Threats to the Ocean

Oceans are essential to life on Earth: 70% of our planet’s surface is covered by water. Marine biodiversity plays a vital role in maintaining the functionality and productivity of ecosystems, and helps stabilize the global climate. Fish is the main source of animal protein for more than a billion human beings and also a source of income for millions of families around the world. But the oceans are suffering… 

The intensive exploitation of the marine world by humans is not a recent phenomenon, but in the last few decades it has undergone a brutal and tragic acceleration. Extraordinary technological progress and the shrinking of geographical limits have transformed large-scale fishing into an existential threat to ocean biodiversity. Over the centuries, humans have often considered the marine environment to be an inexhaustible resource, but all the experts in the field now agree that the ocean’s resources are not only limited, they are in an alarming state of decline. 

For those who want to have a better understanding of the issues, this section explores the main threats affecting life in and around the oceanspollution, ocean grabbing, aquaculture, overfishing, pirate fishing, and climate change. 

  • Pollution

    Every year, huge quantities of waste and pollutants are dumped into the oceans. Many of these substances did not even exist 50 years ago. Ocean pollution, particularly in coastal waters, comes from activities on land and at sea. These pollutants are then spread around the planet by ocean currents. 

    Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year. About 8 million tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean, mostly via rivers, but also from plastic tossed overboard from ships. Much of this plastic waste is carried over great distances by oceanic currents and gathers in huge vortices. On this journey—which lasts about 10 years—large pieces of plastic are progressively eroded and eventually broken down into particles smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter, or microplastics, which are eaten by sealife and consequently by us (find out more: Slow Food International Congress Chengdu Motion 6: Plastic in the Planet’s Ecosystem). 

    Fertilizers and pesticides from farms, industrial and nuclear waste, dirty water, and garbage are all dumped in waterways and end up in the ocean.  

    Emissions from industry and transport are another significant source of pollution from the land. Chemical compounds like copper, nickel, mercury, cadmium, lead, zinc, and synthetic organic compounds remain in the air for weeks, if not more. They are then carried by the wind and often end up in the ocean. 

    Sound pollution, which profoundly disturbs the behavior of some animal species such as large marine mammals, is another increasingly serious problem.

    Oil spills caused by boats colliding or running aground are a significant international problem with a long history, and now similar spills of other dangerous, noxious substances are worsening the situation. 

    Once in the marine environment, many pollutants from the land or the sea accumulate in the food chain and pose a serious threat to ecosystems, whether along the coast or in deep waters. 

  • Aquaculture

    Breeding fish is not the solution!

    Aquaculture has existed for thousands of years and provides a sustainable source of protein in many contexts and regions, often mimicking nature or with high interaction with other types of food production. 

    The quantity of fish being farmed for human consumption has risen steadily over the last 70 years. Fish, shrimps, crabs, and mussels are the most commonly farmed marine animals. Today there is more farmed fish than wild-caught fish.  

    The rapid expansion and corporate consolidation of the aquaculture sector over the past decades has generated a lot controversy and important questions. Despite some improvements in recent years, aquaculture is still not an answer to overfishing or to food security, aintensive fish farming has many negative consequences for the environment and coastal communities. For instance: 

    Ecosystem destruction: 

    • The fish injure themselves, get sick, and fall victim to parasites more easily, when they are in pens. To counter these effects, fish farmers rely on antibiotics and pesticides which contaminate the water. Wastewater is overloaded with food residue, antibiotics and excrement, creating dead zones in the natural environment around the farm sites. 
    • Coastal ecosystems are often completely destroyed in order to make room for intensive aquaculture. This is the case with the artificial ponds created to farm tropical shrimp. Mangroves are chopped down, leading to the disappearance of all the species that used to shelter among the trees, including fish of commercial value, oysters, birds, and more. This also implicates the removal of a natural barrier against storms and tsunamis. 

    Pressure on wild species: 

    • Farmed fish that escape then interact with genetically wild populations, competing for resources and transmitting diseases.  
    • Carnivorous farmed fish are fed with fishmeal and fish oils made from forage fish (sardines, anchovies, mackerel, herring and crustaceans, mainly krill). These species are rich in vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids. In the last decade, a large number of fishmeal factories have been established in West Africa. This is leading to overexploitation of the small forage fish, a staple of the local diet traditionally caught by artisanal fishermen and smoked and dried by women. The decline in fish stocks is causing food insecurity, job losses in the local artisanal sector, as well as environmental damage and public health hazards in the areas where fishmeal plants are installed due to the contamination generated. 

    Human Rights Violations 

    • According to the Environmental Justice Foundation the shrimp industry is often guilty of serious abuses, such as land grabbing and displacement of local people, violent intimidation of traditional users of local resources, the use of child labor and corruption.

    Slow Food has developed a summary that attempts to examine the issue to provide guidance and understanding, looking case by case at what is good, clean and fair seafood that comes from a sustainable food system. We have defined a conceptual framework around several fundamental principles (general and specific) and examined the key elements of aquaculture, which are at the heart of any assessment and understanding of the issue. 

  • Ocean Grabbing

    Like the atmosphere, the sea is an open space that, beyond coastal waters, does not belong to any particular political or corporate entity. People have been taking food directly from the sea since the dawn of humanity. The oceans are a common good that belongs to the whole planet, a shared asset that is of vital importance to the whole world.  

    Despite all this, entire populations of marine wildlife are viewed as commodities rather than a shared heritage of natural resources with an intrinsic value. In our globalized economy, fish is now one of the most commercialized products in the world. 

    We are witnessing a major process of enclosure of the world’s oceans and fishery resources, including marine, coastal, and inland fisheries. This phenomenon is called ocean grabbing and it adversely affects the people and communities whose way of life, cultural identity, and livelihoods depend on their involvement in small-scale fishing and related activities. 

    Ocean grabbing isn’t just about fisheries policy issue: It is unfolding worldwide in a wide range of contexts; the open ocean and coastal waters, inland waters, rivers, and lakes; deltas and wetlandsmangroves and coral reefs. Ocean grabbers (governments, corporations, etc.) use various mechanisms to dispossess fishing communities of the resources they’ve have traditionally depended on: national and international fisheries governance; trade and investment policies; designated terrestrial, coastal, and marine “no-take” conservation areas, justified within the narrative of marine spatial planning; (eco)tourism; energy policies; speculation; expanding operations of the global food and fish industry, including large-scale aquaculture, etc.  

    To learn more about the dynamics of ocean grabbing, you can visit the Transnational Institute website. They have published several key documents about the different ways ocean grabbing is taking place all over the world.  

    The development promoted by Slow Food is based on a model of governance of our common resources—in particular, the resources of our lakes, rivers and oceansknown as co-management. This model consists of managing common resources collectively, that is, involving the local community, the scientific community, civil society and the state in defining protocols, values and norms that allow for the sustainable use of available resources. In this spirit, we have created a document which explains this positive solution. 

  • Overfishing

    Over the last 30 years global consumption of fish has doubled.

    There are many reasons for this: the growing world population, industrial fishing economies that do not account for environmental and social costs, increasing purchasing power in countries with emerging markets, and greater awareness about the nutritional benefits of eating fish. 

    Between growing demand and extraordinary technological advances in the sector, fishing has become a colossal global industry.  

    For the last ten years, subsidies and investments in fishing technology have increased but global production has stagnated and, in some cases, declined, signaling a collapse in fish stocks worldwide. At the same time, small fish (including juveniles) and species at the bottom of the food chain, which are often thrown back into the sea because they are of little commercial interest, make up a growing percentage of catches, obscuring the fact that stocks of the highly prized species are in even worse condition than they may appear. 

    Despite all this, governments (particularly in Asia, but also in Europe) use heavy subsidies to continue to provide immense support to industrial fleets often operating without regulation, far from national waters.  

    Some of these fishing boats are effectively floating factories: They use sonar, aircraft, and satellites to identify fish shoals before descending on them with drift nets or lines with thousands of hooks, many kilometers long. The caught fish can be frozen and packaged on board. The biggest boats, up to 170 meters long, have a storage capacity equivalent to several Boeing 747s. 

    The problem of overfishing comes from the fact that, beyond the first 200 nautical miles off a country’s coast (the country’s exclusive economic zone), access to resources is not regulated. Anyone with a boat can fish and exploit marine resources. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994, makes the freedom to fish in international waters conditional on countries’ willingness to cooperate among themselves to guarantee the conservation and healthy management of fish stocks. Currently these stipulations are little more than empty words. 

    The consequences on marine biodiversity are already evident and if fisheries management does not change radically, this biodiversity will be seriously and irreversibly diminished.  

    The industrial looting of the seas also directly threatens the areas that coastal communities, who are heavily dependent on marine resources, use for fishing with artisanal methods. 

    It will be impossible to reverse current trends if the intensity of fishing is not reduced, halting the operations of a large part of the global fleet, and if the precautionary principle is not introduced into the regulations and legislation governing the fishing industry. The FAO has drawn up a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, but the political will behind its enforcement is lacking. This reluctance is increasingly incomprehensible, given the incessant pace at which businesses in the sector are failing, while catches keep getting smaller.  

  • Pirate Fishing

    The official term for pirate fishing is Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (or IUU) fishing.

    IUU fishing is a global phenomenon, occurring in coastal and deep-sea waters. It impoverishes fish stocks and weakens measures taken to protect and restore resources. IUU fishing is unfair competition for those who are operating legally and threatens the survival of coastal populations. 

    Accurate data about the extent of the problem is hard to collect, given that it is by definition a clandestine activity. According to the FAO, total annual IUU fishing has increased in the last 20 years to 11-26 mega tons per year (FAO, 2014) and represents a significant proportion of the global catch.  

    The primary objective of illegal fishing, as with all environmental crimes, is financial gain. In some cases, IUU fishing is coordinated on a huge scale through organized networks, involving laundering of money and fish products, corruption, intimidation, and aggression toward small-scale fishers. Practices that violate international law are found at all levels of the production chain and involve banned fishing methods, transshipment to hide the catch’s origins, the use of flags of convenience or no flag, bribing of officials, false labeling, substitution of species, and so on. 

    In Italy, organized criminals are very active in the fishing sector throughout the south of the country, while fishing boats run by Indonesian criminal gangs are particularly numerous in Asia. 

    IUU fishing deprives developing countries of precious food and economic resources. This massive business is also proving catastrophic for biodiversity. The waters of deep-sea fisheries, increasingly raided by pirate fishing boats, were until recently almost entirely unexplored. As scientists begin to study this vast area of the planet, they are discovering an environment that is much richer and more vulnerable than coastal zones. 

    Find out more: 

    Goodies and baddies: IUU fishing as state-corporate crime, not “organised crime” by Andre Standing 

    SDG 14 target of ending IUU fishing by 2020  

  • Climate Crisis

    The oceans play a fundamental role in regulating the Earth’s climactic equilibrium.

    They absorb heat and redistribute it around the world through marine currents and interactions with the atmosphere. They also absorb some of the gases present in the atmosphere. The increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is bringing an increase in the average ocean temperature. 

    Acidic Oceans

    A corrosive future…

    Carbon dioxide (CO2) is naturally present in the atmosphere, in small quantities. However, since humans started burning fossil fuels at the beginning of the industrial era, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased dramatically. Today, the oceans absorb about 25% of the CO2 released by human activities each year. This excess of CO2 is changing the pH of the oceans in a process known as acidification. This has terrible consequences for organisms with calcareous bodies (mollusks with shells, corals, plankton, and some algae), as they cannot adapt. 

    Land flooding 

    A submerged planet…

    With warming waters and melting ice, sea levels are rising. Land is becoming more arid and coastal cities are being partially flooded. If the ice caps melt entirely, sea level will rise by over 80 meters: Fifty of the world’s largest cities will be submerged, new inland seas will form, and the shape of the continents will change completely.  

    Ocean Currents

    Oceans regulate the climate…

    Most solar radiation is absorbed by the oceans, and particularly by waters near the equator. Oceanic currents work like conveyor belts, carrying warm water from the equator toward the poles, and bringing back colder water. In this way, currents distribute heat and perform a fundamental task for the planet: they regulate the global climate. 


    Melting Glaciers

    As the water heats up, the glaciers melt…

    Because of climate change, the polar ice caps are melting and, at the same time, the oceans are absorbing more and more heat from the atmosphere. This changes oceanic currents and, as a consequence, the distribution of heat across the planet.  

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