Rising Threat to Marine Life


Experts at the Science Journalism Workshop in South Africa expressed concern over the threat posed by litter in the world’s oceans, a clear and present danger they warned could alter the ecosystem, render important aquatic animal species extinct, and threatens human existence. Martins Ifijeh who was there, reports 

Ever imagined earth being populated by extraterrestrial creatures gradually displacing the human race as seen in many alien-invasion movies? Ever wondered how this will in turn make man scramble for survival, and perhaps lead to extinction of mankind? Well, that is not likely to happen in real world as humans often fight to protect their territory from such invasions.

But same cannot be said of the marine world, where humans, who fear being invaded themselves, have decided to displace ocean wildlife with debris and litters, therefore threatening the very existence of water animals and aquatic habitat, and by extension threatening human existence.

If reports by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) is anything to go by, it means about 80 per cent of these man-induced litters are plastics, and with the rate at which the practice is occurring, there will be more of such foreign bodies in the sea than marine mammals by the year 2050, leading overtime to the obliteration of sea life, a situation that will alter the ecosystem negatively and by extension the human race.

The United Nation’s body also believes already, there are over 5.25 million plastics in the world’s ocean, weighing about 268,940 tones. A volume it said has led to over one million marine mammals being lost every year across the globe, with some either being entangled in plastic debris, leading to strangulation or growth deformity, or are killed due to the chemical breakdown in such plastics which they perhaps swallowed.

They say the lifespan of these litters like plastic bags may be between 200 to 400 years, well outlasting the lifespan of aquatic habitats that often mistake them for food, hence causing blockage in their digestive systems, leading eventually to death. A plastic bottle is thought to take at least 450 years to fully break down.

This was part of the thrust in a series of lectures and field trips by select African journalists recently, including this correspondent, during the Science Journalism Workshop in South Africa; a prelude to the 21st Annual Highway Africa Conference, at the Rhodes University, Grahamstown. A programme co-supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Barclays, Telcom and MTN.

A Chief Scientist at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, Grahamstown, South Africa, Professor Alan Whitfield, believes littering of the ocean with plastics, papers and bottles have done more damage to sea life than presumed, noting that many aquatic species are going into extinction because of the practice.

While regretting that many people look away thinking such practices will have no effect on them, he said on the long run there will not be much marine mammals in the world’s sea, adding that to scientists like him, it represents a sad situation when sea mammals that should enjoy their habitat are being killed due to activities of humans, who ideally should help in preserving aquatic mammals, and the ecosystem in general.

“African countries should take a queue from policies put in place in Kenya against littering of plastic bags where stringent laws have been established against littering.”

The Kenyan law suggests that indiscriminate dumping or disposal of plastic bags could cost the offenders up to four years in prison net or fine of $40,000, marking the strictest law against plastic pollution globally.

The East African nation joins more than 40 other countries that have banned, partly banned or taxed single use plastic bags, including China, France, Rwanda, and Italy.

They reasoned that the law was appropriate considering that many bags drift into the ocean, strangling turtles, suffocating seabirds and filling the stomachs of dolphins and whales with waste until they die of starvation.

An expert on marine litter working with the UNEP in Kenya, Habib El-Habr says plastic bags which take several centuries to break down, also enter the human food chain through fish and other animals, adding that in Nairobi’s slaughterhouses, some cows destined for human consumption had 20 bags removed from their stomachs.

According to Whitfield, “Kenya has come up with very stringent rules for littering of plastic bags. We had that here in South Africa as well, such that our minister made sure there is a legislation in place on how available plastic bags can be disposed. When you buy plastic bags, there will be little littering,” he said.

The Knock-on effects on humans

According to the Indian Ocean and South East Asia (IOSEA), the practice of discarding litters in the ocean do not only have effect on sea life or aquatic animals alone, but has a much more devastating effect on the health of humans who are known to feed on aquatic mammals daily.

“Toxins ingested by sea animals end up on dinner plates and humans invariably absorb the carcinogens contained in plastics when they consume seafood. Scientists have proven that the Endocrine Disrupter Chemicals (EDCs) which are added to plastics to make them softer and easier to handle affect fat cells, contributing to obesity,” the body reiterates.

Scientists have also warned that exposure to plastics affect fertility in humans, brain development, cell and tissue modeling, and can cause chromosomal abnormalities which are handed down to subsequent generations with hundreds of thousands of marine animals, including sea turtles and whales, and more than one million seabirds reported to die each year from ocean pollution by either ingesting or being entangled in marine debris.

Marine debris is described by conservation organisations, such as SEE Turtles, a California-based conservation tourism project, as being man-made waste that is directly or indirectly disposed off in oceans, rivers, and other waterways. Adding that most of such rubbish reaches the sea via rivers, and 80 per cent of it comes from landfills and other urban sources.

Records by the IOSEA Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding published in a booklet on marine pollution shows that seven billion tonnes of debris enter the ocean each year. And this debris may include substances like oil spills, untreated sewage, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), heavy metals from mine tailings, radioactive substances, and general litter like cans, styrofoam, cigarette butts, balloons, lighters, discarded or lost fishing gear such as lines and nets, which can prove particularly problematic for sea life. However experts believe that it is the discarded plastics, most of it long lasting, which are the greatest killers of wildlife and make up 60 per cent of marine debris.

How can the impact of plastic debris be minimised?

The Algalita Marine Research Foundation suggests creating a 100 per cent recyclable and compostable grocery list, choosing paper, glass, or bio-plastic, and petitioning local councils to install screens over storm drains to help keep them free of debris. Reducing, reusing, and recycling, are ultimately considered to be the most important and effective catch-cries when taking a proactive approach towards protecting valuable sea-life, and in turn this care will also contribute to the health of humans’ own future generations.

The fear expressed by policy makers and experts is that if necessary steps are not put in place by government of nations, marine creatures face extinction in the near future. At the 2017 ocean conference in Indonesia, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Peter Thomson, said the conference which was strategic and in support of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 is mandated under the 2030 SDG agenda to conserve and sustainably manage ocean resources.

Thomson urged leaders and representatives present at the conference to ensure that the SDG14 receives the support necessary to meet its critical targets, adding that there is need to know the state of the ocean, and the difficulties it is facing.

“We have to assemble the solutions required to overcome those problems. We are here on behalf of humanity to restore sustainability, balance and respect to our relationship with our primal mother, the source of all life, the ocean,” he noted.

His argument is that marine pollution is taking the world to critical point where by 2050 there will be more plastics in the ocean than there will be fish, therefore, there is an urgent need look at the effects of climate change on the ocean to properly understand what the world is confronted with.

He called for a stop to the ‘crazy subsidies’ given by industrialised countries to fishing fleets, urging a renewed effort to identify the species under threat and agree to only fish to quota or stop fishing those species altogether.

Thomson: “We have to have better rubbish collection systems. We have to do what Rwanda has done which is to ban plastic bags. We have to stay true to the Paris Climate Agreement. But beyond that, we can set up marine protected areas where we can sustainably manage our fish stocks. We have to stop illegal and harmful fishing practices such as bottom dredging. We have to end those ridiculous fish subsidies and use that money to restore coastal ecosystem.

“Microplastics, which are bits of plastics inserted into things such as toothpaste and face creams and other cosmetics constitutes a big problem. We have to stop industrial use of microplastics because they get ingested into the biosphere. Their implications are far reaching.

“We have unleashed a plague of plastic upon the ocean that is defiling nature in many tragic ways. Illegal and destructive fishing practices, along with harmful fisheries subsidies, are driving our fish-stocks to tipping points of collapse. The greenhouse gases of accumulated carbon- combusting human activity are not only driving climate change, they are causing rising sea levels through ocean warming, while threatening life in the ocean through acidification and deoxygenation.”

The effect of plastic debris on Nigerians and it’s water ways

Experts say two of the major sources of ocean pollution in Nigeria are human faeces due to open defecation and contamination due to plastic debris.

“You know Nigeria is one of the countries with the highest practice of open defecation, but fortunately governments are beginning to realise stringent measures should be put in place against it,” says Mrs. Rachel Opara.

But she believes little is being done to address pollution of the water ways by plastic debris, adding that with over 10,000 bottled and satchel water companies in the country due to minimal access to clean water, the threat is no longer from deposition of tyres, cups, and other plastics into the sea, but threats from satchel waters containers and bottles were increasing in the water ways by the day, leading to blockages of canals and harm to marine mammals, and ultimately alter the ecosystem.

According to her, the global problem faced by ocean pollution is very applicable to Nigeria, especially Lagos State where there is an inadequacy of landfills and sewage treatment plants and, as a result, a significant volume of trash goes into the sea.

“The menace of plastics is a visible problem which can be seen across the Nigerian water shorelines. It is the most common substance that washes up with the waves. It is light and floats easily so it can travel enormous distances. They are not biodegradable, which means that things like plastic bottles can survive in the marine environment for a long time. A plastic bottle can survive an estimated 450 years in the ocean,” she added.

She explained that one of the consequences of marine pollution by plastic debris was that majority of the country’s fishermen no longer catch fishes the way they used to because many of the sea animals no longer live to ripe age because of the effect of plastic debris.

She said regrettably, while other countries are making efforts to put policies in place against marine pollution, the idea seem not to have gained attention with the Nigerian Government.

“Since one of the sources of this pollution is from sachet bottle water companies, part of their responsibility to the society should be to clean up our water ways from plastics. Government should also put policies in place that will make plastic litters an offense, just the way a similar law was passed in Kenya recently.

“Government should levy these plastics production companies and put some kind of restrictions on those who use plastics. Then eventually, there should be a total ban of its usage in the country. Otherwise we will be doing a great disservice to the future generation,” she said.

A recycling manager with the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA), Mrs. Titilolu Adeyo, says plastic bottles and such items are becoming a menace to the environment because of the attitude of the people to indiscriminately discard refuse which ends up in canals, drainage channels and the rest thereby causing floods during rainy season.

She says it is common place to find such plastic debris in the ocean, as well as gutters and canals in the country, therefore urging the governments to put stringent measures in place against it. She called on government, civil society groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to start sensitising people on the need to stop litter of the ocean because of the adverse effect of aquatic life and the society.