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Saving The Sea


new internationalist
issue 234 - August 1992

The timeless ebb and flow of the sea: an ancient, elemental force and the source of life.

Saving the sea
Garden, highway, supermarket, playground, garbage dump:
the sea is all of these - and more. Wayne Ellwood surveys the state
of the world's oceans and asks what can be done to save them.

Rachel Carson

Our shadows lengthened in the late afternoon sun as Noel Abulag steered his banca around a green point of land to the windward side of the island. The South China Sea lay in front of us. Behind, a half kilometre or so, lay San Salvador, a small fishing island off the west coast of Luzon in the Philippines.

Noel suddenly killed the engine and the out-rigger sloshed to a crawl. 'This is our fish sanctuary,' Noel said, his arm describing a wide arc. I took his word for it since the choppy waves looked no different than the ones we'd been sluicing through for the past 20 minutes. I fixed my mask and snorkel, squeezed on my flippers and fell backwards into the warm water.

When the bubbles cleared I could see the reef below was teeming with life: orange and white clown fish, black sea urchins, yellow butterfly fish and brilliant red starfish. Huge coral heads reared up from the bottom, hundreds of small fish darting in and out of the crannies and crevices. A lionfish, delicate fins undulating like veils, danced along the reef edge.

Coral reefs like this one are 5,000 to 10,000 years old, though in the lifespan of the sea they are relative newcomers. The sea, in one form or another, has been around since the beginning - an ancient elemental force and the mother of all life. The first fossilized sea creatures are more than 500 million years old; the sea was a pulsing source of life hundreds of millions of years before our first human ancestors made their appearance.

Today the timeless ebb and flow of the sea continues but the sea itself is changing. In the last 50 years we have begun to poison that salty womb and exterminate marine life with such efficiency that oceans around the world are under threat. No-one knows for certain what this might mean, for ourselves or for the future of the planet.

Later that evening, squatting beside his tidy, seaside hut, Noel explained how things have changed on San Salvador since a fish sanctuary was established in 1988. 'There are more fish all the time now, and not just in the sanctuary. They have spread from here all around the island. Before, everyone used destructive fishing methods,' he says. 'Aquarium fish gatherers like myself used to squirt sodium cyanide into the corals to catch our fish. People fishing for food used dynamite.'

The effect of the blast-fishing and cyanide on the corals was disastrous. The once-thriving reef was fast becoming a graveyard of broken, dead and shattered corals. And, as the reef died, the fish began to disappear. That's when the idea of a fish sanctuary was first raised, sparked by the success of a similar experiment at Apo Island in the central Philippines.

On the island of San Salvador a local non-governmental organization, the Haribon Foundation, took the lead, attempting a mix of grassroots organizing and environmental education. It took two years of determined work by Haribon community organizers to convince the islanders to accept the plan.

According to Alex Ansula, a Haribon staff member who worked on the original Apo Island scheme, this stage of building up community trust is critical. 'But it is slow, painstaking work,' he admits. 'We assign workers for at least two years and it can take months just to be accepted into the community. Initially people are suspicious, they look to us for handouts just like we were the Government.

But the determination has paid off - the islanders now understand the value of protecting their reef. The 2.2-square-kilometre sanctuary is the heart of the scheme: all fishing is prohibited within the area and local people make sure of that by taking turns standing watch against intruders. Outside the sanctuary a two-kilometre-wide 'marine reserve' rings the island; only traditional fishing gear is allowed there - no cyanide, no dynamite.

The sanctuary acts as a nursery, allowing fish, crabs, squid and other kinds of marine life to reproduce and slowly spread to the reserve. The 1,800 residents of San Salvador have a steady supply of fish and more secure incomes. Even the tasty and highly prized lapu-lapu is beginning to make a comeback. 'It's a lot better now,' says Guillermo Elorde, who started fishing with his father when he was seven. 'Before there was overfishing with small-mesh nets catching everything; now, with legal gear and the sanctuary as a breeding ground, the supply of fish is more constant.

Coral reefs are one of nature's most spectacular creations. They have been called the tropical rainforests of the sea because of the myriad species that thrive there: more than 2,000 kinds of fish breed and live in reefs, about a third of all fish species.1 And they are extremely productive. Reefs in the Philippines produce four times as many fish for their area as the commercial trawl fisheries along the coast.

But the Philippines is not the only country where coral reefs are in danger: dynamite fishing on reefs is a serious problem in over 40 Third World countries.

Daniel Pauly of the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resource Management (ICLARM) in Manila says blast-fishing is symptomatic of what he calls 'Malthusian overfishing'. The basic problem is that there are too many people trying to make a living from the sea: 'Half the farmers in South-East Asia are landless. When their luck goes bad they drift to the coast.' The use of destructive fishing techniques, he argues, is a logical response to lower catches and lower incomes. Dynamite and cyanide destroy the environment and the fishery in the long run, but in the short term they may help put food on the table. 'Everyone comes to the coast and expects the sea to sustain them,' says Pauly.

This naive notion that the sea is infinitely exploitable is common the world over. Partly it springs from the sheer size of the world's oceans. Salt water covers more than 70 per cent of the planet and in some areas the ocean is more than 15 kilometres deep. The Pacific, the world's largest ocean, covers 165 million square kilometres, nearly five times the size of the African continent.2

Not only does the sea appear limitless, it is also seen as common property, owned by no-one and open to all. It's the familiar 'tragedy of the commons' - a free-for-all where everyone wants the booty but no-one can claim ownership or control. The UN Law of the Sea, passed in 1982 by 150 countries, was a rare attempt by the international community to take responsibility for one part of the global commons. But that has foundered on the greed of Western nations who balk at the idea of a multilateral agency regulating private corporations interested in mining the seabed. So far the Law of the Sea remains well-intentioned rhetoric; only 50 of the 60 nations needed to formally ratify the document have done so. Not a single Western industrial country has approved it.

As a result there are few barriers to the harmful antics of humankind. Almost everything we do on land sooner or later has an impact on the ocean - and on coastal waters in particular.

More than 90 per cent of the world's marine fish catch reproduces in coastal wetlands.3 The coastal sea is critical to the health of the marine environment. Swamps, shallow bays and estuaries, mangrove stands and sea grass beds supply both food and shelter to young fry.

Yet it is here where our destructive habits are felt most acutely. Swamps are drained and mangroves hacked down. Industrial poisons and mine tailings are routinely dumped into our rivers; human sewage is flushed into our harbours; pesticides and other agro-chemicals wash off our farmlands and denuded watersheds. Once-pristine beaches and sheltered coves are paved with plastic and fouled by oil - the durable detritus of consumer society.

The major industrial nations in 1990 produced over 9 billion tons of solid waste, including 300 million tons of hazardous waste, much of which ended up in the sea. More than two million tons of liquid chemical waste is poured into the North Sea alone every year.4

In the span of a few decades the ancient boundless sea that has challenged seafaring people for generations has been turned into a rank sewer. And the creatures that live there are reeling under the assault. Inshore waters the world over are badly polluted, shellfish like scallops and mussels are tainted with deadly heavy metals; crabs and fish laced with DDT and PCBs are disturbingly common. Marine mammals like dolphins, whales and seals wash ashore in mysterious 'die-offs', their bodies riddled with chemical poisons. Beluga whales in the St Lawrence estuary have been found with PCB levels high enough to qualify them as toxic waste under Canadian law. And toxic contaminants have been measured in the tissues of deep-sea fishes.5

The deluded attitude that the sea's resources are infinitely exploitable applies as much to the modern industrial fishery as it does to fisherfolk in the Philippines or Bangladesh.

Since the 1950s the global ocean fish catch has soared, sparked by vastly more efficient fishing gear. Today huge factory trawlers methodically criss-cross the world's oceans, from the Bering Sea to the Indian Ocean. Computerized fish-finding technology is so advanced that the fish don't stand a chance. Hundreds of these vessels, some as long as a football field, drag the ocean floor, hauling in as much as a quarter million kilograms of fish a day.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace accuse these deadly factory trawlers of 'clear-cutting' the oceans, relentlessly harvesting tons of fish with no thought for tomorrow. ICLARM's Daniel Pauly agrees: 'It's essentially a hunt for wild animals. Why should we expect that bigger and better guns will generate more game? It just doesn't work that way.'

There is now clear evidence of over-fishing in the world's major fisheries, from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to the coast of Peru. Over the past 20 years, 9 of the 12 major groundfish species in the North Atlantic have been hunted into near-extinction. High-priced fish like tuna, which may fetch hundreds of dollars each in Tokyo, are doomed. In a world where the worth of the natural world is measured in cold cash they are just too valuable to live. Even the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), not known for alarmist warnings, says fish stocks are on the edge of collapse.

Yet despite all this efficient technology, factory fishing is extremely wasteful. Millions of tons of unwanted fish are swept up in the huge trawl nets; in most cases they're sorted out and thrown overboard - dead. The Alaskan pollock fishery dumps an estimated 300 million kilos of halibut, salmon and crabs back into the sea during the fishing season. In the North Sea this 'by-catch', as it's known, is more than twice the weight of fish brought to market.6

These massive trawlers also scour the sea floor, demolishing spawning grounds and levelling the habitat of bottom- dwelling creatures like sea anemones, mussels, clams, sponges and seaweeds.

Walls of death
But trawlers are not the only threat to this vital global protein supply. Driftnet fleets have also spread across the world's oceans over the last 20 years. The Taiwanese and the Japanese are the greatest offenders. These light, nylon nets up to 100 kilometres in length, equipped with radio buoys, are known as 'walls of death'. Although they target tuna and squid, millions of other sea creatures - including turtles, seabirds, sharks and porpoises - also become tangled in the nets. Despite a UN resolution calling for a moratorium on driftnetting only a few nations (Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, the US and Canada) have taken action, banning driftnets in their national waters. According to the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency, Taiwanese driftnetters continue to operate with impunity - there are more than 130 such vessels in the Indian Ocean alone.

The pillaging of global fish stocks has been boosted by inequalities in the world economy. Debt-ravaged Third World nations have been told to export their way out of trouble and many have turned to their marine resources, encouraged by international lending agencies like the IMF and, until 1984, the FAO itself. From 1984 to 1987 fish exports from protein-deficient poor countries increased by nearly 400 per cent. Six of the top eleven fish-harvesting nations are now Third World nations. One of the supreme ironies of this upsurge in exports is that as much as a quarter of the catch is turned into fishmeal and fed to chicken, pigs and cattle in the West.

About a third of the world's population lives within 60 kilometres of the sea and millions more are expected to pack coastal areas over the next decade. They come for a variety of reasons: some are driven from the land by poverty, war or famine. Others come for recreation, to breathe the salt air or, simply, to be close to the raw energy of the natural world.

No matter what the reason, by sheer force of numbers we are changing the sea - perhaps forever. Yet for most of us, marine biologists and oceanographers included, the ocean is a complex and unknown realm of mystery. Until the 1970s, for example, the deep sea floor was thought to be a black and silent void of few species. Yet scientists now believe that deep-sea species diversity may rival tropical rainforests. Little is known about ocean currents, how they work and what their impact on global weather patterns may be. And fishery experts admit to knowing little about the life cycle of critical food fishes like the northern cod.

Phytoplankton shock
The scale of our ignorance is illustrated by recent revelations about the thinning ozone over the Antarctic. There is growing scientific evidence that increased ultraviolet radiation will dramatically limit the growth of phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean. Phytoplankton are microscopic plants which synthesize nutrients from the ocean. They produce 80 per cent of the world's oxygen and provide the basic food stock upon on which all marine life ultimately depends. A steep decline in phytoplankton production could send shock waves through the food chain, with a potentially disastrous impact on fishes, birds, whales - and inevitably on ourselves.7

There is a lesson in all this: the marine environment, like the terrestrial environment, is vastly more complicated than we had ever imagined. The sea, the ancient symbol of timelessness, continuity and fecundity, is being overwhelmed by the breathtaking pace of modern life. Space-age technology, Third World poverty and old-fashioned greed have suddenly combined to form the first serious threat to the oceans since creation.

It's not too late to do something about it, but it is an uphill battle. The trick will be to convince political leaders that the needs of the environment are not those of the bottom line. That could be a tall order given the international climate in favour of free trade and open markets.

But giving the sea the benefit of the doubt at all times would be a start. Like the fisher-folk of San Salvador Island we can learn to protect and steward our marine resources for the future; or we can plunder them now and face the consequences. You don't have to be Neptune to see that living in harmony with sea is the only real choice we have.

1 Our Common Seas, D Hinrichsen, Earthscan/UNEP, 1990
2 The Mysterious Oceans, J Erickson, Tab Books, 1988
3 World Resources, 1992/93, World Resources Institute, Oxford University Press, 1992
4 Ambio Journal, May, 1991
5 The Living Ocean, B Thorne-Miller and J Catena, Friends of the Earth/Island Press, 1991
6 Sea Wind, Ocean Voice International, April-June, 1991
7 The Potential Impact of Ultraviolet-B Radiation on the Antarctic Marine Ecosystem, Environmental Investigation Agency, June, 1992.


Guns'n' hunger
The world's mangroves are vanishing an abstract notion to us but a matter
of life and death to the people of St Helena, in the Philippines.

photo by WAYNE ELLWOOD Only two years ago this whole area was covered with mangroves.' says Benjamin Herrera, pointing towards two huge, rectangular fishponds glinting in the midday sun. 'We used to catch lots of crabs here, big ones. But no more - now we can hardly find enough to feed our families.'

Benjamin lives in the seaside barangay(village) of St Helena in Bataan province, on the northern edge of Manila Bay in the Philippines. The small, one-and two-room houses in the community are neatly laid out along narrow dirt tracks. Occasionally there is a house built of concrete blocks with a corrugated Iron roof - the mark of a family with a father, daughter, or son working abroad.

'That's everyone's dream here,' admits Francisco Liada. 'We know there is no future in fishing. We pray one of our children may be lucky enough to go to Saudi Arabia or Singapore and get a job as a labourer or a nanny.'

Things were a lot better before local entrepreneur. All redo Pangelinan decided to move in and cut down several hectares of mangrove forest that bordered St Helena. 'The fishing was better then and we could always catch crabs,' says Francisco. 'Sometimes we could make $10 or $15 a day from the crabs. Now most of us don't even make $25 a month.'

Mangrove trees are uniquely adapted to grow in salt water and the coastal wetlands they form throughout the Third World are the heart of tropical manne ecosystems. The trees form swamps which act as nurseries for hundreds of fish species, crustaceans and marine plants and as filters for sediments washed down from the land. The trees also buffer the eroding effects of huge waves and protect coastal dwellers from life-threatening typhoons.

The destruction of coastal mangroves in St Helena has been repeated throughout the Philippines and indeed throughout Asia. In the Philippines more than 500,000 hectares of rnangroves have been reduced to less than 40,000 hectares today. Most of the trees have been cut to make salt-water fishponds - exactly as Aifredo Pangelinan has done in St Helena. The mangroves are removed, steeply banked ponds dug by hand and sea water pumped in to fill them. The ponds are usually handful of workers are needed to run the operations - a five-hectare prawn farm requires Just three workers.

The big losers are the subsistence fishing communities along the coast whose livelihoods depend on the sea. Around 70 per cent of those who make a living from fishing in the Philippines are what are called small-scale 'fisherfolk'. For them the spread of fish farming over the last decade has been both an ecological and a human disaster.

Bowing to environmentalists and their own Fisheries Department the Philippine Government banned the clearing of mangroves several years ago. But prosecutions of offenders never seem to get very far in the country's flexible legal system.

When community leaders in St Helena complained that the mangroves near their village had been cut illegally from government-owned land they were quietly ignored by officials from the Department of Natural Resources. Shortly afterwards the local barangay captain was gunned down. Then Benjamin Kerrera, an activist in the small fisherfolk's association, says he was abducted by Alfredo Pangelinan's brother and grilled for two hours. 'Now we are very careful when we have to leave the village,' admits Benjamin. 'We never walk in the dark by ourselves.'

With the aid of the Haribon Foundation, a local non-government organization, the fisher-folk of St Helena are challenging Mr Pangelinan in the courts, hoping to see the day when they can fill in the fishponds and replant their mangroves. But it's not going to be an easy battle. Nothing ever is in the corruption-riddled Philippines.

'The case is going ahead', says Benjamin Herrera, 'but we are nervous. Now government officials tell us we should never have gone to Haribon In the first place, they tell us we are just troublemakers.'

Wayne Ellwood

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New Internationalist issue 234 magazine cover This article is from the August 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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