Valuing our marine resources
Our oceans are linked intrinsically to the health of our planet. The sea sequesters much of the carbon dioxide that we have released into the atmosphere, thereby slowing global warming.
It regulates our climate and cools the planet, and it facilitates the existence of an amazing biodiversity of sea life.
It is also an essential resource for mankind, as it provides food and vital proteins for billions, and sustains the livelihoods for many people in the world’s poorest countries. We also owe every second breath we take to the oxygen-producing phytoplankton that make the sea their home.
Yet despite the critical importance of the world’s oceans to everything living above water, only 5.7 per cent of our seas are protected.
The United Nations recognises that careful management of this essential global resource is a key feature of a sustainable future, and has established a goal of protecting 10 per cent of our coastal and marine areas by 2020. Clearly, the global community has a lot more to do to reach this target.
The importance of marine protection is underlined by the health of our oceans being in serious decline. There is a growing realisation globally that we need to stop or reverse this worrying trend, as the consequences of the long-term neglect of our oceans are finally coming home to roost.
The destruction of marine habitats, large-scale plastic pollution, run-off from fertiliser, pesticide and sewage, and decades-long waste dumping have all taken a massive toll on the marine environment on which so many of us depend to survive.
Our global fisheries have been at a steady rate of decline largely owing to the advent of industrial-style fishing being practised on a wide scale for decades. A UN study showed that the fraction of fish stocks that is within biologically sustainable levels has dropped from 90 per cent in 1974 to 66.9 per cent in 2015.
This means one third of global fishing is done unsustainably and this accelerates as fish stocks become increasingly more scarce. Global warming is also having a significant impact because warmer waters has meant accelerated breeding of dangerous, cholera-carrying bacteria and more toxic algae in our oceans, both of which could poison fish and the humans that eat them.
Climate change is already having demonstrable effects on our oceans, and in future will be the trigger for more extreme weather events such as hurricanes, rising sea levels, the destruction of coral reefs from coral bleaching, and the disruption of ocean currents and, therefore, fish migratory patterns.
The threat to our oceans is not localised but is happening across the globe. Some regions have been reduced to marine deserts because of coral reefs dying on a massive scale as a result of warming seas and pollution.
It is believed that 50 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have died in the past 40 years. Half of the American-Caribbean coral died in one massive bleaching event back in 2005, and half of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is now devastated from a 2017 bleaching event.
Overfishing is in danger of wiping out entire fish species that people depend on, and creating a downward spiral for the health of other species.
These changes are happening too quickly for nature to right the balance, and, even if we stopped these unsustainable practices today, some ecosystems would still take years of careful management to recover.
Natural processes that have taken place under the waves for thousands of years are being unravelled in decades.
So, what does this all mean for Bermuda?
Bermuda has always had a special relationship and history with the sea. Our marine resources, comprising our inshore sea, reefs and fisheries, provide numerous benefits for us. Our vital fishery feeds us and supplies our restaurants and hotels.
Our reefs have attracted tourists to our shores for years, and they act as a natural barrier to large ocean swells that would create havoc on our shoreline and beaches if left unchecked.
Perhaps, most importantly, they provide essential habitat for juvenile fish and an essential support system for our fishery. Without them, the Bermuda fishery would collapse. In terms of direct economic benefit, we owe our tourism industry to the continued health and survival of our marine resources.
Bermuda’s waters and reefs are valuable not just for us, but for marine science. The island is a world-renowned research centre for a few key reasons: first, our unique geographic position in the midst of the Gulf Stream’s warm-water current means we enjoy the northernmost coral reefs in the world.
These thousand-year-old reefs are incredibly sensitive and often provide a looking glass into the overall health of the oceans, while also being a haven for marine biodiversity.
Second, Bermuda is also the only land territory in the Sargasso Sea, a swathe of ocean in which the free-floating Sargassum seaweed thrives and provides shelter and habitat for all kinds of marine species.
This sea has been recognised by scientists as being vital for the health of the Atlantic Ocean’s major fisheries and marine biodiversity, as well as slowing the impact of global warming, owing to the plants and algae that it supports absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide.
Finally, and what should be a most sobering fact for us, Bermuda’s special appeal for marine scientists is also partly because the island is considered to be on the front line for ocean change, meaning that we are more directly exposed to the negative impacts on the oceans, such as declining fish stocks, increasing tropical cyclone intensity and rising sea levels.
It would seem the value of our marine resources cannot be estimated, but what have we done to make sure they are safeguarded and remain viable for future generations?
Bermuda has taken some first steps towards mitigating overfishing such as the 1990 fish pot ban; fishing restrictions involving size, season and catch limits; and no-take zones over various wreck and dive sites and key spawning grounds when in season.
However, the restrictions have value only if they are enforced, and fishing remains woefully underpoliced in Bermuda, as evidenced by the recent video circulating on social media involving illegal fishing of protected groupers.
How much of this is going on that we do not see? Are local businesses sourcing their seafood responsibly?
The island has also taken a small role in the stewardship of the Sargasso Sea. In 2015, Bermuda signed the Hamilton Declaration with the United States, Britain, Azores and Monaco, which established the Sargasso Sea Commission, a nation collective aimed at conserving the Sargasso Sea ecosystem.
Bermuda is also a member of the Sargasso Sea Alliance, a partnership of scientists and international marine conservation groups who share a similar mandate.
Despite these initiatives, Bermuda has fallen short of taking more conclusive action in the protection of the marine resources within our territorial boundaries, or exclusive economic zone, which extends out from our island 200 miles in all directions.
The situation with the world’s oceans seems overwhelming, but it is not all doom and gloom. Nature can bounce back if given the chance, before we pass the point of no return. It starts with educating and informing the cause of the problem — us.
This is especially important in Bermuda given our coexistence with and proximity to the sea. We need to look beneath the surface and recognise that there is a very real and dangerous situation happening in our own backyard, and it is happening now.
Overfishing and illegal fishing practices have contributed to declining fish stocks and ultimately threaten the existence of our fisheries and, thereby, our food security.
Ocean pollution and sewage/fertiliser/pesticide run-off are harming our beaches, coastline, fisheries and our invaluable coral reefs. These all have harmful knock-on effects for our tourism, food security, national security, and our own health and wellbeing.
So what can I do in Bermuda that will have any impact? Write to your local MPs to urge government action to increase protection of our fisheries via more policing and enforcement of fishing regulations, both at the sourcing and retail level.
Support the many local environmental charities and projects that help to conserve our reefs, fisheries and shorelines, such as the Keep Bermuda Beautiful beach clean-ups and lionfish-culling tournaments.
Ask your restaurants and supermarkets to disclose where your seafood comes from to encourage more responsible sourcing methods — many businesses in Britain and North America are now doing this.
Let us restart the conversation about developing a marine protected area to ensure full protection of our nearshore waters, indefinitely, for future generations.
The time for debate is over. There is irrefutable evidence to show that humankind is at a critical point in deciding the future of our oceans, and ultimately the health of the planet. We need to act now, both individually and as a country, to protect our marine resources and do whatever we can within our power to stop the decline of our oceans.
• Adam Farrell is a member of the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce’s marine resources committee
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