We are using the environment as a cost-free dumping ground

Kate Thick says our North East beaches may be wonderful, but it's a different story in the world's oceans

People enjoy the mild weather at Alnmouth, Northumberland
People enjoy the mild weather at Alnmouth, Northumberland

It was the perfect weekend to dust off the inflatable kayak and head for Alnmouth from where you can turn right up the estuary or paddle left up the coast.

Blue on blue at the horizon was a reminder that water covers approximately 70% of our world’s surface; only 2.5% is fresh water so a lot of sea out there.

The world’s oceans are worth at least £15 trillion through fishing, tourism, shipping and carbon sequestration. In fact, if the oceans were a country, they would be the world’s seventh economy in terms of GDP. About three billion people get most of their protein from fish.

A record number of England’s beaches are at risk of failing to meet EU water quality standards this year but, lucky for us, many Northumbrian beaches are rated as excellent. The two most significant sources of pollution that reduce water quality are sewage and pollution from agriculture. Under the new EU regulations, in order to attain the “excellent” rating, the concentration level of bacteria can be only half of what used to be allowed. Good for the EU.

North Sea cod stocks are improving and could be certified as sustainable within five years according to new research, but just one in nine inshore fisheries are operating sustainably. Analysis of 450 fisheries showed that 400 are either being overfished or suffer from serious failings in management or data. It is estimated that one in five fish is caught illegally.

Forecasts predict that many cold-water species will be unable to cope with rising sea temperatures. Due to global warming, the cold-water fish of the North Sea, staples of the British diet for generations, are being pushed further north while warmer-water fish from the south are moving in.

What is plentiful in the sea is plastic; 70% of all the litter in the sea is plastic. The first detailed global assessment estimates that eight million tons of plastic waste is dumped in the ocean each year and the cumulative quantity of waste will result in a tenfold increase in the total amount by 2020. Already, more than five trillion pieces of plastic are floating on the seas. The world’s oceans are being filled with enough plastic waste to thickly line every coastline in the world. Even worse, below the surface there is at least ten times the amount of plastic seen floating.

Plastic waste affects marine wildlife such as dolphins, seals, turtles, sea birds and fish, which become entangled or choked by it.

When plastic breaks down to smaller particles of less than a millimetre it can cause problems for smaller organisms when ingested. Eating shellfish can expose you to 11,000 pieces of microplastic every year.

Mercury accumulates in the food chain and top-predator fish are our main dietary source. Mercury levels have tripled in surface water, especially around Iceland and Antarctica, and there is also a lot in ocean sediments.

In case you weren’t already worried about the rapid acidification of the world’s oceans … over the past 200 years alone, international oceans have become dramatically more acidic, killing or endangering coral reefs and sea life and even causing shells of oysters, clams and snails to dissolve.

We use the environment as a cost-free dumping ground. It appears that nothing can be done because the oceans are “common property” and hence over-exploited. No one owns them, so no one can protect them and their contents.

In order to save the oceans, a World Wildlife Fund report recommends:

Ensure ocean recovery features strongly in the UN Post-2015 Agenda, including the Sustainable Development Goals;

Take global action to avoid dangerous climate change and further damage to the ocean;

Conserve and effectively manage 10% of representative coastal and marine areas by 2020, increasing coverage to 30% by 2030

Rebuild fish stocks to ecologically sustainable harvest levels;

Use new technology and satellites to increase scrutiny of ocean going fishing vessels;

Share knowledge more effectively and drive institutional collaboration … like at the EU.

A Chinese proverb says if you keep going in the same direction, you will inevitably end up at where you are going.

A tragedy of the commons in a violent, unequal world is where we are heading unless nations and international bodies cooperate.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer