Out of sight, out of mind is generally the rule of thumb around the globe when it comes to the garbage we create every day. No matter how religious we might be about recycling, invariably each one of us is still responsible for filling a garbage bag or two each week, which then gets sets out on the curb, and—poof!—magically disappears.
In supersized nations like the United States, Canada, Russia, or Germany, landfills are usually hidden from view (out of sight, out of mind) but in small island-nations like the Maldives, entire islands have been turned into dumps.
The name of the Maldivian rubbish island is Thilafushi. It sits just four miles off the main island of Male and is distinguished by the thick black smoke rising from it all day long. To reach the trash-only island, you pass Prison Island (to hold miscreants and scofflaws) and Apartment Island (to hold the country’s ever-expanding human population).
On Male, rocked recently by a presidential coup, more than 100,000 people live squeezed into one-and-a-half-square miles. Despite the cramped space on an island in the heart of the Indian Ocean, theirs is a modern existence, with cars and motor scooters, apartment buildings, shopping malls, markets and government offices. Nearby, Airport Island is connected by a flotilla of floating taxis.
All of this living produces a lot of garbage. Rather than sink it to the bottom of the sea (which I’m sure was the practice not so long ago), it is now all boated to Thilafushi, which is today completely covered in trash. Sadly, a poisonous fog hangs over what might have been just another of the 1,200 gorgeous Maldivian islands.
This one is a faux island, though, created in 1992 to hold the country’s garbage. Today it receives 300 to 400 tons of trash each day. Locals are responsible, of course, but so are the 850,000 tourists who visited last year, each of them producing more than seven pounds of trash a day (five times what small island Maldivians produce). A few of the resort islands have focused on recycling, reducing use of plastic, and have built their own waste-to-energy plants, but just a handful.
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One major worry is that if toxic products such as mercury, lead, or asbestos leak into the sea, it will have a dramatic effect on the undersea environment and will eventually find its way into the food chain. Initially, the garbage was buried on the island; now it is burned. The nasty smoke gives residents of Male headaches and coughs, especially when the winds blow from the west. Bluepeace, the 30-year-old environmental group that monitors local issues, calls the garbage island a “toxic bomb in the ocean.”
Fifty years ago when waste produced on islands was fish bones and coconut shells, getting rid of it was simple. Toss it into the sea. Those days are long gone. On every island I’ve visited in the Maldives, there are trash heaps lining one shoreline or another. This was made most evident the first time I visited—just after the tsunami of 2004—because the big waves that washed over the islands carried the trash everywhere.
With sea levels rising in the Maldives—eight inches in the last century—and with 80 percent of the nation’s land less than three feet above sea level, where to put trash is just one of its many problems.
Maldivian authorities say they are working to reduce the toxic effects from Thilafushi. A proposed law would limit the types of garbage allowed to be burned to only organic materials. Another solution is exporting its recyclable waste, mostly iron and plastic, to China, Malaysia, and neighboring India.
Meaning that soon the Maldives’ two biggest exports will be fish…and garbage.
What should island-nations, like the Maldives, do with the trash they produce: a) bury it; b) burn it; or c) ship it to China? Tell us your answer in the comments.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the ocean’s future when you scroll through the headlines: Overfishing has decimated fish populations around the world; beaches are thick with plastic; carbon dioxide dumped into the ocean by the burning of fossil fuels is killing off coral reefs; water temperatures around the globe are rising; etc., etc., etc.
Maybe it’s because things have begun to look so dire that there is a renewed concern and interest in all things ocean lately, ranging from economic symposiums and new laws to entrepreneurial investments and a public-awareness boom.
I was nudged last week to think about a variety of good ocean news after reading a post by Peter Seligmann, cofounder, chairman and CEO of Conservation International. He had just attended a couple of big think tanks on ocean issues—at the World Economic Forum in Davos and The Economist’s World Oceans Summit in Singapore—and was moved by how ocean issues seem to have been pushed to the top of a variety of agendas.
““Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state—an important shift in attitude…””
“In my 36 years of work in conservation, I have never before witnessed as much attention and concern being paid to the deteriorating health of our oceans,” Seligmann wrote. “Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state—an important shift in attitude that gives me reason for hope.”
With Seligmann’s words as a jumpstart, here are 10 reasons for hope for the planet’s one ocean:
1) JAMES CAMERON’S DEEPSEA CHALLENGER
Filmmaker and undersea explorer James Cameron’s solo drive to the deepest void in the ocean in his chartreuse Deepsea Challenger garnered praise from his peers as well as billions of Internet eyeballs for both its success and innovation. Since 1960, 22 people have walked on the moon; only three people have gone that deep. Given that 90 percent of the ocean is still barely explored, there’s a lot of underwater territory to map out, and Cameron has made it seem exciting. His success will soon be hopefully emulated by Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic, which the entrepreneur activist intends to pilot to the deeps of the Atlantic Ocean before the end of 2012.
2) TARGETING SPECIFIC FIXES WITH THE OCEAN HEALTH INDEX
One thing that has made fixing what’s wrong with the ocean so tricky is that all that water has always seemed massive and uncontrollable, a giant waste dump that will take care of itself without our help. Clearly that’s not true. Conservation International’s soon-to-be-released Ocean Health Index should help governments and businessmen focus on specific fixes, region by region, which will help both ocean health and the economies of the people who live and depend on it. Its scientists have assessed the waters off 172 countries, measuring ten factors—from climate change and acidification to human well-being and conservation plans—in order to come up with numerical rankings to help decide what are the biggest needs and best fixes for that particular corner of the ocean.
3) NEW SPECIES FOUND!
Similarly, for 10 years 2,700 scientists from 80 countries have focused on life below sea level, producing in 2010 an unparalleled look at ocean life dubbed the Census of Marine Life. What did they find? 1,200 new species to add to the 250,000 already-named sea creatures. But perhaps the most exciting—and challenging—part of the research lies in the future: The CoML estimates there are another 750,000 species out there that are still unnamed, swimming around a place long-considered by many to be cold, dark and inhospitable to life.
4) A GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP FOR OCEANS
Just because you convene in big groups to talk about how dire the ocean’s future is does not mean anything will get done, especially if it involves raising and spending money. The recently formed Global Partnership for Oceans is an alliance of governments, environmental groups and the private sector (i.e. bankers) intent on putting money where it’s talking points are, focused on sustainable fisheries and ecosystems as well as jobs.
5) KEEPING THE OCEAN’S “HOPE SPOTS” HEALTHY
It’s hard not to be affected by the enthusiasm for the ocean whenever the Queen of the Deep (Sylvia Earle) speaks, which is often, since she remains the go-to person at virtually every ocean conference around the world. Near to her heart and public role are “Hope Spots” she and her team have identified around the planet. For now, these are 16 marine areas scattered around the globe that are critical to the health of the ocean, which Earle calls “Earth’s blue heart.” Some Hope Spots are already protected as marine preserves, while others are deserving of the same accreditation and protection.
6) COMMITMENT TO CREATING MORE MARINE PROTECTED AREAS
While 12 percent of land is protected by international, national or local designation as reserves or park, far less than one percent of the ocean is similarly protected. Like the Hope Spots, there is a boom in creating new Marine Protected Areas, from California to the Chagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef to the Baa Atoll in the Maldives. While protecting specific species is often a key reason for protection, so is keeping these areas as viable economies for locals who have depended on them for food and jobs for generations.
7) NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY’S OCEAN INITIATIVE
It’s impossible to miss the National Geographic Society’s fingerprints on many of these ongoing ocean projects, from its early and very public support of Cameron’s deep dive to the Ocean Health Index and Earle’s Hope Spots. Its own Ocean Initiative is driven by the passion of executive vice president Terry Garcia, former deputy administrator of NOAA, and extends to all of its media platforms, from its website to specials on its television channel.
MORE FUNDING FOR OCEAN EXPLORATION
It turns out Cameron isn’t the only mega-rich guy desiring credibility as an ocean explorer. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos funded the project that just discovered—using high-tech sonar technology—the giant F-1 rocket engines that powered the Apollo 11 moon shot and have been lost at sea since 1969. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt funds the eponymous Schmidt Ocean Institute, intent on mounting seaborne expeditions using state-of-the-art-technology to explore—and share—scientific information about the ocean.
9) THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION’S NATIONAL OCEAN POLICY
Until the Obama Administration, no presidency had even proposed a National Ocean Policy. Aimed at coordinating regional efforts on fishing rules and regulations, marine protected areas, pollution, and America’s coastlines, the policy has not been adopted as law yet but an executive order signed by the president in July 2010 directs federal agencies to work together on policies that strengthen ocean governance.
10) BIG CHAIN SUPERMARKETS THAT SUPPORT SUSTAINABLE SHOPPING
At the consumer level, supermarkets—including a number of big chains —are very publicly onboard with trying to educate shoppers about which fish are most sustainable and which are not. On Earth Day (April 22) Whole Foods, for example, will announce that it will no longer carry wild-caught fish regarded as at-risk, including Albacore tuna, bluefin tuna, imported shrimp, as well as most mahi mahi, shark, red snapper and tilapia. Armed with research done by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Guide, modern-day fishmongers and buyers are increasingly knowledgeable about which fish are abundant, and which are not.
Just a couple of weeks after BP agreed to fork over $7.8 billion to settle 110,000 claims by Gulf Coast residents affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, another of the so-called supermajor oil companies, Chevron, has been fined and censured due to sizable ongoing spills.
Several incidents at Chevron rigs in the Frade oil field (roughly 230 miles northeast of Rio de Janerio) since late last year—and as recently as this week—have oozed more than 3,000 barrels of crude into the Atlantic Ocean. Brazilian prosecutors have filed an $11.2 billion civil suit against both Chevron and, voila, its drilling partner Transocean Ltd., for the accidents. Add that to previously assessed fines topping $100 million.
“A sizable oil leak was first detected last November; today (March 20) the company admitted to a “new small seep.” An anonymous source tells Brazilian officials many more spills are imminent.”
Frade is the largest foreign-run oil field in Brazil, producing more than 80,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Though Chevron, the biggest foreign oil company working in Brazil, has temporarily shut down its production operations in the country, there’s talk among local politicians about banning Chevron from Brazil’s oil riches if it doesn’t shape up. Along those lines, 17 employees of Chevron and Transocean had their passports confiscated this week and are banned from leaving Brazil until a full accounting of the recent accidents is made.
According to a report in The New York Times, Brazil’s state-controlled oil giant Petrobas reported 66 oil leaks in the country in 2011, which spilled more than 60,000 gallons. Brazil’s boom, and leaks, are a reminder of just how closely tied drilling and spilling are:
1) While the future of the Keystone XL pipeline is still being hotly debated, a new report by Cornell University claims that spills from tar sands—a heavier and more corrosive oil product that puts greater stress on pipelines—are three times more likely to occur than conventionally accessed oil. The existing Keystone 1 pipeline, operating since 2010, has had 35 spills in its 2,100-mile run.
2) We reported here in 2010 about a one-million-gallon oil spill from tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that eventually drifted 40 miles upstream. More than 130 houses have since been abandoned along the river; hunting, fishing and other recreational activities in the area have been forbidden; and the cleanup has cost twice what pipeline operator Enbridge, Inc. originally estimated, so far topping $725 million.
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3) With the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion on the horizon (April 20), BP was happy to get that $7.8 billion worth of payoffs behind it. But as deepwater drilling picks up off the Gulf Coast, some drilling within Mexican and Cuban waters and out of U.S. cleanup jurisdiction, the company is far from off the hook. The Wall Street Journal reports that civil penalties of $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel (the total spilled was 4.9 million barrels) and additional penalties under the Clean Water Act could cost the company another $21 billion. BP needs to keep on drilling in order to pay off its fines, including ramping up its five deepwater rigs still operating in the Gulf and the three more coming online before year’s end.
4) In the boldest move yet in the exploitation-versus-environmental protection tug-of-war, Shell Oil has preemptively sued 13 environmental groups (Audubon Society, Oceana, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and more) before even drilling its first well. Though the company has spent $4 billion since 2007 on its Chukchi Sea project without sucking a drop of oil from the floor of the Arctic Ocean, it is requesting a federal court to declare in advance that its cleanup response plans are sufficient. The cynical lawsuit suggests the company is preparing not for if an accident may occur, but when.
It’s become almost an accepted norm that “global environmental summits”—whether focused on carbon emissions or the number of tuna taken from the sea—launch with a great deal of hoopla, produce a lot of paperwork, and then are largely forgotten until four years later when the same gangs convene all over again.
But as last week’s World Oceans Summit in Singapore, sponsored by The Economist magazine, wound down, it was on a bit of a positive note, perhaps because the summit made sure to invite not just environmentalists, but bankers and economists too.
Like many of the world’s big problems, sound economic policy must go hand-in-hand with creative environmental solutions. Leave the money guys out of problem-solving and chances are you’ll come away both short of cash and follow-through.
In his keynote speech at the gathering’s opening, World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick set the tone by suggesting that solving the ills that ail the world’s oceans involves bringing the private sector and international public institutions (in this case venerated environmental groups including Conservation International, the IUCN, the World Wild Life Fund and more) together and forcing them (my emphasis) to work side by side.
The groups that signed on to support the initiative include the World Bank, California-based Paine & Partners (a private equity firm), and the National Geographic Society; nonprofit environmental groups including CI and the Environmental Defense Fund; industry groups such as the National Fisheries Institute; and international organizations like FAO, UNESCO and the UNDP. The Global Partnership for Oceans was the name given the cooperative agreement, and on its face it sounds like the best, most-inclusive plan for helping to protect the oceans that I’ve heard in a decade. “The bottom line,” Conservation International’s CEO Peter Seligmann told the crowd, “is our lives depend on oceans, but we need to better understand them.” He went on to say that “enlightened self-interest” should propel all nations and communities to take care of the ocean.
(Thanks to a scheduling conflict—whether accidental or deliberate, we’ll never know—the meeting overlapped with the 2012 Ocean Sciences Meeting, held in Salt Lake City and attracting 4,000 ocean experts. Maybe leaving the eggheads out was strategic? Only time will tell if their input might have helped.)
“Leave the money guys out of problem-solving and chances are you’ll come away both short of cash and follow-through.”
The goal of the newly announced alliance—which intends to raise $1.5 billion to support its efforts—is to speak with one voice regarding overfishing, pollution and habitat loss, through partnerships ranging from projects like carbon-dioxide-absorbing seaweed farms to establishing more marine-protected areas and helping small fishermen better compete against big commercial ventures.
The group cited a variety of socioeconomic and environmental reasons for its intense focus on the ocean:
90 percent of people who make their living off the ocean live in developing countries;
350 million jobs globally are linked to the ocean;
1 billion people in developing countries depend on fish for their primary source of protein;
5 times more carbon is stored by coastal habitats than tropical forests, helping to absorb heat and carbon dioxide, generate oxygen and help regulate the world’s weather patterns;
85 nations and $102 billion are involved in the international fish trade;
$9 billion earned in ecotourism from reef diving;
$10 billion in tuna alone is traded each year;
85 percent of the world’s ocean fisheries are categorized as Fully Exploited, Over-Exploited or Depleted;
$2.2 trillion has been lost in the past 30 years due to mismanagement of the fisheries;
and less than 2 percent of ocean is protected, while more than 12 percent of land is under protection.
The Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, coming in June, will be the first opportunity for the new partnership to prove it can become a viable player in global efforts to manage the ocean, something no one has succeeded in…yet.
Whether judged from land, sea, or sky, critiques of President Obama’s environmental policies, or lack of same, are growing.
Whether the debate is over new leases for offshore oil drilling, the plan for the Keystone XL pipeline, new regulations on ground-level ozone and smog, a dwindling focus on climate-change initiatives, or the future of a once-highly-touted ocean policy, many are concerned Obama’s environmental record may hurt him come reelection time.
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Part of the problem, according to a recent survey of science journalists by ProPublica and the Columbia Journalism Review, is the administration’s failure to maintain the open dialogue it promised when taking office. Long waits for requests under the freedom-of-information laws, restricted access to important sources, delayed interviews, and the presence of media liaisons—i.e. minders—during interviews is among the complaints. Without access to the top levels of science and information, goes the argument, it is hard to make the case for the administration’s plans. MoveOn.org’s executive director Justin Ruben went so far as to say the kind of environmental decisions coming from this White House were what “we’d expect from George W. Bush.”
The EPA, under constant attack from Congressional Republicans and presidential candidates (several of whom have said if elected they would abolish the agency on day one), is understandably gun-shy. Administrator Lisa Jackson has been very public in defense of her agency and her boss, reminding that the impacts of dirty air and water equally affect rich and poor, black and white. She wonders out loud how and why doing the right thing for the environment has become so politicized.
The hoped-for National Ocean Policy, instituted by the president by executive order in 2009, hasn’t even inched towards reality. The objective of the Policy was for a task force to recommend policies and set up regional planning bodies to implement them. The hope was to come up with a plan that spoke with one voice to address offshore drilling, commercial fishing limits, marine-protected areas, recreational use of federal waters, and other pressing ocean issues.
“[EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson] wonders out loud how and why doing the right thing for the environment has become so politicized.”
Instead, the so-called National Ocean Council has become mired in partisan politics. Democrats in Congress initially rallied around it, citing its positive inclusion of things like renewable energy conservation. Republicans and their lobbyists complained it would only create new regulatory burdens and give the regional councils undue power.
At a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee last week, intended to push the National Ocean Policy process forward, Republicans thwarted it, suggesting, according to NRC Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash), the plan was nothing but a bureaucratic waste of money, a way to create what it calls “ocean zoning.” The Republican-led committee made its feelings about the law clear in the title of the hearing: “The President’s New National Ocean Policy — A Plan for Further Restrictions on Ocean, Coastal and Inland Activities.”
“This White House policy has been driven under the claim that it’s only an ocean conservation measure, when its actual effects could be far-reaching and economically hurtful to American jobs and businesses both at sea and on shore,” said Hastings, as reported in Politico.
Democrats, led by California Congressman Sam Farr, argued the continued lack of a coordinated national plan, thus leaving the door open for conflicting regional laws and plenty of indecision, is the real creator of more bureaucracy and inefficiency.
In its blog, the White House quoted planning members of the National Ocean Council on how the law would create jobs and protect the environment.
“Contrary to the president’s political opponents’ efforts to portray this policy as a hyper-regulatory economic anchor, the principles contained in the National Ocean Policy actually pave the way for a more efficient, forward-thinking approach that will benefit both new and existing uses of ocean space,” argued an editorial in American Progress. “Meanwhile, the status quo supported by House Republicans is a cart-before-the-horse approach that will eliminate certainty, reduce likelihood of private investment, and delay development with an endless stream of lawsuits.”
The truth, certainly, lies somewhere deep in the middle.
(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)
Another lovely, provocative day at the SLOWLIFE Symposium in the Maldives, as reported by its team:
Surrounded by the deep blue of the Indian Ocean, the fate of the world’s seas has been a central topic for speakers here at the SLOWLIFE Symposium in the Maldives. Friday morning’s panel session ‘The lifeblood of the planet – preserving ocean biodiversity’ brought together four people who are passionate about this theme: chairing was Chris Gorrell Barnes, of Blue Marine Foundation; joining him was Fabien Cousteau; Jon Bowermaster, the writer and explorer; and the actress and environmentalist Daryl Hannah.
Jon Bowermaster, Daryl Hannah, Fabien Cousteau, Chris Gorell-Barnes
Chris opened by setting the scene, reminding us that as 70% of the Earth is ocean, we are an ocean planet more than a terrestrial one – and yet the oceans are in crisis. It is true also that a majority of the world’s population lives near the coastline: 17 megacities are located on the coast, so what happens to the sea directly impacts two thirds of the people on Earth, and ultimately all of us.
Jon reported that having travelled by sea kayak to a number of continents – on one trip paddling from, for example, the Aleutian Islands to Vietnam – several issues kept coming up over and over again. The first was climate change, with the associated impacts of more frequent and stronger storms, sea level rise, and a rising of sea surface temperature. The second was plastic pollution, which is now evident in remote places and faraway islands, and the third is overfishing, which is dramatically impacting the whole global ocean.
Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of the great oceans exploration pioneer Jacques Cousteau (who would have been a hundred last year) spoke about how the seas have changed in just three generations of his own family, with 60% of the world’s total fish stocks destroyed since the 1950s. But Fabien is far from despondent, citing an example of a successful project in El Salvador which recruited local people – who had previously made a living by taking and selling the eggs of endangered turtles – to protect the hatchlings instead, transforming a 0% survival rate to 1.6 million turtle hatchlings in the space of a year.
Daryl Hannah praised the Maldives government for banning shark fishing, an unsustainable practice which is destroying these great ocean predators, with shark finning still responsible for the destruction of 200,000 sharks per year. She also pointed out how just one year after the ban, sharks were already seeming to become more numerous – a point noted by many in the audience, who have been entranced by the sight of as many as a dozen juvenile black-tip reef sharks circling in the shallow waters under the main Soneva Fushi jetty.
One of the issues being tackled at the moment is how to protect the newly-created Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the region in which Soneva Fushi – the host for the SLOWLIFE Symposium – is located. Blue Marine Foundation has already made a donation, whilst resorts are now cooperating to raise further funds to recruit rangers from the local fishing population. Maldives Vice-President Dr Waheed, who was also in the audience, spoke about how most Maldivian schoolchildren had never seen a coral reef, simply because they did not have access to snorkelling equipment – and how simply providing masks and snorkels to schools could do much to promote awareness of marine biodiversity amongst the next generation of Maldivians.
The broad consensus was that for the depletion of marine biodiversity to be reversed, both the fishing and tourist industries have to be engaged in driving forward innovative solutions – in the Maldives and further afield. Both these economic sectors in the Maldives depend entirely on the bounty of the sea – whether hooking and canning tuna for the overseas export trade, or reef fish for tourists to see on a dive or a snorkelling trip – and both must surely work together to protect the seas for today and for future generations.
This entry was posted in Blog Highlight, Highlight and tagged blue marine foundation, chris gorell barnes, climate change, Fabien Cousteau, Jon Bowermaster, Maldives, marine conservation, oceans, Six Senses Laamu, SLOW LIFE Symposium by slowlife. Bookmark the permalink.