Vast and mysterious, haunting and awe-inspiring in its expansiveness, shifting and unpredictable in its mood and disposition; the ocean has inspired due to its sheer size, power, enormity and unremitting beauty; but be warned, it is much more than just a bewitching mass of water.
Not only is the ocean teeming with precious marine life, it’s the lifeblood of planet Earth itself, providing us with oxygen, absorbing carbon, and covering over three-quarters of Earth. It gives the colour to our planet and gave us the primordial soup from which life evolved and grew to help form the biosphere that houses the entirety of life, living and wellbeing.
We marvel at the beauty of the ocean, rush to the beaches to view the mighty heave of the waves, feel the caressing passage of the ozone-laden breeze, view the majesty of the sun in its appointed diurnal play of hide and seek, let fly our imaginations into the ocean’s bowels that teems with marine life, which has a symbiotic relation with every other living being. It has been a synchronous and orchestrated play of elements since billions of years, much earlier than the arrival of man. We are the end product of a divine design that has taken nearly 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang. It wasn’t until approximately 11:48 pm on the cosmic calendar reduced to a day, or about 300,000 years ago in actual time, that anatomically modern humans, Homo Sapiens, arose for the first time; and on the same scale a single human lifetime would last just about a minuscule 0.2 seconds, on average. Incredible but true, that will need a super computer to map, measure and chronicle each of the present living 7.58 billion human beings’ cosmic existence. Yet, being ‘no-where’ in the conceivable cosmic time-line, we have assumed the importance of being ‘every-where’!
If we discerningly look around and ponder, both at the macro level and the micro level, it is unflinchingly apparent that this seeming superiority of the ‘just arrived man’ as the ‘supramental’ (to quote Aurobindo) being of sorts has been more a bane than a boon, more a liability than an asset; for the sustenance of the only place certain to support life in the entire known universe. The unannounced arrival of the minuscule coronavirus (less than a gram in its totality) that has rung a death knell notwithstanding, the warning signs of decadence had long set-in and the early bells of alarm were rung by Mother Nature in all the manifestations of its five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. In the elemental combinations, the biosphere is the most affected and the oceans in particular, covering over 70 per cent of the surface of the planet, are under serious threat. The formidable question that arises is: ‘Why and what can be done’?
Cutting short let me examine the reasons for Ocean’s pollution and neglect. Around 8 million tons of garbage is dumped into the ocean every year and 80 per cent of marine pollution comes from land. These figures have an enormous impact and disastrous consequences on marine biodiversity. But there’s more. Take a look at the top 10 oceanic issues at stake:
- An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enters our oceans every year. There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste estimated to be in our oceans. 269,000 tons float, 4 billion microfibers per km² dwell below the surface. 70% of our debris sinks into the ocean’s ecosystem, 15% floats, and 15% lands on our beaches.
- A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that at least 88 per cent of the Earth’s ocean surface is polluted with plastic debris.
- Garbage in the ocean comes from trash cans, the streets and landfills that get blown into sewers, rivers or directly into the ocean. The trash makes its way into storm drains. Trash travels through sewer pipes, into waterways, and finally into the ocean.
- Many fertilizers and pesticides used systematically in agriculture end up falling into the ocean.
- Some of these products cause irreversible and fatal changes to the species; for example, they affect the reproduction process. Also, if ingested by humans, can cause serious health issues.
- Overexploitation of Fishing Resources
- According to the United Nations, 17% of fish stocks worldwide are currently overexploited; 52% are fully exploited; and 7% are depleted. Approximately 90% of fish stocks of large predatory fish are already gone, as overfishing has disproportionately targeted the largest fish at the top of the food chain.
- The prized Hilsa is all but missing from the Indian plates.
- Unsustainable Aquaculture
- Intensive aquaculture at sea involves the use of antibiotics and other chemicals; some of them toxic to the ecosystem promote the proliferation of pollutants in marine waters.
- Chilika, Asia’s largest brackish-water lake and a Ramsar Site, in Odisha is fast losing its rich biodiversity due to over exploitation of its prized prawn by erection of ‘gheries’ (enclosures).
- Marine Engineering and Oil Drilling
- Oil spills end up negatively affecting coral reefs and aquatic life. As an example, the greatest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in 11 deaths, 17 injuries and a discharge of about 4.9 million barrels of oil into the sea; left a heavy legacy in the safety history of oil and gas industry.
- Destruction of Habitats
- Some habitats provide and represent a unique shelter for reproduction. Marine forests are being destroyed for various reasons, including the use of aggressive fishing gear and methods like trawling.
- The rich mangrove reserves like the World Biosphere Reserves of Sunderbans, Bhitarkanika and elsewhere, which are home to diverse marine life like crocodiles, alligators, turtles are asphyxiating.
- Ocean Acidification and Coral Bleaching
- Climate change has a profound impact on the oceans. The increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere cause changes in the pH value of the oceans, leading to bleaching and death of the sensitive coral reefs.
- High Levels of Mercury
- Excess mercury, released by industry effluents, cause severe illness in marine life and humans. It is a pollutant that accumulates in the food chain and reaches humans through the ingestion of fish, causing serious diseases.
- Sea Temperature Rise
- Rising sea temperatures cause dramatic changes in marine ecosystems, with changing of the migratory routes and imbalances in food chains. For instance, raising the water temperature by just 0.5 ºC causes the death of coral reefs, and krill resources off Antartica, on whom the large marine animals like whales depend.(Sources: UNO, UNESCO, WHO, PNAS, NGF, NIO, NIOT, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Society for Marine Research and Conservation)
The Ocean gave me the company of the finest of men in their resplendent white uniforms with a commitment and passion. Bestirred with the advent of the World Oceans Day and a concern for urgent remedial measures for the deteriorating condition of our oceans, I invited my close naval course mate, the suave and brilliant naval officer, Admiral Robin Dhowan, PVSM, AVSM, YSM; who rose to the highest rank of the Indian Navy as the Chief of the Naval Staff (2014-2016), to share his vision for a subject close to his heart, and he most willingly obliged with his reply:
“’Swach Sagar’: Clean and Healthy Oceans for Future Generations
On World Oceans Day on June 8, 2020, we need to spare a thought for conservation of our oceans and seas which make our Earth a blue planet.
Oceans are central to life on Earth. They are rich in oil and mineral resources; they are suppliers of oxygen, absorbers of carbon dioxide, a virtual heat sink, rich in biodiversity, which have emerged as global economic highways for transit of sea borne trade.
With depletion of resources on land, humankind has turned towards the seas for resources and there is a misperception that oceans have an unending resource base and are an infinite sink, but that is far away from reality.
Also Read: World Environment At Crossroads
Over the past few decades, we have witnessed indiscriminate pollution of the oceans and contamination of the natural marine habitat, resulting in an adverse impact of climate change on the oceans.
Studies have indicated that nearly 80% of pollutants in the seas emanate from land and if the current rate of pollution continues, in a few decades we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish.
As a maritime nation, India is committed towards conservation of oceans, seas and resources. The United Nations has promulgated a document titled, Transforming Our World: 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. It should be our endeavour to strive for efficient utilisation of marine resources, with minimal impact on the environment to ensure sustainable development of the oceans
The Honorable Prime Minister Sh. Narendra Modi, has launched a dynamic initiative of Swach Bharat. We need to extend the initiative to Swach Sagar. This could be an initiative where we draw up an action plan and motivate citizens and maritime agencies to contribute towards cleaning and conserving our coastal areas and the seas around us. We could also extend it as a maritime cooperation initiative with our littoral neighbours to ensure clean and healthy oceans for our future generations.”
There could not be a better timed and more practical recipe for remedying the ills brought upon our oceans than what Admiral Dhowan has opined: “Swach Sagar”. I sincerely hope that the Admiral’s well-meaning words reach the Prime Minister to lead from the front and a task force is mandated to take up the challenge. Thank you, Admiral Robin Dhowan.
As I step aside from my present sojourn with the mighty Ocean, I am reminded of the title of a book written by Alan Paton, “Cry, Beloved Country”, outlining the deeply moving story that touched my heart; of a Zulu pastor and his son set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. In a metaphorical vein, now that I am an ordained subject of Lord Varuna’s domains; as I see the blue waters around me, in spite of their pervading and awesome presence, being beset against forces that only confer hopelessness on it, my mind unabashedly bellows out in a Cancerian fervor: “Cry, my Beloved Oceans”!
(This is the concluding Part 2 of the series on the World Oceans Day)