Over two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, with nearly 97% of this being in the oceans. Oceans are home to amazing creatures—from microscopic phytoplankton which produce most of the Earth’s oxygen, to gigantic whales which take your breath away. World Wildlife Day is celebrated each year on March 3rd to celebrate and raise awareness about the diverse wildlife on our planet. The theme for 2019 is “Life below water: for people and planet" which aligns with goal 14 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, i.e. to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.
India has a coastline of 7,517 km. Peninsular India is surrounded by the Arabian sea on the west, the Bay of Bengal on the East and the Indian Ocean on the South which is home to unique marine life harboured in a diverse range of ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangroves and estuaries. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal have some of India’s major coral reefs and provide habitat to dugongs and breeding ground for turtles. The coast of Odisha in India is the largest mass nesting site for the Olive Ridley turtles in the world with several lakhs of them returning each year to lay their eggs. Some other charismatic marine species found in Indian waters are leatherback sea turtles, tiger sharks, whale sharks, blue whales and Bryde’s whales.
The vast natural resources such as food, crude oil and minerals (like salt, manganese and nickel), provided by oceans, play a major role in the country’s economy, diet and culture. However, in recent times, oceans have been deteriorating across the world due to many factors. Globally, plastic pollution in the oceans is a growing concern. In November 2018, a sperm whale was found dead in Indonesia with over 6 kg of plastic in its stomach. Canadian scientists recently reported evidence for the presence of plastic contaminants in bird eggs in the Arctic. The deepest point on Earth, the Mariana Trench, was also found to contain startling amounts of plastic. “There is no doubt that there is a lot of plastic in our waters, as evidenced by the volume of it that washes up, and also from the increasing number of fishers who report catching a whole lot of plastic in their nets”, says marine biologist Abhishek Jamalabad, while speaking about plastic waste in Indian seas.
“We find plastics in our ocean not only because individuals are careless and don't dispose of plastics carefully but because the system itself doesn't work towards reducing plastic in packaging”, adds Marianne Manuel, Assistant Director of Dakshin Foundation.
Overexploited fish stocks
Fishing has been an important occupation for people living in the coastal areas of India for hundreds of years. Bottom trawling, which involves pulling a net across the seafloor using one or more boats, and dynamite fishing cause depletion of fish stocks and push some species to the brink of extinction. Vulnerable species like turtles, dolphins, sea snakes, rays and sharks often end up as bycatch while trawl fishing. "Marine Capture Fishing policy all over the coastal states have to be reviewed from the point of conservation and ecosystem perspective. Fisheries department mainly work as a welfare department and regulatory roles are limited. Data from the last five decades have shown that fish landings aren’t decreasing despite a multifold increase in fishing efforts, technologies and number of fishing vessels. This indicates the availability of limited fish production and an ecosystem approach to fisheries needs to be focused on", says Dr Mahabaleshwar Hegde, a marine biologist and senior program manager at Namati, an organization that builds networks of community paralegals across the globe. Speaking about possible solutions to indiscriminate fishing, Muralidharan M, Field Director of the Biodiversity and Resource Monitoring Programme at Dakshin Foundation adds that “we need to support and highlight small-scale/artisanal fishing practices as a viable production system in fisheries while gradually moving away from industrial large-scale volume-based fishery practices.”
“Two threats that often go under the public radar are unplanned shipping expansion and the port development that goes with it, threatening marine environments and the people that live around and depend upon them, and the extraction of minerals and fossil fuels from the sea, which first damages marine ecosystems during the prospecting process and then opens up very serious pollution hazards”, adds Jamalabad.
In an effort to spread awareness about the diverse marine life on our shores and the threats faced by them, Jamalabad co-founded Marine Life of Mumbai (MLOM), a volunteer-driven initiative which conducts regular shore walks on Mumbai’s beaches. Apart from encouraging more people to explore the shores, they also collect data about the different species they find and upload this information on iNaturalist, an open biodiversity database.
“We have built up a repository of Mumbai's intertidal biodiversity that currently clocks in over 1300 observations of 284 species, excluding the unidentified species, and we are still continuing to catalogue newer finds during visits to the shores”, says Jamalabad. Now, how can an individual play a part in the conservation of oceans? Whether you live close to the coasts or not, here are some ways in which you can contribute to marine conservation this World Wildlife Day:
· Reduce the usage of plastic products. How does all the plastic enter our oceans? The journey starts from our homes—mismanaged plastic waste from drains and landfills eventually finds its way into the oceans. One of the most effective ways in which you can help save the oceans is by refusing single-use plastic like straws, bottles, stirrers, etc, and switch to eco-friendly alternatives if necessary.
· Make sustainable seafood choices. Buy locally from the fish market instead of supermarkets whenever possible. Further, avoid eating certain species of fish during their breeding season. Initiatives like ‘In Season Fish’ and ‘Know Your Fish’ provide details on specific fish breeding seasons and alternative fish species which can be eaten during this period.
· Support organizations working towards ocean conservation. Volunteer with a local NGO which works on marine conservation such as Dakshin Foundation, Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation and Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee.
· Support citizen-science initiatives: Join nature walks and initiatives like MLOM, which not only spread awareness about conservation but also help collect data and build networks in this community.
· Take care of the beach. Ensure that don’t leave any waste behind during visits to the beach. You can take this one step further by joining local clean-up drives.
Editor's Note: This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the Deccan Herald