sea is just over 60 percent.
- Oil pollution remains the greatest threat to the marine environment of the Persian Gulf. The movement of 40 percent of the worlds’ total oil through these waters creates harmful discharges and contaminated ballast water from oil tankers and oil related industries, causing considerable damage to water quality and marine species. Estimates of the spillage are difficult to confirm, but controls and regulations are limited and no international requirement exits to address the regular daily pollution by oil tankers. Meanwhile land-based sources of pollution from the population growth and rapid urbanization (including desalination plans that create problems from the return of warm, highly saline waters with chemicals) exacerbate the problem.
- In Lebanon, a combination of over-fishing, pollution and dynamite/blast/spear fishing have had a devastating and irreversible effect on the Lebanese coast and fish species. Sewage is also dumped at sea along with industrial waste. Where once fish was an abundant food for communities on the coast, fishermen are now struggling for a catch while endangered turtles are dying each year by eating plastic bags that look like their jelly fish prey.
- Although there is a lack on information on the extent of the problem, foreign fishing vessels in neighboring international waters often use unsustainable fishing methods and destroy the living resources that local fishing communities also depend on. Japanese, Chinese, South Korean, Spanish, and Italians have reportedly done their fair share of illegal fishing in the Mediterranean, mainly targeting the large, sleek torpedo-shaped Bluefin. Meanwhile, Thailand, with one of the world’s largest fishing fleets, is trying to partner with countries in the region looking for access to the regions’ fish stocks. While fish stocks deplete worldwide, there is an absence of collaborative effort from the region for enforcing sustainable fishing methods, vessel monitoring systems and addressing illegal fishing issues in neighboring international waters.
New marine threats?
Although these are old and recurring problems, taken together they are presenting new threats with new forms of toxic chemicals and marine litter. But the concern goes beyond less fish to eat, not being able to swim in the sea, or community livelihoods.
In a recent commentary, Sylvia Earle from National Geographic, highlighted that the greatest concern lies in the effect of damaging the ocean ecosystems, which represents our “life-support system”.
According to her, ‘if the sea is in trouble, we are in touble” as oceans play a big role as photosynthetic organisms in the sea yield most of the oxygen in the atmosphere, taking up and storing carbon dioxide.
As this Arab generation rises from complacency to activism, any new responsible government should be required to address effective management of the sea.
Studies show that over fishing is the easiest for governments to reverse by policy change, but technical solutions for the other these problems exist. What is missing is commitment and strong enforceable legislation to address the multiple threats, mostly caused by humans and now coming together to undermine the sustainability of our waters.