It is time to save our oceans
“The ocean is in deep trouble.... Marine pollution is taking us to a point where, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than there will be fish,” said Peter Thomson, the 71st president of the United Nations General Assembly, in an interview with Africa Renewal (see page 10).
Mr. Thomson’s dire warning is not a hyperbolic flourish: about 80% of ocean litter is plastics that, when ingested, can kill fish, seabirds, turtles, oysters and other creatures. Also, plastics washed ashore often damage agricultural land and discourage tourism.
Africa is primarily concerned with the livelihoods of its millions of citizens, especially those who live along the continent’s 30,500-kilometre coastline and depend on fish for food and income. Every year Kenya’s supermarkets alone use about 100 million plastic bags, many of which end up in the ocean. And more plastics, which do not rot, in the ocean means more deaths of sea creatures.
Africa’s coastal communities also grapple with a changing climate and overfishing. As a result of coastal erosion, whole communities in Mozambique have had to relocate, while Togo has suffered economic losses of about 2.3% of GDP, according to a 2016 World Bank report.
Africa’s policy makers and prominent Africans, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are unhappy over the billions of dollars lost annually to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The cost of illegal fishing to Somalia alone is about $300 million annually.
Mostly perpetrated by foreign fishing fleets, overfishing also disrupts ecosystems and endangers biodiversity. Currently, some 37 types of fish are on a growing list of species becoming extinct in Africa, including octopus and grouper, which are hardly found these days in Mauritanian waters on the West African coast.
In June, when scientists and representatives of governments and civil society gather at the UN headquarters in New York for the crucial Ocean Conference, they will discuss ways to prudently manage ocean resources for sustainable development, which is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14. But individual African governments, with support from the World Bank, the UN and other institutions, are already taking measures to tackle climate change, overfishing and plastic in the ocean.
The Rwandan government has banned plastic bags, Liberia and Sierra Leone have enacted acts to regulate fisheries and installed ocean surveillance systems, fishing communities in Cape Verde have organized to protect fishing zones, and Mozambique has carved out an area for conservation that includes coastline.
Sylvia Earle, a renowned American oceanographer, says that she’s hopeful that life in African seas, though in trouble, is not dead. Sounding a note of optimism, Mr. Thomson says, “I have no doubt that we will break this problem.”