Marine species in danger

Life below water

Clownfish swim amongst coral reefs off the coast of the French overseas territory of Mayotte, in the Comoros Archipelago of the Indian Ocean. AFP

The United Nations espoused a theme “Life below water” for World Wildlife Day 2019 to align with Sustainable Development Goal 14. For the first time, marine species were brought into focus, to build awareness by highlighting their critical issues, thereby springing an opportunity to scale up a step to support and conserve them. 

Marine species were attended to by very few conservation groups as their prime focus area was wildlife’s endangered species. Anyone and everyone can be a wildlife advocate. However, when it comes to marine species, people lack awareness, experience and capability. Today, there is a dearth of marine ecologists and marine anthropologists to conserve the world’s marine species. 

On the one hand, coral reefs provide a haven for diverse marine species; on the other, they play a crucial role in protecting the coastline from erosion. India is home to fringing reefs, reef atolls and patch reefs — three out of the four major types of coral reefs. Coral reefs in India are one of the most important marine ecosystems. India’s 7,500-km coastline has 2,300 sq km of coral reef area.

Various studies attributed the absence of coral reefs in the Bay of Bengal primarily to the immense quantity of freshwater brought in by the rivers, heavy monsoons and a thickly populated coastline. The major coral reefs in India are in Andaman and Nicobar Islands (950 sq km), Lakshadweep islands (810 sq km), Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat (460 sq km) and Gulf of Mannar, Palk Bay, in Tamil Nadu (90 sq km). 

The billion-dollar reef fish trade is posing a threat to marine species as they get captured by cyanide or traps. The act of destroying the coral reef ecosystems by overfishing, blasting and poisoning can be stopped if countries create protected areas and impose export quotas of marine species. 

Blast fishing, or the practice of using explosives and dynamites to kill and catch schools of reef fish, is not only increasing the toll but also destroying coral reef colonies. Blast fishing shatters fragile coral reefs as the impact of even the smallest blast kills coral tissues and the debris on the sea floor prevents coral colonies from recovering. 

Most fishermen are untutored and ill-informed about the marine ecosystem. They were never told that the fish would permanently disappear once the reefs are gone. More than 60% of the reefs are under risk due to destructive fishing. The rising ocean temperatures and acidification magnify the problem of coral erosion. 

Overfishing is another alarming peril. Fish are among the essential components of the marine ecosystem. Overfishing and human activities in the oceans jeopardise the global marine species. With 10% of the global marine biodiversity, India contributes 6% of the global fish production, which accounts for about 1% of the GDP and 5% of agricultural GDP. 

India’s fishing exports are significantly contributing to foreign exchange earnings. The irony is that two-thirds of Indian fishermen still live below the poverty line. The Fishery Survey of India was established in 1946 to augment fish production in the country. However, it has not entirely succeeded at protecting fish diversity, a shortcoming that imperils the livelihood of fishermen, critical marine species and biodiversity.

Globally, countries must strictly enforce established marine protected areas, and increase the sustainability of fishing practices to safeguard biomass. Establishing and earmarking protected reserves, where all poaching and fishing is banned, is the only way to protect and restore marine species. The international community pledged to protect 10% of the global oceans by 2020. We have achieved only half of the goal for the decade -- 5% of oceans protected today — just a year away from the deadline. 

The growth of trawling and industrial fishing has wiped out sea turtles and other endangered species. Some 90% of top predators such as sharks, swordfish, marlin, grouper and croaker experienced dramatic population declines. The dwindling fish stocks indeed will have a substantial negative impact on cetacean species, such as dolphins, mink whales and porpoises, as they mainly feed on several fish species. Marine biodiversity is unable to handle the change in oceans and fails to maintain the precarious balance between prey and predator.  

Sharks are undoubtedly frightening, but only ten shark species are potentially dangerous out of some 500 species of sharks. It is very unlikely of a shark to pounce at humans unless they are threatened. On the contrary, humans kill more than 100 million sharks every year. The apex predators of marine ecosystems are becoming the prey of humans. 

Globally, the population of sharks has seen a drastic decline and various shark species are severely depleted, some upto 80%. Shark fins fetch as much as $5,000 per kilo. The rest of the shark is useless to the poachers and not worth transporting the entire shark to shore. Therefore, the dying sharks are thrown into the ocean floors after their fins are chopped off.

Humankind, with an innate ability to be kind to all, has ironically lost its kindness to nature. To be convivial with nature, wildlife and marine biodiversity is the need of the hour.

To ensure the conservation of marine biodiversity, everyone should be aware of marine species, problems and opportunities. If the current trend continues, the coming generations will probably have to be content watching documentaries on television about marine species. The vast majority of marine species presently are at risk of extinction. We may be the last generation to co-exist with sharks and other endangered marine species — that’s no exaggeration but a looming reality.

(The author was formerly with National Geographic)

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