Islands in an Ocean at risk

The ocean is the source of food and recreation for the coastal populations of the world. Photo courtesy Pat Ganase

On Tobago, few people live further than walking distance from a coast. A majority of the population derives its livelihood from the sea: whether it is indirectly through tourism, or directly from an occupation on the sea. People are also heavily dependent on transportation and supplies by sea – ferries from Trinidad – and energy sources – oil, gas, electricity – conveyed to the island by boat or undersea cable or pipeline.

The west coast of Tobago is washed by the Caribbean Sea; the east coast by the Atlantic Ocean. The island is bathed by the Guiana current bringing seasonal outflow from South America’s mighty Orinoco river.  This week, we look at some of the changes in the state of the ocean, and the likely effects on Tobago and its people. We also consider some of the things that communities might do to stop the decline. The principal source is the overview of the first World Ocean Assessment (WOA) report compiled and published by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in 2016.

What are the significant findings of the first World Ocean Assessment report?

“The findings indicate that the oceans’ carrying capacity (its ability to sustain human activities and their impacts) is near or at its limit and urgent action on a global scale is needed to protect what remains.” (WOA Introduction)

The authors of the report compiled information from more than 600 scientists nominated by UN member states. “Though the report is not a policy document, it provides the scientific basis for action by governments, inter-governmental processes, policy-makers and others involved in ocean affairs. This first WOA offers a baseline for gauging the effectiveness of management and policy decisions and provides guidance in developing strategies and technologies to solve problems.” (WOA Preface)


What are the main drivers of changes in the oceans?

According to the scientists, humans – population seven billion - have developed as a species at the expense of the environment, and we are reaching the limit of what the oceans are able to bear.
“Human activity is causing widespread changes to the oceans’ physical, chemical and biological systems. The major driving forces of change in the ocean are to be found outside the marine environment. Just as most of the major drivers of anthropogenic climate change are land-based, the main drivers of increased pressures on marine biodiversity and marine environmental quality also
come from activities on the land.” (WOA Drivers, Forces of Change)

The main drivers are:
•    Population growth
•    Growth of coastal urban areas: the majority of the world’s population lives on low-lying coasts
•    Rising individual consumption


What pressures are being inflicted on the ocean?
Multiple pressures, and the compounded effects of different pressures acting upon each other, create impacts in different parts of the ocean. These are some of the products that have ended up in the ocean:
•    Nuclear waste
•    Industrial waste
•    Sewerage
•    Medical waste
•    Spills
•    Biological and organic matter
•    Chemicals
•    Heavy metals
•    Infectious microbes and other pathogens
•    Agricultural runoff


What are some of the widespread symptoms arising in the state of the oceans?

“The waters are warming and becoming dangerously more acidic; commercial fish species have been in decline for decades; and coastal waters are experiencing increased pollution from both land based activities and from marine industries like aquaculture.
“”As an example, this year, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef experienced its worst recorded episode of bleaching. … The damage to coral reefs can have wide ranging impact on not only the ecology but also on society and the economy.” (WOA)

In Trinidad and Tobago, dead fish washing ashore may be indicators of undersea pollution: hydrocarbon leaks, heavy metals, seismic activity.

What are some of the ways we can address threats to the ocean?
These are examples of strategies adopted by governments and through inter-governmental agreements. Many of these apply to Tobago and Trinidad, and should be instituted, and enforced with penalties for infringements.
•    Reduce inputs of hazardous substances; and institute measures in case of accidents
•    Prevent maritime disasters such as collision, sinking of ships, hydrocarbon leaks; and implement and enforce agreements governing adverse impacts
•    Improve fishery management
•    Control tourism development to minimise adverse impacts
•    Control solid waste disposal that can reach and affect the marine environment
•    Improve control of offshore hydrocarbon industries and offshore mining
•    Establish and maintain marine protected areas


What can we do to reverse any of the trends?

Coral bleaching, ocean acidification and migration of fish species are some of the significant negative impacts. None of these is easily reversed. While the solution does not lie with single persons or actions, individuals acting together can make a difference. However, it will require massive commitment, with education at every level of society, from enlightened and determined leaders. There is need to organize communities, share knowledge, find out what’s happening in coastal communities, get feedback, and agitate for change.

What are some of the activities that communities might undertake?

•    Cooperative action is essential to any or all of the following:
•    Reduce consumption, reduce waste, re-use and avoid single use (especially plastics), and recycle as a final solution
•    Use renewable energy: solar applications are becoming more affordable, especially in multi-user communities
•    Consume less of everything
•    Secure waste disposal systems; know where your waste goes
•    Install sewerage treatment plants
•    Seek out information; discuss the state of the ocean
•    Agitate local and national government for the changes and legislation that will make a difference, such as management of marine protected areas, enforcement of polluter rules, reduction and disposal systems for plastic.

 The seas are interconnected everywhere; and to reverse the human effects requires collective action. Communities need to be awakened, passions ignited, to be aware of what's happening in the deep ocean, and to save the seas.  It is the only way to save human life as we know it. We are not too small, either in Tobago, or Trinidad, to take conscious steps to heal the ocean.


For more information on the World Ocean Assessment report:

https://uneplive.unep.org/media/docs/assessments/WOA_screen.pdf




Healthy oceans are important for human life as we know it.







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