Opinion: Our seas are wrecked, but not beyond repair

This week, news swept the internet of yet another doomed whale, this time off the coast of Thailand, which is believed to have eaten up to 80 plastic bags weighing 8kg.

Photos showed the bags fanned out on a medical room floor like a dystopian version of St Bridget’s cloak; the horrible impact of human fecklessness towards our planet seems to spread ever wider, ever further.

The ocean is where life began. It has fed us for millennia, it produces half of the oxygen we breathe and has buffered the Earth from the worst effects of climate change by absorbing vast quantities of carbon dioxide.

However, the ocean is ill, and the seas around Ireland are particularly wrecked.

The horrors of plastic pollution may, at least, be fostering a new attention towards the sea, with coastal clean-ups and new legislative initiatives to restrict the most flagrant elements of our throwaway society.

This is all welcome, yet much of what ails the sea remains beyond view. All that carbon absorption is leading to acidification of the water, with unknown consequences for marine life especially the shell-building species. 

Raw sewage is pumped into the sea illegally from 45 urban areas, some along the Wild Atlantic Way.

We have our own dolphin carnage every winter when hundreds of dead common dolphins get washed up on the west coast. 

Eighty plastic bags were found in the stomach of a pilot whale off the coast of Thailand.
Eighty plastic bags were found in the stomach of a pilot whale off the coast of Thailand.

This is something which suspiciously coincides with poorly regulated ‘supertrawler’ activity. More than 60% of the sharks and rays in our waters face extinction and yet none of these amazing animals has legal protection in the way badgers or deer do on land.

Over-fishing remains the single biggest threat to marine life and despite a landmark agreement by the EU in 2013 to end overfishing and rebuild fish populations by 2020 at the latest, only two commercial fish species in Irish waters are assessed by scientists as being fished sustainably (hake and albacore tuna).

Bottom trawling in nearly all of our seas results in the wholesale destruction of marine life and colossal waste from the practice of ‘discarding’ unwanted catches.

Yesterday, marked World Oceans Day and such days give us an opportunity to dwell for while on the sea and what it would take to nurse them back to full health. 

Earlier this month, the prestigious journal Nature printed an opinion from scientists which stated that we need to close off 30% of the oceans from all harmful activities (primarily fishing and mineral extraction) to avoid a mass extinction of marine species. Ireland has already committed to establishing a network of marine protected areas covering 10% of our seas by 2020. 

However, no progress has been made to-date and only about 2% of our seas have any level of protection.

Even in some of these areas we incredibly allow practices such as dredging the seabed for scallops or razor clams which are among the most damaging methods of fishing.

As well as marine protected areas we need proper legal protection of rare and threatened species, especially sharks and rays; we need to phase out bottom trawling, something which lies at the root of many problems from habitat loss to overfishing; and we need better regulation of so-called ‘supertrawlers’, specifically to get independent, full-time observers onboard so we can start to quantify their impact. 

A healthy ocean can continue to nourish us, but we need to get it out of the intensive care unit.

Pádraic Fogarty is campaigns officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust and author of Whittled Away – Ireland’s Vanishing Nature.


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