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Read on for an excerpt from The Blue Wonder in celebration of World Oceans Day!
The Future of the Sea = Our Future
The welfare of the “Blue Wonder” lies in our hands: First, as consumers, we need to make smarter purchasing decisions in a wide range of areas that will contribute to a recovery of the sea and sea life. Second, more intensive research into the effects of industry and pollution on the deep sea is needed to prevent the destruction of habitats out of greed. Last but not least, we need groundbreaking political rules and laws that will protect the sea.
Naturally, I enjoy eating fish and shellfish on occasion, and I often ask myself whether the information on the packaging holds true. Deciding what to buy from the refrigerated area of supermarkets has become even more difficult after research, in September 2018, by the ARD (a respected German broadcaster) led to heavy criticism of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. The blue fish label on more than 50 percent of all fish products sold in Germany traditionally stood for sustainable wild seafood. Producers could use the symbol when they fulfilled three standards of the MSC: sustainable fish stocks, effective fisheries management, and healthy marine ecosystems. So far so good, but scientific research 227 tells another story. Apparently, fisheries practicing bottom trawling—thus turning the seafloor into a desert landscape—were being granted certification, as bottom trawling was accepted by the MSC. Tuna fisheries in Mexico were also given certificates—thus accepting the killing of dolphins as bycatch in the purse seines (however, according to the MSC, it was no more than 500 per year). The findings of the ARD research suggested many times that figure. Scientists and environmentalists then demanded radical improvements and more transparency in the certification process.
Greenpeace advises that we not rely on certification alone, but to look at the fishing methods and catching areas. From experience, I know this can be pretty complicated. A number of apps that can be downloaded onto smartphones are avail- able to offer advice. The fish advisor app from Greenpeace, for example, gives recommendations based on fishing methods and areas as well as sustainability. But even though this advice is helpful, a lot of responsibility still lies with the consumer. Not everyone has the capacity, energy, and time to check out all the various certifications. In 2018, the Consumer Advice Agency in Hamburg noted that a national sustainability seal with consistent criteria would make a lot of sense and is long overdue.
People who want to be absolutely sure have to either stop eating fish altogether or buy targeted products from organic aquaculture. Certification from Naturland guarantees that the keeping of animals is in accord with certain predefined standards and that the waters and surrounding ecosystems are undisturbed, that no chemicals or biogenetics are used, and that the fodder conforms to ecological norms as well as supports the high standard of social treatment of people working and living on their approved operations.
As demands for fish cannot be satisfied without aquaculture, and as this form of fish farming is allowing stocks of wild fish to recuperate, we need more innovative approaches. A proper sustainable project has been developed by a team from the University of Applied Sciences in Saarbrücken. The SEAWATER Cube is, according to the young team, a “biotechnological, complex aquaculture system for the failsafe and compatible production of marine fish species . . . the first small-scale, compact, and ready-for-use units, produced in small batches, allows [SEAWATER Cube] to provide regional and consumer-oriented production of fresh sea fish of the highest quality.” Even though this project is in its early days, mobile, enclosed recirculation systems like the SEAWATER Cube do have the potential to produce top-quality saltwater fish, organically and sustainably and without long-distance transportation.
Once you have decided to give some thought to the subject and to be more conscious about your consumer habits, then the next problem arises: tackling the plastic problem (which in and of itself feels hopeless to many people). What can a single consumer do to combat the glut of plastic products in everyday life? Furthermore, reaching the right decision when shopping is anything but easy: Do I buy the organic bananas wrapped in plastic and the unsprayed lemons in the plastic net, or the loose fruit produced with pesticides? How do I know whether there are microplastics concealed in my shower gel, shampoo, or shaving foam, even if I manage to decipher the small print? Luckily, there is help to be found on the Internet. The smartphone app Beat the Microbead, for instance, can inform you whether a cosmetic product contains dangerous substances when you scan its barcode. On the Internet there are also plenty of lists of such products. People with good eyes or a magnifying glass in their pockets can read the ingredients themselves. A small hint: substances that contain microplastics often begin with “poly,” “nylon,” and “acrylate.” In the mean- time, there is a large range of alternatives to many products like shower gel, shampoo, and toothpaste that were previously available in mostly plastic exteriors and/or contained micro- plastics. So, there you are saving double on plastic. Whale calves and oysters, corals and sea turtles, will be thankful—and, ultimately, we humans, too.
Above all, government has to hold industry accountable. Instead of relying on dialogue and voluntary commitments, government, at long last, needs to enforce binding provisions to protect the environment from this surfeit of plastic waste. One of the first steps in the right direction took place on December 19, 2018. On that day, the negotiators of the EU parliament and the European states agreed to ban certain disposable plastic articles. It was an important first step, but you have to ask yourself why the ban only becomes fully effective starting 2021 when there are already plastic-free alternatives to tableware, straws, and disposable cups. Just to remind ourselves: every year 12.7 million tons of plastic end up in the sea, and it is believed that that this sum will double by 2030 and quadruple by 2050. Regardless, that something is finally being done at a policy-making level and that the changes are visible in day-to-day life is a positive step.
It was only about five years ago that majority of people who attended my lectures had never heard of microplastics. Today, the majority of my audiences know where and in which products these microplastics can be found. Stores selling products without any packaging whatsoever are shooting up like mushrooms, reusable cups made of sustainable materials can be found everywhere, and many supermarkets no longer supply plastic bags at the checkout.
Changes are taking place, which is great and encouraging. I am often asked where my motivation to tirelessly fight for healthy oceans comes from. Some days, when the bad news outweighs the good news, I ask myself the same question. When I walk along a beach gathering litter, cut through old fishing lines under water in coral reefs, or free dying marine creatures from nets, I burn with rage at the stupidity and ignorance of humans and think about just giving it all up. But then I remind myself of the progress: the days when I hold courses for instructors and workshops for trainees who, in turn, will spread their knowledge to their children and friends. The feedback that I get after such events reassures me that, collectively, many people want to and can change the way things are.
I don’t live totally without plastic—to be honest, I still find the thought of doing so extremely difficult. The very few people who do manage to live plastic-free have my complete respect. However, if we are aware of what happens to the disposable articles we buy, where they end up, and the impact they have on humans as well as animals, we are in a better position to do without them the next time we go shopping. There are plenty of alternatives: bulk regional food products, cosmetics without microplastics, sustainable fish, resource-saving secondhand clothing, reef-saving sunscreens.
The fact that sun-protection products that don’t harm coral reefs are now available shows a growing awareness that we need to protect the sea.
Of course, the seas will not be saved by these efforts alone. It will require larger and more far-reaching measures, particularly on global and political levels. A significant factor, if not the most important, is a radical reduction in the amount of plastic waste that we produce and that reaches the seas via all the rivers in the world but particularly the aforementioned top ten. This reduction in the amount of plastic waste reaching the sea can only be stanched by producing less plastic in the first place, which, as a consequence, will mean less waste is created. The ban on disposable plastic articles, which (only) comes into force in Germany in 2021, is a step in the right direction but is not nearly enough. A ban on microplastics in cosmetic products has long been implemented in the United States and Great Britain. Germany still relies on an appeal to the goodwill of the producers while, as Thomas Mani’s research team already published in 2015, at least 192 million microplastic particles flow into the North Sea via the Rhine every day. This voluntary commitment is kowtowing to industry and is highly unlikely to solve the problem of environmental pollution by microplastics. A few strict laws on the use of microplastics and disposable plastics in general, as well as effective processing of wastewater, would lead to an improvement in the situation.
Once plastic has reached the sea it is almost impossible to remove it. Getting rid of the plastic waste that has accumulated in the gyres of the “Big Five” would certainly be a huge advance, but it has so far proven impossible. The Ocean Cleanup project, using a sort of floating comb-like device in which plastic is trapped and gathered, is trying to address the problem, but current technology is not yet sophisticated enough. Whether it will succeed is the subject of hot debate— there are concerns over the dangers of bycatch and the destruction of marine habitats, including that of the pleustons (the organisms living on or near the water–air interface). Still, it is thanks to projects like Ocean Cleanup that recently there has been more media interest in the plastic problem (even though the pollution of the seas by microplastics had been flagged in scientific publications in the early seventies). Since most of the plastic doesn’t float on the surface but disappears to the deep-sea zones, it is difficult to imagine ever ridding the oceans of all plastic. This is why we must ensure that less plastic is made and less flows into the oceans.
We can tackle this together by consuming more consciously and by putting pressure on industry and government to secure our seas so they are healthy and full of life for subsequent generations. Or to put it in the words of the marine biologist Sylvia Earle: “We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.”