Why should we care about the marine environment?
I get asked this question from time to time, so I thought I ought to try and properly articulate an answer:
The sea is somewhere that we go for emotional fulfilment and recreation; it generates seafood that we eat; it provides wind, wave and tidal resource for energy generation and aggregates for building; we use it as a medium for transport; it absorbs and recycles our wastes and regulates our climate.
The question is whether these services are being jeopardised by human pressure-can the sea continue to provide all of these things into the future? Would we be individually or collectively worse off without all of these benefits from the sea? Ultimately, if the ocean as a global ecosystem is destroyed, would humans and terrestrial life be doomed too?
Whatever we continue to do to the sea, the surge of the waves and movement of the tides would continue regardless. From a cliff top, the sea today would pretty much look the same as it has done for the last couple of thousand years. It is this outward appearance of normality that makes it particularly challenging to convince people that there are profound changes taking place in the sea directly caused by humans.
What tends to hit the headlines are the plights of individual dolphins and whales stranded on beaches or lost in estuaries. We also hear about the catastrophic incidents such as huge oil spills. These ‘acute’ incidents can have horrific local impacts; but the danger comes from the gradual, chronic dismantling of the building blocks of the world’s oceans through human impacts.
Maybe not from a cliff top, but something that is increasingly noticeable to anyone visiting the beach or harbour town is the amount of plastic rubbish that is floating on the sea surface and gathering at the water’s edge. Beach strand-lines littered with plastic detritus are now a common sight all over the world, even the remotest uninhabited islands. We have heard about how ocean currents have gathered up vast islands of plastic litter in the middle of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Research is just beginning to reveal how plastic is being eaten by Albatrosses and fed to their chicks. As pieces of plastic break down into tiny granules they are eaten by small creatures and are passed through the food chain and ultimately into human diets. The impacts of our misuse and careless attitude to plastics ultimately end up in becoming a potential hazard for human health as well as killing many other sea creatures, disrupting food chains and the balance of life in the sea.
Human memories are also comparatively short and selective. Evidence from past fishing records has shown the extent to which modern fishing methods have decimated our fish stocks and marine ecosystems over the world. The European Union now imports 62% of its fish, having failed to manage its own stocks. The use of heavier and more efficient fishing gear over the last few decades has not only removed the fish, but also had a huge collateral impact to the seabed and other marine life. As a rich block of nations, the European Union is able to import its prawns, salmon and cod from elsewhere, but for many other developing nations the declines in fish stocks are leading to more and more destructive fishing techniques, areas that have become completely barren and the loss of traditional livelihoods.
Changes to our climate are something that are generally not possible for us to witness on a day to day or even a seasonal basis. However, the vast weight of scientific opinion now agrees that the use of fossil fuels have caused changes to our climate. We know that the oceans play a very important role as a stabiliser of our climate as it absorbs and circulates heat around the globe. Melting glaciers and warming oceans are causing sea levels to rise, and we know that already many islands will have an increasingly precarious existence. We also know that as carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere it is making the seawater gradually more acidic. Many marine animals have a calcium carbonate skeleton and studies have shown that in some cases these have been thinning and weakening. As the basis of many marine food chains, the consequent loss of so many shelled animals are extremely serious indeed.
Over the last 30 years or so Europe in particular has made great progress in cleaning up its rivers and reducing the amount of pollution reaching the sea. Campaigns have made Water Companies improve their sewage treatment and stricter regulation has ensured that industry is more careful with their waste products. However many of the dirtiest processes have simply been exported to other countries such as China and India. The persistent nature of heavy metals, PCBs and radioactive particles means that they will be present in sediments and food chains for centuries to come.
Whatever its state of health, the sea will continue to provide a medium for transport. There is also plenty of energy in waves and tides to provide power and in theory plenty of space for wind generation plants. However, there is increasingly competition for space between uses such as wind farms, aggregate extraction, oil and gas drilling, aquaculture and fisheries. It is the cumulative impact and conflicting needs of different uses that has puts pressure on the natural environment and multiplies those areas of the sea which are unexploited in some form or other. For example, gravel is in huge demand for the construction industry, but also a vital nursery habitat for fish. As our pressure on the sea increases, so we cumulatively grind down its resilience and ability to support other activities and processes.
So to put it bluntly, if the ocean died, would we die? The point for me is that the death of an ecosystem is not as stark and obvious as the death of an organism. If plastics, ocean acidification and destructive fisheries destroy marine life to the point where the seas are just plankton and jellyfish then many people around the world would probably starve. From a selfish point of view, in the UK we would potentially be able to rely on our land crops and livestock to continue to feed us. We would still be able to transport our goods around the world and generate energy from offshore winds and tides.
With the breakdown of food chains and other natural processes in the sea, it is likely that it would no longer be able to recycle our wastes and we would gradually be suffocated by our own effluent. The point at which our misuse of the marine environment actually causes our own destruction is difficult to predict. Most likely it will be a gradual path of environmental impoverishment and loss of amenity. The final nail in the coffin for mankind and the majority of terrestrial life could come if the ocean is no longer able to balance the absorption of carbon dioxide and production of oxygen.
An important part of our emotional fulfilment with the sea is that it is a wild, clean and invigorating environment to be in. Although most watersports simply rely on the wind, water and waves; it is difficult to imagine that participants would get the same fulfilment from an ocean that was lifeless, rotting and covered with litter.
All of these problems and various doomsday scenarios are well documented in numerous books, films, television programmes and newspapers. The scale of the problem in itself and the lack of practical, local solutions is something that inevitably tends to put people off trying to engage.
There are already many organisations that are dedicated to raising awareness and battling with Governments to encourage stronger legislation and stewardship for the sea. However, it is a battle that is being lost. Short term economic interests almost always outgun longer term environmental goals. Our priorities and therefore those of our Government tend to focus on social and economic wellbeing. What we don’t appreciate is how much these two priorities are linked to the health and resilience of the marine environment and the services that it provides for free.
We are all aware of the economic climate right now, and the priority across our own Government is understandably to reduce the deficit. In some quarters the protection of the marine environment is seen as an obstacle to commercial development and economic recovery. This mind set clearly perceives only the income generating potential of our oceans and fails to appreciate the economic value of ecosystem benefits such as recreation, sense of wellbeing, capture and storage of carbon, processing of wastes and also the fundamental role of a healthy ecosystem in the production of seafood and other raw materials. The conservation of our oceans will continue to lose against commercial interests unless its value can be made more explicit in economic terms. Politicians continue to put the protection of the marine environment very low down on their list of priorities. Their focus remains on short term management and short-term impacts. Protection for the marine environment is a long-term goal with long-term benefits.
Beyond our sinks, toilets and the fish we eat, our connections to the sea are often very distant. To us individually many of these problems seem insurmountable – it is inevitably someone else’s problem. We cannot individually clean the oceans of plastic or restore populations of fish. However we need to remember (and to make our politicians remember) that the health of the ocean is of paramount importance to us, because we recognise that it links back to us in so many ways. Until this changes we will continue to orchestrate our own self destruction.
As the cliché goes, we don’t value something (or somebody) until it’s gone. The point of no-return is impossible to define. But since the consequences for humanity are catastrophic and terminal, we might as well play it safe.
 See figures from Productive Seas Evidence Group quoted in the Crown Estate report, ‘Valuing our marine estate’ or ‘Public perceptions of Europe’s seas a policy brief for the Knowseas project (2011)’
 Eight million kg of fish was eaten in the UK in 2012 (Our future with fish report, Sainsuburys and The Future Foundation 2012)
 Today’s offshore windpower contributes 1.5% of the UK’s electricity supply (1.9GW) (The Crown Estate)
 In a typical year, 20 million tonnes of marine aggregate are dredged from the seabed, providing around 20% of the sand and gravel sales in England (www.bmapa.org)