COLOMBO: The world is dependent on the oceans in a variety of ways. That dependence is bound to increase in the years to come. And yet, very little is being done to preserve this resource and nurture it, says Admiral Dr. Jayanath Colombage, a former Chief of the Sri Lankan Navy who is now Director of the Colombo-based Center for Indo-Lanka Initiatives (ILI).

In a paper presented at the SAGAR Dialogue held at Goa in India on October 12, the sailor turned academic said that the world will be forced to depend even more on the oceans than now for its survival and growth, because less and less land will be available for use in the coming years.

“The population of the world is growing. And the land area available for humans is rapidly decreasing. Meanwhile, the economic condition of the masses is improving leading to increasing demands for physical resources. This situation will require the world to extract more resources from the ocean,” Colombage told the Goa conclave hosted by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

However, in the process, the oceans are going to get more and more polluted.

“Industrial activities in the ocean will increase with new industries such as renewable energy, seabed mining, blue bio-technology, blue technology and remediation and restoration of the ocean. All these activities will add more pollutants to the oceans, unless strict regulatory measures are implemented, “ Colombage pointed out.

Ocean Potential Yet to Be Fathomed

The ocean is vast, covering well over 70% of the earth. They account for 97% of the earth’s water. It is the largest absorber of carbon dioxide. Ocean winds regulate and cool the climate. Ocean currents regulate the marine ecosystem and nutrients that promotes the growth of ocean vegetation, planktons and the fish species, and millions of other life forms beneath the surface.

In his 2017 paper “ Potential Challenges and Opportunities of Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystems in Sri Lanka” Dr.P.K.Terney says that 95% of the underwater world remains unexploited.

Deep sea ecosystems, covering nearly 62% the globe, are yet to be discovered. And this area may contain more than 10 million unknown species, Terney says.

The ocean is the major mode of transportation for 90% of goods. International maritime trade is the lifeline of the world; for goods or energy. As per UN SDG 14, the oceans serve as the largest source of protein, with more than three billion people depending on the oceans for their primary source of protein and over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods.

Marine ecosystems are among the largest of earth’s aquatic systems. They include oceans, salt marshes, inter-tidal ecology, estuaries and lagoons, mangroves and coral reefs. Coastal habitats alone account for approximately one third of all marine biological productivity. More than half of the world population lives within 100 kilometers from the coast.

In his 2017 paper “Potential Challenges and Opportunities of Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystems in Sri Lanka” T.Dharmarathna indicates that sea-bed heavy minerals such as gem minerals, Ilmenite, Rutile, Zircon, Monazite, Manganese nodules, Phosphates nodules and crude oil and gas should be available in commercially viable exploitation quantities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). These marine resources are critically important to the sustenance and economic progress of the IOR.

But all this calls for management, says Colombage.

“Given the presence of a multitude of actors such as State players, law enforcement agencies, researchers, exploiters, smugglers of humans, narcotics and guns, IUU fishers and tourists, the oceans need to be managed,” Colombage said.

He pointed out that nations are basically interested in maintaining their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) with the result the ocean at large, the common ocean as it were, appears to be nobody’s baby – uncared for and left to be misused and unprotected.

“There is a need to look beyond state jurisdictions of territorial and EEZs and to treat the oceans as a maritime common,” Dr.Colombage said.

(Admiral Dr. Jayanath Colombage)

Global Warming and Climate Change

Climate change and global warming are real and are now physically visible, he points out.

“The Guardian international edition of August 24, 2017 reported that a Russian tanker has travelled through the northern sea route in record speed and without an icebreaker escort for the first time, highlighting how climate change is opening up the high Arctic.”

“The same article reported that the extent of the arctic ice fell to a new wintertime low in March this year after freakishly high temperatures in the polar regions, and hit its second lowest summer extent last September. This may be good news for maritime trade as less fuel will be consumed by the shipping. But it is a clear indicator of global warming,” Colombage said.

“Even if we stop producing greenhouse gasses it is unlikely that the process will be reversed. The possible impacts of these could be sea level rising, changes in hydrodynamics, changes in ocean temperatures and salinity, water quality deterioration and ocean weather anomalies,” he said quoting Terney.

Man-made Pollution

Earlier, it was assumed that the ocean is vast and deep and can absorb any amount of garbage dumped into it. Therefore man has been polluting the oceans for centuries. But this has to be curbed. .

As per a report produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrative Service of US Department of Commerce, 80% of pollution to marine environment comes from the land. Land based pollutants can come from agriculture (fertilizer and pesticide), urbanization (Disposal sewage and solid waste), industries (effluents and solid waste discharge) dirt, aquaculture projects, and oil from motor vehicles.

Thousands of tons plastic are dumped into the ocean on a daily basis and plastic is one of the most dangerous pollutants found in the ocean. It is harmful for the environment as it does not break down easily and often it is considered as food by marine animals.

Trash and waste dumped into the ocean can be washed up hundreds of miles away. Dumping of toxic waste, chemical waste and radioactive waste are also heavy contributors to ocean pollution. Chemicals can enter the ocean through various industries, as well as accidents. All these pollutants can kill large numbers of sea creatures and birds and impact the entire marine ecosystem. It can impact the reproduction cycle of the marine animals and behavioral changes, finally causing death, the Admiral pointed out.

This has led to a gradual loss in marine life and an increase in the number of endangered species. Littering causes pollution in the ocean, which also causes a substantial loss of life beneath the seas.

“Marine animals, specially the smaller ones, can absorb these chemicals as part of their food and then enter the larger marine animals through the food chain. When people eat fish, the chemicals enter them and could lead to terminal diseases such as cancer,” he warns.

There can be ocean based pollution too. These includes ships accidents (oil and hazardous matter), Explorations (Oil and Suspended matter) and Dumping (Oil and Garbage) (Terney,2017).

“The UN SDG 14 indicates that as much as 40% of world oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats,” Colombage says.

Noise Pollution In Oceans

Marine life is always disturbed and threatened by a combination of industrial noise, mainly from shipping, seismic exploration and use of air gun and naval sonar.

Marine scientist and bioacoustics expert Clark terms this phenomenon as “acoustical bleaching” of the oceans, a human-made cacophony that can tear apart the social networks of whales, adversely affecting survival and reproductive success.

“Whale feeding grounds and migratory routes are then disturbed and they lose breeding opportunity and choices. Further, these loud noises can impact the communication ability of marine mammals which are capable of echolocation,” Clark had said.

The sound from seismic air gun explosions, which are mainly used in oil and gas explorations travels through the ocean and it changes from a big bang into a big fuzzy ball of reverberating noise. These bubbles produce a pressure that expand and contract, generating an immense amount of acoustic energy,” Colombage says, quoting from R. Schiffman’s 2016 paper entitled: “How Ocean Noise Pollution Wreaks Havoc on Marine Life,” in Yale Environment 360.

But the good news is that technologies are being developed to drastically reduce noise from ships and geological surveying.

“These technological advances may produce quieter ships which are the main contributor to noise pollution. There should also be control over the locations, duration and the number of seismic air guns used in explorations,” Colombage says.