Paddleboarder a witness to the plastification of oceans

The corpse of a loggerhead turtle on a Canary Island beach.

A friend of my son’s here on the Canary Island of La Gomera, a bank official about 35 years old, is regularly to be seen standing tall and erect on a large surfboard, propelling himself with a long paddle, along the island’s coasts, writes Damien Enright

Paddle-boarding, for Jose Ramon, is not simply a sport, but a window to the wonders of the marine world. On his solo journeys undertaken anything from 200m to 1km out to sea, he often covers 10 nautical miles.

Travelling silently, literally gliding over the surface, he encounters pelagic life of all varieties at close quarters, and sometimes slips quietly into the water to join it. His mobile phone photographs of these encounters are stunning evidence of the beautiful and generally unseen world of the ocean surface, and also of the terrible toll our human callousness takes on creatures that make it their home.

We are told within three decades the weight of plastic in the world’s seas will outweigh the fish for whom it is their specialised and only habitat. Already, human debris, especially plastics, has decimated marine life. Fish, mammals, and sea flora daily decline at an unsustainable rate. Governments duck responsibility while ocean life drowns.

What is robbed from the oceans via fishing and over-fishing is replaced by garbage and flotsam. Will the seas indefinitely absorb and ‘disappear’ all by some magic process? The whole world knows they won’t, but (while fish gasp in a poisoned ocean) the naked ape ashore hasn’t evolved sufficiently to act co-operatively to save an essential organ in its body.

Science confirms that in chop-chop time the world’s precious seas will become soups of stinking litter. This may seem hyperbole and fantasy: but studies already indicate its inevitability unless international conventions are enacted and enforced. Radically revised dumping constraints, plus fish quotas and sustainable fishing methods for all the oceans, must be agreed upon, with an internationally funded body to police the seas and tour the skies to enforce them.

Rogue fishing boats and fleets must be apprehended, be holed and stranded so that they cannot fish again. States that give safe harbour to illegal fishing must be made to pay, so that no longer can a rogue government favour its supporters and flout the law, as was the case, when former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern stepped in to license the Atlantic Dawn, the world’s largest fish-killer — 400 tons every 24 hours —as a merchant ship, with a series of temporary fishing licenses.

In a bulletin of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, I read that “... despite prohibitions on the ocean disposal of plastics by the international Marine Pollution Treaty, this practice continues. In the vast Central Pacific gyre, unfathomable quantities of plastic circulate on and below the surface and to a depth of at least 100ft. Researchers [. . . ] found recently that each square nautical mile in this region had over 1.1 million plastic bits, which outweighed plankton (the gruel of marine life) in the area six to one. Similar vast “garbage patches” lie [ . . .] in each hemisphere of all three major oceans.”

Estimates of size of the Pacific garbage patch ranges from 700,000sq km to 8% of the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, Jose Ramon, the solo paddler, encounters evidence of the tragic deaths that plastic wreaks on loggerhead turtles. His photos of turtle corpses or skeletons washed up on inaccessible beaches tell the story. There they lie, creatures that once roamed the world’s oceans, reduced to a heap of bones bound in nylon-filament fishing line, or to a body in which can be seen, through a hole picked in the carapace by gulls, a stomach and body cavity half-full of the plastic bottle pieces that killed it.

Hammerhead sharks often come near Jose’s board as he skims the sea. Sometimes, he gently slips off the board and swims alongside them. Generally, they are shy. When, dozing in the sun, they feel a ripple and suddenly see a two-legged creature towering above them, they nose-dive, panic-stricken, into the depths.

Sometimes, he encounters flotsam or jetsam lost from a ship. To many sea creatures, these are lethal. There is nothing he can do about it, a solitary mariner on a flimsy board.

However, when he showed me some photos he had taken of turtles killed by human vandalism, I was shocked and outraged, and wanted to show them to you, my readers, so we may together apply to a conservation body (see internet) who could somehow bring pressure on governments which you and I cannot do alone.


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