In 1962, American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring, in which she delved into the environmental effects of the pesticide DDT. The title alludes to the effects of indiscriminate spraying of DDT in the US, where it wiped out entire bird populations. It was a wake-up call for many nations and was effective in protecting the environment from continued use of the chemical.
Last week, an autopsy was conducted on a sperm whale that washed up on a beach in Taiwan and the results showed that a marine equivalent of Silent Spring has been taking place in the oceans. The only difference is that DDT was switched with plastic waste.
Marine life being killed by plastic waste is not news. Since its invention in the 1950s, its convenience and durability have made plastic an ubiquitous material of the modern era. Large volumes of plastic garbage have made their way into the sea and have become widespread pollutants.
Studies have found out that the density of plastic debris in the oceans is 580,000 pieces per square kilometer. Each year, about 8 million tonnes of plastic garbage finds its way into the oceans. It is estimated that by 2025, a 3 tonne catch of fish would contain 1 tonne of plastic waste. So far, 600 marine animal species have been found with plastic debris in their bodies.
In September, two separate studies found that 52 percent of marine turtles might be ingesting plastic garbage, mistaking it for food. It was also found that more than 80 seabird species have ingested plastic garbage as food and 29 percent of seabirds have plastic waste in their bodies. Researchers estimated that by 2050, 99 percent of all seabird species would have ingested plastic garbage.
The marine environment is an integrated and connected entity, thus its protection requires international cooperation.
Last month, in the second session of the Our Ocean marine conference, Chile and the US made marine garbage, ocean acidification, marine conservation and sustainable fishing priority issues for marine conservation. Attendees announced their commitment to more than 80 items of marine conservation measures and an investment of more than US$2 trillion dollars.
During the conference, the US and China signed a bilateral agreement to reduce the amount of marine garbage at four major ports, while the EU promoted a recycling economy. A seafood traceability program was initiated as part of a broader, coordinated effort to tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud.
Chile announced the creation of the Nazca Desventuradas Marine Park, a 297,000 square kilometer area covering much of the exclusive economic zone of the islands of San Ambrosio and San Felix. It also agreed to create a marine protected area in the 720,000 square kilometer exclusive economic zone of Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island.
Governments and foundations agreed to provide funding for studying marine environmental change, such as acidification of the oceans. Other issues included marine garbage monitoring and reduction, research and development in marine applications of science and technology, and promoting education on marine issues.
Looking at the issues from Taiwan’s perspective, there is still room for development.
Conservation International released a global marine health index last month. It showed that Taiwan, with 64 points — below the global average of 70 — ranked 141st among 221 nations and regions. Taiwan’s score for clean seawater was very low at 45 points, which put the nation in 193rd place. Taiwan also scored low in sustainable fishing with 31 points, ranking 164th.
The numbers show that the two issues are in dire need of improvement. To make matters worse, in September, the EU warned Taiwan with a yellow card for fishery management. This highlighted the presence of illegal fishing and poor regulation in the nation.
The government has no plans or international cooperation frameworks to deal with marine garbage, except for a few studies and private beach-cleaning initiatives.
The establishment of a government body to deal with maritime issues has been discussed for more than a decade. Finally, in June, an act to form a Cabinet-level body, the Ocean Affairs Council (OAC), was passed. The expectation was that two bodies run by the OAC — the Ocean Conservation Administration and Taiwan Ocean Research Institute — would be responsible for cross-agency research and planning.
However, the act’s 10th article stipulates that the date when it is to go into effect would be decided by the Executive Yuan. Thus the establishment of a marine conservation agency has been postponed.
It is hoped that those in charge of the agency would have an international perspective, and would consider the vital global issues raised by the Our Ocean conference and the marine health index. It is hoped that the agency develops a sustainable marine program for Taiwan. Hopefully, next time it would be Taiwan’s turn to go to the conference and announce a marine conservation strategy.
Huang Hsiang-wen is associate professor and director of the Institute of Marine Affairs and resource management at National Taiwan Ocean University.
Translated by Clare Lear
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