Oceans of Trouble

Crises in the use and management of the world’s marine and aquatic resources are
a foretaste of greater challenges that will be delivered by the increasing demands
we impose on the resources of the seas.

David Thompson reports.

THE SEA has provided us with a means of transport and trade, and a source of food and materials varying from whale oil and seal-skin to pearls and exotic substances extracted from corals. The sea has also been used as a theatre of war and plunder, and as a depository for waste and pollutant. Its coastal waters are a playground for the recreation and sports industries and a location for maritime and petroleum installations, as well as fish farming. These demands have now increased to the point where the health and productivity of the seas are threatened, with governments and big business increasingly concerned to assert or increase their control over the marine environment and their ownership of its resources.

The most obvious outcome is pollution, particularly of the coastal zone. The pressure on its living resources is apparent in the battle for fish ownership or harvesting rights. Both sets of demands are causing negative consequences of a social, economic, environmental and food security nature.

We were warned in the 1950s in Rachel Carson’s book The Sea Around Us, and since then, not only environmentalists and academics but governments and bodies like the World Bank have expressed serious concern. In 1996, Time magazine’s “State of the Planet” declared: Without healthy seas, humanity would be doomed. Yet we keep on destroying our most precious resource before we even know what we are losing.


THE SEA was treated for centuries as a bottomless garbage pit which could cope with infinite amounts of toxic and non-biodegradable material. Until the middle of the 20th century this was not seen as a problem. But then came what E.F. Schumacher described in 1973 as a quantum leap in industrial production. The “tolerance margins” of benign nature could no longer cope.

Chemical waste, effluent and hardware from industrial plants and factories were added to increasing amounts of untreated sewage and domestic waste. Radio-active waste was and is being released from nuclear power stations and from the naval and air force nuclear weapons which are being dumped in the ocean depths in containers that will corrode and leak long before the half-life of the plutonium or strontium is reached. Agricultural pesticides and fertilizers contaminate rivers, and the run-off entering the sea is increasingly carrying nitrates and other chemicals. The Open University lists the main pollutants in the ocean as mercury, lead, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls, perchlorethylene, petroleum, radio-active elements and heat.

Inshore waters where children and anglers could in recent years observe and catch a great variety of sea life, are now largely sterile apart the presence of hardy lugworms, barnacles and some shellfish which in many locations are unsafe to eat. The upper Moray Firth in Scotland was devoid of fish life for 10 years after the closure of the aluminium plant in Invergordon, which dumped much of its waste in the area. Most fishermen and anglers in the region attribute the absence of sea life to that one industrial plant. Some believe the strange disease affecting Moray Firth dolphins may have started as a result of the aluminium chemical waste.

Asia and Africa have few effective controls on dumping. Deforestation is causing soil erosion and coastal pollution. The bottom of the once pristine Manila Bay and the adjacent freshwater Laguna de Bay has been covered with a blanket of plastic bags and similar garbage for many years. Destruction of the sea-bed environment is proceeding apace off the shores of tropical countries as coral is mined and collected to supply tourist markets and as living coral beds are killed by the effects of dynamite and cyanide fishing (the latter being utilized in the capture of wild fish for the aquarium fish trade).