In the fight vs climate change, think about the oceans, too

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Dumaguete Metro Post, Calatagan, Batangas, Philippines


RETURN TO SEA. Jessie Delos Reyes, a local reef warden, assists in the release of six baby reef sharks after its mother was caught by a local fishermen. Photo by Anna Valmero.

His skin burnt from patrolling the coasts and years of fins and snorkeling mask. It’s just another day in the office as he readies to release five premature blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) into a nearby shallow reef that already show slight signs of bleaching.

The baby sharks’ swam out in the coastal village’s wharf just as a local fishermen, Mariano Bautista, slit open the belly of their mother, a 1.2-meter long blacktip reef shark, he caught one Sunday morning.

This story is told too often in different parts of the world. Aside from overfishing, by-catch of reef sharks—sometimes accidental, but often not—is a serious issue that leads to the over-depletion of marine resources. 

Each year, up to 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, according to the latest report by Global Ocean Commission, citing global estimates.

The issue of bycatch is one of the many challenges that threaten the oceans and marine biodiversity. But the story does not end here. 

The future of oceans worldwide are also threatened by a mix of challenges such as overfishing, massive biodiversity loss, ineffective management and enforcement of ocean protection, and deficiencies in high seas governance, according to the latest landmark report by the Global Ocean Commission that outlines steps on how to help rescue the world’s oceans.

Non-stop demand from oceans

Just before the premature reef sharks could swim any further and die from the shallow tide at the wharf, Delos Reyes immediately called on to his brother, Alex, to collect the babies so they can be released in a protected reef. 

Releasing them within the next five to ten minutes into the sea can give them a chance at survival to reach adulthood and eventually, contribute to maintaining a healthy, productive reef.

“This is very sad. As much as we tell them to not catch sharks or rays, they rely only on fishing, mostly for subsistence. For them, any catch will mean food on the table. But we are hopeful that the baby sharks we released today will be able to survive back in their natural home and that this serves as a lesson to local fishermen,” noted Delos Reyes, who also served as trainer at Conserve and Protect Oceans (CAPOceans) Foundation, a local foundation that promotes ocean conservation.

Blacktip reef sharks, according to Filipino marine biologist Dr. AA Yaptinchay, are apex predators that help keep fish populations healthy, especially when decades of overfishing has depleted 87 percent of global fish stocks.

“Reef sharks help in controlling sick, diseased, and genetically inferior individuals to maintain robust fish stocks. They also feed on midlevel carnivores to ensure that herbivore fishes can do their job to help coral reefs grow better by eating algae,” noted Yaptinchay.

If there is too much algal growth in the ocean, it can severely stress and upset coral reef systems, that serve as nurseries for small fishes. Without coral reefs to protect them, the small fishes can easily fall prey to predators and die long before they mature and produce their own offspring.

When faced with a choice of keeping the ocean healthy and keeping one’s ability to bring food for the family, sadly, most fisherfolk would go for the latter.

When asked how much he sold the fins, Bautista said that he sold the freshly-cut fins for 200 pesos (5 dollars) a kilo, the same price as a kilo of tanigue, a local mackerel caught this time of the year. Meanwhile, the reef shark’s meat was sold at 20 pesos a kilo (about half a dollar).

A kilo of dried shark’s fin—a local delicacy served in Chinese restaurants—sells for 7,000 pesos or 161 dollars, said Delos Reyes when he made rounds in Divisoria, a popular bargain’s market in Manila.

The blacktip reef shark is listed as a near threatened species under the IUCN Red List, referring to global populations “not in immediate danger of depletion.”

“While they may still be common, it does not mean that they are not threatened,” said Yaptinchay.

Lobbying for protection of marine animals is slowly taking progress after the Philippines recently passed a bill that bans the catching of sharks and rays, while some local airline carriers such as Cebu Pacific prohibited shark fin carriage to help discourage the trade.

‘Ghostly white’ reefs

After releasing the baby reef sharks, Delos Reyes takes the small outrigger canoe to another part of the Batangas coasts. This time, he aims to revisit the increasing coral bleaching off the coasts of Calatagan. He is concerned because of the forecast 2014 El Nino, which sends back memories of the 1998 when 16 percent of global reefs in shallow waters died from bleaching, followed by another event in 2010.

On the surface, coral bleaching may be seen as corals turning white, losing their distinct color and eventually dying, turning into ghostly white skeletal structures underwater. But the coral losing colors is only a symptom of bigger issues and threats faced by oceans and marine life.

Dubbed as rainforests of the sea, coral reefs serve a multitude of functions such as providing smaller fish a shelter to hang out and protecting them from predators until they grow big enough to venture into larger reefs and produce their own offspring. 

Corals also serve as an important “bioindicator” of the health of marine systems: they warn scientists of ecosystem disturbances and provide a buffer time so mitigation can be done long before catastrophic shifts can occur.

An increase in areas affected by coral bleaching can mean prolonged or sudden rise in ocean temperatures and stresses from ocean acidification, both caused by too much emission of carbon into the atmosphere.

“CO2 emissions indeed provide a triple threat to the ocean with the impacts of ocean acidification, warming temperatures and reduced oxygen stressing ocean species and ecosystems,” said the Commission.

Carbon dioxide acts like a blanket that traps heat on earth. Too much of it can cause a warming planet and climate change that also heats up oceans. A World Bank study noted that if caps on carbon emissions are not controlled, we could have up to a 4 degrees Centigrade increase by as early as 2060.

So how does a surplus of carbon in the atmosphere impact the ocean and pose threats such as acidification and coral bleaching?

When sea temperatures rise beyond average, corals—a dense community of polyps and algae—are stressed. Normally, polyps and algae cohabit the coral and exist in a symbiotic relationship: polyps are like farmers harvesting the food provided by photosynthetic algae. Then, the algae live in the coral and use the excreted products of the polyps for its food production of glucose and other compounds.

“When ocean waters warm, corals get stressed and release their symbiotic algae, making them turn white, or bleach,” said Mark Warner, professor at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

When exposed to too much heat underwater, the algae produce toxins instead of glucose. Naturally as a defense against the toxins, polyps eject the algae living in its tissues. When this happens, the coral becomes very vulnerable due to insufficient food supply that they get from the algae.

What happens if the algae are not reabsorbed back by the coral?

“The coral will die. They just can’t survive long-term without them,” explained Stephanie Wear, director of coral reef conservation at The Nature Conservancy.

This spells trouble for marine ecosystems and overall, to humans who eat fish and rely on the ocean for income.
 



BLEACHED. Corals succumb to stress such as changes in ocean temperature and ocean acidification, caused by excessive amounts of carbon in the atmosphere. Without corals, reefs—that shelter fishes—cannot exist.

Exacerbating this threat to corals and global fish supply is the twin of climate change, ocean acidification.

In addition to providing fish and trade routes, oceans serve another important role in mitigating the impact of climate change: it is an important carbon sink.

Oceans absorb a third or 30 percent of carbon emitted into the atmosphere by human activities, mostly from energy and industrial use. 

Too much carbon absorbed in the water makes ocean more acidic, just like how a fizzy water is more acidic than your regular drinking water, said Dr. Jean-Pascal van Ypersele of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“If there are no oceans to absorb the excess carbon in the atmosphere, imagine that the temperature we have now will have been warmer,” van Ypersele said during a Manila briefing.

WARMER PLANET. Without the oceans that serve as carbon sink, the planet’s temperature would have been warmer, according to Dr. Jean-Pascal van Ypersele of IPCC.

Global researches have pinned the thinning of shells and even outer skeletons of planktons—tiny microorganisms that fish and most marine animals feed on—as an effect of oceans turning increasingly acidic. 

Corals, especially the “reef builders” or those that establish the framework for reefs also face slow growth. This is due to acidification that limits the availability of carbonate ions, which are needed by corals and other organisms to calcify and build protective shells.

On average, corals grow at a rate of 2 centimeters a year and having said that, it takes many years to grow a reef.

Other researches have showed that the impact of ocean acidification extend to small fishes, which when exposed to acidic water cannot detect predators. If populations of small fishes at the bottom of the pyramid face the risk of decreased populations, this could tip the balance of the entire food web.

Back in the 60s to the 80s, massive use of dynamite fishing in Batangas and other parts of the Philippines for quick and easy money from unsustainable catch have severely damaged coral reefs in the Philippines. 

The Philippines, which sits at the center of the Coral Triangle—the most bountiful area of the seas with rich biodiversity and high marine productivity—is also a hotspot due to the high rate of biodiversity loss.

In Batangas, some grassroots groups have started projects such as building artificial reefs to help rejuvenate fish stocks. Delos Reyes, together with several diver-volunteers helped built the 14 gigantic artificial reef pyramids funded by CAPOCeans founder, the late Bu Madrigal in Calatagan.

Another Filipino scientist, Dr. Joey Gatus of San Carlos University in Cebu and leader of the reef rehabilitation program funded by the Department of Science and Technology, has developed a way to grow polyps in broken corals and transplant them in new reef sites.

These stories inspire local action and commitment among stakeholders to save the oceans. But the big task ahead calls for action and commitment, both at the local and international front, so that synergies in efforts are achieved.

With time ticking fast, the Global Ocean Commission, composed of 14 experts from around the world, formulated a policy tool as a means of rescuing the oceans through several approaches. They hope to do so in the next five years.

A bold plan to rescue the oceans

In June, the Global Ocean Commission launched its landmark policy tool to help guide a five-year rescue plan for the ocean amid a warming planet due to increasing carbon emissions. (Access the full report here.)

The policy tool analyzed the issues and challenges faced by global oceans and cited eight steps to rescue the ocean from its declining state to one of sustainability.

GOC Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euEZ5hEwrM8
SUSTAINABLE GOAL: Among the proposals of the Global Ocean Commission is the creation of a Sustainable Development Goal for the oceans to ensure that support and resources will be gathered for the five-year rescue plan.

The first proposal calls UN member states and all stakeholders to create a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for oceans by promoting sustainable fishing, protecting vulnerable marine areas such as the high seas, of which the Philippines mainly benefits from.

A post-2015 SDG on ocean is believed to highlight ocean issues and trigger global action, according to members of the Commission.

“This report looks at the most important resource we had, which is the ocean and it is looking at what do we need to do as communities and countries to protect this resource so it can continue to sustain life in the planet,” noted GOC Commissioner Carol Browner, who is also former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

It makes sense to invest in the protection of oceans and at the soonest possible time and the Commission is the inclusion of targets to keep healthy, productive and resilient oceans, promoting biodiversity, reducing pollution, protection of coastal ecosystems, and a ban on overfishing.

In the Pacific, Palau, a member of the Small Islands Developing States, announced its campaign for an SDG for the ocean, with hopes that the same thrust will increase the momentum for gathering support, action and resources to meet the goal of protecting oceans similar to the success highlights of the Millennium Development Goals across nations.

The second proposal calls for the governance of the high seas and the sustainable and equitable use of marine resources, which at present is lacking.

In essence, it calls for adding teeth to UNCLOS by implementing a legally binding agreement that will improve the compliance, implementation, and responsibilities of states on the use of marine resources, including the protection of protected areas.

At present, only 2.8 percent of the world’s oceans are classified as marine protected areas (MPAs) but most still face challenges of effective management.

MPAs, which help restrict use of marine resources on designated special zones to mitigate human impact and help reefs recover and to ensure fish stocks in the long run, said marine and reef expert, Dr. Perry Alino of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute.

“There is sufficient scientific data and concern to act now on ocean acidification. It is important and urgent to increase ocean resilience given the impacts or acidification and climate change. The creation of large MPAs is known to be the best tool available to increase ocean resilience,” the Commission said. 

In essence, it helps give fish and reefs a chance to take a break and increase their population so that it can spawn more stocks in nearby fishing areas. Imagine the creation of MPAs and the restricted fishing as saving in a bank. It is noteworthy that oceans, unlike banks, can regenerate a lot of resources if people will enforce it, said Philippine national scientist Dr. Angel Alcala, who is also a trustee and former president of Siliman University in Dumaguete.

An authority in ecology, Dr. Alcala was instrumental in the rehabilitation of coral reefs in Apo Island, one of the top diving spots in the country. During his decades of work in Siliman University, Alcala helped the community in establishing an MPA in Apo Island, some two hours of boat ride from the mainland.
 



DIVERSITY. In Apo Island off the coasts of Dumaguete, the establishment of a marine protected area helped rehabilitate the reefs and the marine animals such as turtles thrived as well. Photo by Anna Valmero.

The small community now benefits from the no-fishing zones on one part of the island by getting tourism jobs. Divers around the world visit the island to see the massive coral reefs teeming with marine life and the turtles.
 

In fact, the thriving diving industry helped improve the local economy in the area so the people help patrol their seas, day in and out. Master divers who introduce and guide guests to the world beneath the waters also remove thrash such as plastic or bottles on the ocean floor as part of their routine of keeping the corals safe.

The Philippines, which sit at the center of the Coral Triangle—the richest marine region in the planet—plays a huge role in protecting oceans. For one, the reefs in the country’s coasts are vital in keeping marine diversity and fish stocks in the region, while generating over 100 million jobs in the Southeast Asian region.

Aside from ensuring effective management and protection of MPAs, it also makes sense to create networks of MPAs within countries and in neighboring nations to multiply the impact. An example of this is the Coral Triangle Initiative formed by the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor L’Este, that seeks to protect the region with the richest marine resource on the planet that face threats from overfishing, among others.

The third and fourth proposal calls for a ban on overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU).

According to the Global Ocean Commission report, IUU fishing on the high seas is worth some $1.2 billion a year, while total revenues for IUU fishing is equivalent to one-fifth of total fishing revenues (worth about $10 billion to $23 billion).

In the long run, illegal fishing will strip the high seas of fish stocks and threaten food security in most developing nations that heavily rely on the sea for food and income, the report noted.

And all stakeholders are enjoined to work against illegal fishing. Retailers and processors, for example, should ensure that their seafood sources are caught using sustainable means.

The Global Ocean Commission also called for the creation of a Global Ocean Accountability Board to monitor the adoption and implementation of the proposals outlined in the policy tool. In so doing, benchmarks are set and measure performance of nations and stakeholders objectively similar to how international agencies and industry associations work.

The Global Ocean Accountability Board will be “an entity independent from the UN and from private sector interests, thus not subject to constant pressure,” according to the Commission.

To complement this board, the Commission also called for the appointment of a UN Special Representative for Oceans who will serve as point person to “bring coherence to the currently fragmented approach on rescuing oceans, which the report has identified as an obstacle to a healthy and sustainable ocean as well as facilitate synergies between different international governance groups.”

Another important component of the proposal is the creation of regeneration zones in high seas, or areas beyond the exclusive economic zones or beyond national jurisdiction.
 



SUNSET INDUSTRY? If there is no urgent action done to rescue the oceans from overfishing and other unsustainable challenges, fishing may soon be a sunset industry. Photo by Anna Valmero.

“Closure of high seas has multiple benefits to exclusive economic zones adjacent to it. Fisheries yields could increase by 30%, profits by 100%, and conservation of fish stocks improve by 150%. These increases mean more opportunities for employment and greater food security,” according to the Commissioners.

The Commission clarified that is not proposing an immediate closure of high seas fisheries. It is proposing that the international community considers this option if within five years ocean health continues to deteriorate.

What’s the greatest challenge so far?

“Much of the problem in implementation is due to lack of political will. International cooperation, like how ocean sustainability is a common goal for members of the ASEAN region, often helps in the resolution of wider conflicts because of common interests.” 

At this writing, the Commission has proposed set targets and indicators on high seas protection and conservation with the UN Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals. They are optimistic the suggestions will be considered and discussed during the deliberations.