The sea sings out for its singular subjects:
Arching whales that wave from their waves,
Turtles that teeter down their shining shores,
Coral reefs shining brightly as cities.
The sea sings out its suffering,
Knowing too much of waste, screeching sounds
And pernicious poison, its depths bruised by
Atrocities in the Atlantic,
Misery in the Mediterranean,
Its tides the preservers of time past.”
–Amanda Gorman, from “Ode to Our Ocean”
This morning comes dismal news that a fifth round of UN talks to reach agreement on a treaty to protect and manage our highly vulnerable oceans has stalled once again. No further discussions are scheduled.
The proposed treaty would protect 30% of the high seas lying 200 nautical miles off national jurisdictions and a legal means to enforcement.
Since the seas don’t belong to anyone, this apparently gives nations license to plunder and trash, imperiling biodiversity and, ultimately, fisheries on which a growing population will increasingly depend.
The seas, supplying 50% of the oxygen we breathe, home to the majority of earth’s biodiversity, is languishing, and humans are the source. 90% of big fish populations are depleted; 50% of coral reefs, formerly harboring abundant marine life, gone.
Let me give you just one stark example of human dereliction fouling our seas. There are many others:
Located halfway between California and Hawaii, there lies the drifting human debris known as the Pacific Garbage Vortex, its estimated size twice that of Australia. It doesn’t exist as a single entity, but rather as a vast garbage soup, much of it just below the surface, coagulating in ocean currents as a defiantly boundless repository of ship castoffs and swept-up coastal discharge, the vast majority of it plastic substances.
Reliable aerial and trawl estimates (2015-16) inform us that 1.8 trillion plastic pieces are floating in the patch, equivalent to 250 pieces of debris for every human in the world. That was six years ago. Currently, 1.15-2.41 million metric tons of plastic are added each year (theoceancleanup.com),
Plastic infiltration of our oceans poses an immense menace to sea life. The International Union for Conservation of nature (IUCN) reports that 700 marine species have encountered sea debris, 17% of them endangered species, among them, seals, dolphins, and sea turtles entangled in abandoned fishing nets. Many sea creatures mistake the plastics for food, imperiling themselves and their offspring.
Collectively, these plastics block sunlight to the plankton and algae below, which are the primary feed resources of fish and turtles. Ultimately, this has consequences for predators like sharks, seals and whales. A world without whales? Our grandchildren reduced to viewing photographs?
Bad as all this is, the Pacific Garbage Vortex isn’t an isolated phenomenon. It’s simply the biggest. Located in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, these vortexes manifest humanity’s global trashing of the ocean:
Is there any hope at all? Only if we reduce our use of plastics, a formidable challenge in an economy built on their low costs, or adopt biodegradable alternatives that are no easy sell. It’s simply cheaper to rely on plastics, a carbon-containing product present in the clothes we wear, our computers, laundry detergent, and even our children’s toys, ad infinitum. Plastics tend to ultimately find their way into landfills. And yes, into our oceans.
Greenpeace laments that “failure to deliver a treaty at these talks jeopardises the livelihoods and food security of billions of people around the world.”
Sadly, I find their admonition, though well-meaning, typically anthropocentric in its solely human focus, or the essence of what birthed these vortexes in the first place.
Have sea dwellers, many of them preceding Homo sapiens, no right to a space of their own?