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You are welcome to follow our work in Thailand with marine, endangered animals and marine awareness. Here you can read our newest blog posts about what we have been up to.
In many ways, what we find in our oceans tells us about our society. What is not found tells us even more. No matter where we travel, the same beach litter can be found; plastic bottles, fishing gear, microplastic from clothes, car tyres and cosmetics and industrial waste products. Because litter in the ocean has the ability to disperse over long distances, it really does not matter if you are looking at a beach in Europe or in Southeast Asia. The same goes for marine life; no matter where you deplete a resource, the effects are cascaded over international borders.
So what do the oceans tell us then? First of all, the plastic litter tells us that our societies strive at getting everything fast, easily and at a low cost. These are all qualities found in many plastic materials and the same qualities transform them to litter once used. Since the industry and consumers are free to use plastic materials without any regulations, they tend to end up in our oceans where they travel to "no mans land". Unfortunately, this also means that no one has to take responsibility. These qualities are poorly matched with sustainability and they reflect our short-sightedness. We tend to value money before environment, but forget that economic growth is impossible without a healthy environment. Common guidelines and legislation regarding plastic use should urgently be implemented.
What else can the oceans tell us about our societies? We can take a look at the ocean chemistry: researchers tell us that ocean acidification is taking place at an alarming rate. Acidification means a drop in the pH, and is related to the rising levels of CO2 in our atmosphere. The CO2 dissolves into the oceans and lowers the pH. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the pH of surface ocean waters has dropped by 0.1 pH units. Now this might not sound like a lot, but given the logarithmic scale of pH, it actually means an approximated 30 percent increase in acidity! All living organisms are extremely sensitive to changes in pH, but especially marine organisms with calcium carbonate skeletons or shells are in danger - most often the ones found at the bottom of the food chain. This shift in pH tells us about our energy policy and it tells us to shift away from fossil fuels (= going oil free) as soon as possible.
Marine ecosystems worldwide are facing an accelerating loss of populations and species with largely unknown consequences. Many regional ecosystems such as coral reefs, estuaries and fish communities have witnessed a rapid decline in populations, species, or even entire ecosystems. Given the known species losses over the past few centuries and millennia, we might even be witnessing the sixth wave of mass extinction as we speak! To date, marine protected areas and fishery quotes do exist to some extent, but the problem is that there is poor surveillance of what really goes on out at sea! I remember Anu and me sleeping over in a tent on a beach in a marine protected area in Similan, Thailand, in 2010 where we conducted our sea turtle study. After dark, the fishing boats just kept coming in long lines, throwing out their bates, trawls and long lines. There were hundreds of boats, and yet it was supposed to be a protected area! Likewise, the fishery quotes for many endangered species are exceeded by hundreds of tons each year because no one is there to supervise the catches. We have to ask ourselves if we really want to leave behind an ocean full of plastic but with no marine life?
So what should we be doing to improve the situation? I believe that the solutions are found in education, reward systems and sanctions. Although many countries have already made big leaps forward regarding plastic use and education, a huge amount of work still remains to be done. Just count the amount of plastic bags, coffee mugs and plastic wraps in your average shopping mall! As for reward systems, companies using plastic should be given economic benefits for recycling their materials and punished for not doing so. The average consumer should also have to pay extra for using plastics. This is already the case for plastic bags in many European countries, but travel to Southeast Asia and you will get 12 thin plastic bags without even wanting one for your groceries.
They say that a person is remembered for three generations - what do we want to be remembered for? We have all the power to influence our societies, but it has to be now. Working together, scientists, industry partners and coastal managers can make significant improvements to reduce marine litter. Also you can make an impact: choose wisely what you buy, recycle when possible, avoid plastics and vote for politicians who genuinely care about our environment.
The contributors to this blog are the marine biologists Maria Koivisto (left) and Anu Riihimäki (right).