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In Deep Waters: Current Threats to the Marine Ecology

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    15th Mar, 2021
In Deep Waters: Current Threats to the Marine Ecology


  • The importance of oceans and seas for mankind is increasingly recognised by the international community.
  • The inclusion of an ocean-related goal into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), namely SDG 14 “Life below Water”, is a move to this end.
  • Every coastal State face threats to marine ecosystems and the environment as complex societal, economic and governance challenges.
  • Ocean management involves multi-disciplinary science and complex issues of policy design, while implementation demands consultative decision-making and long-term capacity development.
  • In order to achieve sustainable development and conservation goals, it is essential to improve the integration of science into marine policy, whilst achieving social and economic inclusivity and diversity.
  • From coastal systems where human activities are layered in ocean space, to remote oceanic systems, management faces complex challenges in identifying and quantifying trade-offs between conservation and sectoral interests.

In this special report, we will showcase the current issues of marine environment and policies.

What activities are damaging the marine ecosystem?

  1. Fishing
  • Importance:
    • It provides food and job to millions of people inhabiting the 10 littoral countries and territories. Fish are also a major source of protein for people in Southeast Asia.
    • Coastal wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs are important for the spawning, nursing and feeding of the fish stocks.
    • The Spratly Islandsare an important source of fish larvae that get transported to other regions as well. Healthy marine wildlife populations on the Spratly Islands could have beneficial effects in helping sustain fisheries in the western Philippines.
    • There is the existence of some larval exchange among the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoals, Paracel Islands, and reefs of the main Philippine Such connectivity has evolutionary importance in maintaining the biodiversity of the Spratly Islands.
  • Consequences:
    • Decades-long, unabated fishing has resulted in overfishing and declining fish stocks which are threatening food security in the densely populated region.
    • Further, as fish stocks near coastal areas decline, fishermen are moving out farther and deeper into the sea and utilising techniques such as cyanide and dynamite fishing which in turn are causing further damage to marine life.
    • Blasting destroys the coral reefs while cyanide poisoning accelerates the bleaching of coral reefs and sometimes out-rightly kills them.
  • Maritime militia:
    • Studies shows that many of the fishing vessels are not engaged in fishing at all, despite being big modern trawlers.
    • Such vessels are engaged in patrolling, resupply and surveillance operations in the area.
    • Their mere presence can escalate the tensed situation with the very real possibility of clashes with fishing vessels of other countries.
  1. Dredging and Construction
    • The dredging activities send up plumes of sediment and corrosive sand, laced with metal and oil from the dredging ships. These plumes wash back into the sea and smother the speciesunderwater by blocking sunlight and oxygen.
    • Increased sedimentation in the water columns of these reefs has also decreased the absorption and chlorophyll in the region thereby deterring the survival of phytoplankton which provides food for a wide range of marine life.
    • Alteration of the coral reefs has also deposited sediments on the seafloor. The periodic dredging would prevent most reef organisms from settling, and would trigger a chronic problem of sand and silt plumes for surrounding marine zones.
    • These activities have led to increased turbidity and sedimentation on the lagoons surrounding these reefs, which have caused live coral reef species to be buried and killed under the reef flats due to the construction activities. 
    • Deep dredging cuts through thousands of years of reef limestone and these sediments are particularly hazardous to soft and hard corals
    • They can reduce growth rates, cause lesions, and inhibit sexual reproduction amongst coral species. The weakened corals may become susceptible to diseases.
  • The damaging impacts of dredging on Fishes
    • Elevated sediment levels have affected the survival of the fish stocks in the region.
    • The plumes and sediment clouds that rise from dredging operations inhibit the visual and chemical cues of the fishes, making them less capable of finding their foraging spots and habitat, as well as identifying predators and prey.
    • For example, in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, clownfishpods developed mucous in their gills and pathogenic bacteria when exposed to these sediments for long.

Dredging is the act of removing silt and other material from the bottom of bodies of water and is carried out as preparation for constructions.

  1. Hydrofracking
  • The damaging impacts of Hydrofracking
    • Offshore oil and gas operations pose significant environmental danger since these activities release huge amounts of liquids, solids and gas into the waters, damaging the ecosystems and endangering the species that inhabit them. 
    • The preliminary seismic surveys, the rig installation and drilling, the hydrocarbon production, and the transportation of the oil and natural gas cause damage to the seabed.
    • Big projects that dig deeper for extraction are more impactful.
    • Seismic surveys cause noise, emissions and discharges that harm the fish pods that are dependent on auditory and visual cues as they traverse their habitat.
    • Drilling operations dispose slurry consisting of mud, cuttings, wash water, drainage, and sewage into the ocean. They also cause harmful emissions with frequent leakage and spillage of the extracted hydrocarbons.

Hydrofracking, also called Hydraulic fracturing, is a well stimulation technique involving the fracturing of bedrock formations by a pressurized liquid. It is a controversial oil and gas extraction technique developed in the late 1940s to gain access to fossil energy deposits previously inaccessible to drilling operations.     

Other causes of Environmental Degradation

Human-Induced Pollution

  • It includes discharge of untreated domestic and industrial waste, port and harbor operations, agricultural and aquaculture production, and mining
  • The resulting contaminants include pathogenic bacteria, nutrient and organic matter, heavy metals and toxic particles, which cause pollution in a variety of forms like red tide, algal bloom, and poisoning and death of marine creatures. Such practices are detrimental to marine organisms and mangrove habitats.
  • Destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling and the use of poison and explosives pose a serious threat to coral reefs.
  • Other forms of anthropogenic pollution include land reclamation, plastic waste, and unsustainable tourism.
  • Plastic waste pollutes the seas, releasing toxins in the dissolving process. The toxic chemicals can enter human food chains via fish that consume the toxins. Plastic waste can be life-threatening to sea creatures swallowing big pieces of plastic debris.

Climate Change Effects

  • Climate variability poses an even more pressing challenge to marine protection.
  • The marine habitats are ‘victims’ of the changing climate itself; as warming sea surface temperatures, increasing sea salinity, rising sea levels, and other climate-related changes pose threats to marine ecosystem.
  • The possible effects of climate variability on mangroves, fisheries, sea-grass and coral reefs are briefly described below.
  • Climate Change Impacts on Mangroves
    • Mangroves have a significant role in reducing flooding risk, as they provide protection against coastal erosion and inundation.
    • Increased salinity also affects mangrove growth and has the potential to damage plant life. Sea level rise and coastal inundation are the biggest threats to mangrove ecosystems, although certain types of mangroves can be more resilient.
    • Global warming, brought about by greenhouse gas emission, has resulted in mangroves expanding pole-wards
  • Climate Change Impacts on Fisheries
    • Terrestrial animal and plant species have been moving away from the Equator at around 20 cm per hour in the last 40 years. Several marine species are exhibiting similar behaviour.
    • With a projected continuous rise in temperature, even the typically tropical or warm-water fish species may leave tropical waters, causing severe fish stock depletion along the tropical areas.
    • Increasing sea temperatures may reduce fish size by 14 to 24% globally from 2000 to 2050.
  • Climate Change Impacts on Sea-grass
    • Sea-grass beds provide spawning spaces for fish and serve as food to certain types of fishes (such as rabbitfish and wrasse).
    • Sea-grass is heading towards extinction due to anthropogenic activities such as irrigation, coastal developments, wastewater discharge and fisheries development.
    • About 30 to 40% of sea-grass beds have disappeared in Indonesia, while the figures stand at 20 to 30% in Thailand and 30 to 50% in the Philippines.
    • The destruction of sea-grass habitats is damaging not only to marine biodiversity but also to the economy and food security. Depleting sea-grass means reducing fish stocks for human consumption.
  • Climate Change Impacts on Coral Reefs
    • Coral reefs in SCS have been subjected to warming sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification since the early 1980s.
    • Coral reefs in SCS decreased by 16% between 1994 and 2004.
    • Surface of the SCS could become 0.3 to 0.35 pH levels more acidic.
    • However, little is known about the ability of coral reefs and other calcifying reef organisms to adapt to acidifying sea waters.

Contravention of International Laws

  • The London Convention, ratified in 1975 by the United States, was the first international agreement to spell out better protection for the marine environment. An updated agreement, the London Protocol, went into effect in 2006, more specifically banning all wastes and materials except for a short list of items, like leftover materials from dredging.
  • Under UNCLOS, member states have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment and ensure that their activities do not cause damage to other States and their environment via pollution.
  • Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) mandates the member states to ensure that their activities do not cause environmental damage beyond their national jurisdiction.
  • Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972 stipulates reporting requirements and adherence to compliance procedures from its Parties.

The need for Marine Environmental Governance

  • Maritime disputes in waters have heightened tensions among littoral states. This has significantly shifted attention and resources from arising non-traditional insecurities.
  • The different nations should push for more attention to be given to the natural marine environment in the bilateral talks.
  • Marine environmental protection, viewed as a ‘soft security’ issue, might hold the key to building mutual trust and confidence among littoral states.
  • Instead of further militarising troubled waters, countries across the globe should form a cooperative management framework with marine environmental protection as one of its main pillars.
  • The alarming state of the environment indicates the urgency for enhancing cooperation among countries concerned, as effective governance of the waters is beyond the capacity of any individual country.

Conclusion and the Way Forward

It is estimated that even if the island building project is scrapped, it would take decades for the environment to recover. Many Southeast Asian countries have established regional bodies for managing the fisheries in the SCS region.

These bodies include the Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission (APFIC), the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC), and the Regional Plan of Action to Promote Responsible Fishing Practices (RPOA). However, most of these entities play only an advisory role in policymaking or simply carry out assessment and research related to fishery management.  Most of the agreements that provided for the setting up of these organisations are worded in non-binding language.  They require simply voluntary implementation of the recommendations and leave the execution on co-management and cooperation, which is largely absent.