The health of our oceans is ‘spiralling downward’, and still we act like nothing is the matter

Without drastic action, the damage will be catastrophic

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This week’s review from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean is a salutary warning.  According to the IPSO, the evidence is clearer than ever that the effect of climate change is being felt most acutely by the world’s seas.  Whilst their vast expanses absorb heat and CO2 – thereby ameliorating the effect on us land-dwellers – the results are having disastrous effects on marine life.  The oceans are increasingly acidifying; warmer water holds less oxygen; and combined with overfishing and pollution from heavy metals, organochlorines and plastics, the outlook is darker than ever.

All this because we seem to ignore the great expanse of water on which we depend.  90 per cent of the earth’s life is to be found in its oceans; its phytoplankton provides 40 per cent of our oxygen.  A large percentage of our food comes from the sea; it carries our trade: 90 per cent of the UK’s trade is conducted via the oceans.  And yet by the very fact of our increasing disconnection from the sea, we allow it to be polluted and ravished.  

In the past month I’ve taken part in three events at which experts in their fields have painted a gloomy prognosis for the oceans.  At the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, the ‘Beagle Debate’ used a game-show format in which 5 experts evangelise for five marine species – shark, ocean sunfish, plankton, coral, and whale.  The shark won – on the gruesome and emotive statistic that 100 million die each year to provide Asian diners with shark fin soup.

But we also learnt, from coral expert Dr Kerry Howell of the Marine Institute, that in cold water reefs only identified in British waters last year, spires of these ancient, slow-growing animal colonies up to 4,000 years old were being mindlessly destroyed by trawlers.  That same week, a panel convened by Horatio Morpurgo in Bridport, constituting of myself, George Monbiot and the eminent marine biologist, Callum Roberts, examined the state of play of one of Britain’s only marine protection zones in Lyme Bay, on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast.  The measured despair of us panellists was not matched by one member of the audience, who shouted out that the best way to stop the trawlers was to dump old cars in the bay, thereby snagging their nets.  A great piece of direct action - if somewhat drastic.   

And a few days ago, the Natural History Museum called a day-long conference marking 100 years of records of cetacean strandings.  It was a unique opportunity to hear the latest, state-of-the-art research on why whales and dolphins appear to ‘commit suicide’ by beaching themselves.  One positive aspect which emerged was the notion that more strandings are being reported because the public are actually more aware of their plight – and less likely to hoick the carcasses off to render down for their fat, as was common in earlier days. 

But here too was depressing news.  Dr Paul Jepson, of the Zoological Society of London, delivered a lecture which showed that PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, used as flame-retardants, among other things, and now banned but still heavily present in the oceans) in the waters around Europe have begun to affect resident populations of killer whales to the extent that none of the pods of these magnificent, apex predators have given birth to calves in the last ten years.  As a result, it may be that European killer whales – off Scotland, in the North Sea, and the Mediterranean – are doomed to extinction.

Is there any good news to be had?  Well, the mere fact of these three events, all in the past month, all attended by packed audiences, shows the extraordinary concern of the general public.  But they also demonstrate how appallingly we are being let down by our politicians.  Earlier this week we had Owen Patterson proclaim that climate change might actually be good for us (tell that to the soon-to-be drowned Pacific islanders of Kiribati), while earlier this summer his fellow minister, Richard Benyon, agreed to implement just 31 of 127 recommended marine protection zones on the south coast, as advised by the UK Wildlife Trusts and other expert bodies.  And even then Defra have not proposed any timetable for their implementation. 

Britain is a maritime nation.  We should be leading the way in creating the conditions for cleaner, cooler seas – if only out of self-interest.  The fact is that without drastic action, there really might not be any more fish in the sea.  I only hope we don’t have to resort to dumping old bangers in the Channel to get our way.

Philip Hoare's book, The Sea Inside, is published by Fourth Estate.

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