17 weeks to Davos. 17 global goals to achieve a sustainable future. 17 blog posts exploring the UN’s vision for humankind.
Global Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.
The largest garbage dumps in the world are not visible from the sky, and many who travel through them never realize it. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic is added to them every year, even though they are located in the middle of our oceans.
Trapped by a massive, slow-moving vortex of currents swirling around in a circle across hundreds of thousands of miles, plastic and other refuse collects in one of five major ocean gyres – two in the Atlantic, two in the Pacific, and one in the Indian. Over time the plastics dumped into the oceans break down into small pieces, and even micro particles, that hover near the surface of the water until they’re eaten by birds, fish, and other sea creatures. Some of them die from an inability to digest the plastic. For others, the plastic concentrations slowly flow through the global food chain, accumulating in other species with unknown consequences.
It’s not just our oceans being affected, and it’s not just from cities and countries with substandard waste management practices. Our daily activities are contributing to the problem. For example, when we wash clothes made from nylon, minute amounts of plastic flush into water systems. Toxins like DDT attach to the plastic particles, which are then consumed by animals or recycled back into the fluids we drink. The big concern is whether they will eventually accumulate into dangerous levels.
A microplastics research project by Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is collecting and analyzing water samples gathered by outdoor enthusiasts around the world. An interactive map shows how many plastics were found in each sample collected, and where samples need to be collected if you’re interested in participating.
Turning on your washing machine isn’t the only way your day-to-day activities affect earth’s bodies of water. Your car, lawn mower, and other gas-guzzling appliances contribute to ocean acidification, whether you live in the Florida Everglades or the Dzoosotoyn Elisen Desert, the furthest point in Asia from an ocean. Oceans absorb about one-third of the carbon dioxide produced by fuels we burn. Carbon dioxide isn’t just destroying earth’s ozone layer, it has increased ocean acidity levels a whopping 25% since the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear 200 years ago.
We don’t know much about the impact of increasing acidification, though research shows that it weakens shells of creatures, reduces productivity of some fish, and impacts microbial life. Researchers believe coral reefs build less skeletal structures critical to marine life, and reduced productivity of fish slow the restoration of fisheries badly damaged from overfishing.
Over 158 million tons of fish were taken from the oceans, seas, and inland waters in 2012 – an amount that has been continually rising for decades. Almost all of that growth since 1985 came from aquaculture, or fish farms, while production from natural fish habitats has leveled off. That is a positive development, though almost 30% of natural fish stocks continue to be overfished, while 60% are fished at the maximum sustainable level, and 10% below maximum capacity. We risk a precipitous drop in the health of fish habitats if overfishing continues.
Overfishing doesn’t just create future risks. Nor is it an abstract, global issue. It is already impacting you. The number of times you think you are eating one seafood or fish, when in reality you are eating something different, is amazingly high. It’s due to food fraud, which is on the rise as demand for protein outstrips supply. Researchers at Oceana found that 90% of sushi is mislabeled in Los Angeles; similar results have been found in other cities. It’s probably not white tuna in your sushi roll. And all those Italians who love their palombo. Well, unfortunately 78% of time it’s not shark.
In almost all cases, seafood is substituted for a cheaper species or one that has been banned from sale due to overfishing, strongly suggesting a deliberate attempt to deceive consumers. DNA barcoding can stop fraud in the food industry by conducting fast, low-cost DNA tests in stores and distribution centers and integrating the results into supply-chain management systems. It ensures consumers who buy the goods, and the companies that sell it to them, get what they pay for. In the process, the companies adopting anti-fraud tools help stop unsustainable practices destroying life under water.
You may be located thousands of miles from the nearest ocean, but your daily actions are impacting, and being impacted by, their degradation. With oceans and inland water bodies covering 71% of earth, we can’t ignore their state. Consumers, and the companies selling them products, can choose materials and sustainable practices to help protect them.
Want more on the UN’s vision for a better future? Follow the 17 Weeks To Davos blog series.
This article originally appeared on Digitalist Magazine. See here.