Following close on the heels of World Environment Day last Friday is World Oceans Day 2020. Observed officially on 8th June every year since 2008―and unofficially by many countries since 1992―it’s an opportunity. One to remember our Citizen and Corporate Social Responsibility towards our Blue Planet.
It is a time for aquariums, fisheries and marine institutions, responsible businesses, governments, nonprofits and regular folks like you and me to collaborate for healthier oceans and sea creatures.
Theme of World Oceans Day 2020
Despite being bound by social distancing norms and lockdowns in various quarters, the United Nations is pulling out all stops for a virtual celebration. The hard-to-resist theme may have something to do with it! “Innovation for a sustainable Ocean” is the theme for World Oceans Day 2020, and it couldn’t have been more timely. New ideas and technology will prove to be our only hope, going by the rate at which Life Below Water (SDG 14) is being challenged.
What makes this theme more relevant is that the phase between year 2021 to 2030 is deemed theUN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Oceanic research, innovation and international collaborations between the government and private sector will form the crux.
Indian winner at international celebrations
Interestingly, a ‘Made in India’ innovation won the United Nations’ recent Reboot the Oceans Challenge. The contest recognised technology to revive the health of the Oceans. Chennai-based startup AROBOT won for its innovation in ‘mapping oceans’.
AROBOT developed a low-cost IoT (the Internet of things) framework so that students and researchers globally can know more about ocean mapping. AROBOT will be featured in today’s global virtual celebration put together by the UN and Oceanic Global. The event will put the spotlight on other such innovations, with photography, film screenings and musical performances by celebrity artistes like Ellie Goulding thrown in.
Top innovations for oceans
The range of newly available technologies is vast, covering such areas as container terminal automation, artificial intelligence (AI), electric stevedoring devices, container and vehicle tracking devices, e-navigation and IoT. Some experts believe that maximum deployment of these technologies could make it possible to reach almost complete decarbonisation of maritime shipping by 2035.
Nevertheless, these opportunities can only be harvested through a systematic and evidence-based approach. In this context, the COVID-19 pandemic is providing a great momentum to digitisation of port services, prompting ports to pilot innovated protocols and “contactless” solutions to deal with the outbreak. These best practices should be identified, assessed and used as a basis for rapid responses in similar future disruptions.
Boyan Slat and his giant ocean cleaner
Plastics have been found in very far-reaching corners of the planet. The Deep-Sea Debris Database, which records data from more than 5,000 submersible dives at more than 4,000 meters deep, showed 3,425 items of man-made debris; 89% of it was single-use plastic products.
One of the most visible consequences of this manmade crisis is the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, an area that is three times the size of France, blighted with estimated accumulated debris of 705,000 tonnes of non-biodegradable plastic that is choking fish, whales and sharks to death.
We salute young Dutch inventor Boyan Slat on World Oceans Day 2020. His floating device could be the solution to this garbage abomination. His free-floating boom concentrates plastic in one place so it can be removed in sweeps. The system comprises a giant floater on the water’s surface with an attached “skirt” which traps garbage (ranging from discarded fishing nets to tiny microplastics) without harming marine animals. A cork line and keeps the skirt (screen) afloat.
Boyan’s environmental organisation – Ocean Cleanup Project – has set up a 2,000-foot floating boom to rid the planet of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s fitted with transmitters and sensors so a marine vessel can locate its position via satellites, and pick up the oceanic waste every few months. After a few misses and mishaps, there was good news last year when Boyan tweeted that the device is working successfully.
Apart from scaling operations for this device, he is putting into action his next eco-friendly invention – The Interceptor. This solar-powered machine is being touted as the first scalable innovation for cleaning rivers autonomously. It can collect 100,000 kg of waste in a single day. The machine has already been deployed in Indonesia and Malaysia. Boyan’s organisation is working with governments and companies towards the goal of cleaning up 1,000 polluting rivers in 5 years. Watch Ocean Cleanup’s video on how The Interceptor works:
COVID-19 threatens fishermen’s livelihoods
The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting a new array of challenges to the fisheries industry. With a reduction in demand and trade unprecedented since World War II, the livelihoods of fishermen and people participating in the fisheries value chain of the region are under severe threat.
Apart from the demand shock, another threat is related to the difficulty in moving supply, as the COVID-19 pandemic risks are particularly acute in enclosed areas, such as boats and especially those away at sea for extended periods.
There is the risk of greater illegal fishing because enforcement agencies are occupied with other domestic concerns during the pandemic. The current disruption of production and the logistics system in various countries, stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic has a direct impact on the global supply chain.
Blockchain Tuna Project
One emerging solution to this disruption is the Blockchain Tuna Project in Fiji, titled the Blockchain Supply Chain Traceability Project. Through blockchain technology, a simple scan of tuna packaging using a smartphone tells the story of a tuna fish – where and when the fish was caught and by which vessel and fishing method. It’s a collaboration between WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), blockchain studio ConsenSys, ICT company TraSeable, and tuna suppliers Sea Quest Fiji Ltd.
A combination of radio-frequency identification and QR codes are used to capture information throughout the supply chain. A radio-frequency identification tag is fixed when the fish comes on board the vessel, which then follows the fish and registers automatically at various devices positioned on the vessel, at the dock, and in the processing facility.
Once the product enters the processing facility and is partitioned out into various products, it receives a QR code (or potentially in the future, it will receive a near field communication device) that will track the product to its ultimate fate all the way past the retailer. Consumers have certainty that they’re buying legally caught, sustainable tuna with no labour violations.
Marine plastic pollution
The abundance of plastic along with poor waste management has contributed to a growing environmental crisis in the oceans. Between 3 million and 5.3 million tonnes of micro- and macroplastics, respectively, are polluting the environment annually.
But where is all this plastic coming from?
Inadequate and overwhelmed waste management systems, open dumping, storms and rain cause land-based sources of pollution to leak into rivers and the coastal and marine environment. Annually, rivers dump from 470,000 to 2.75 million metric tonnes of plastic into the seas. Ten rivers in the world are responsible for up to 95% of that debris, and eight of them are in Asia: Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Yangtze, Indus and our own Ganga river.
The CounterMEASURE Project
Efforts to understand the plastic leakage pathways—including those from major rivers in Asia—have begun. Among those attempts is the work being carried out under the project Promotion of Countermeasures Against Marine Plastic Litter in South-East Asia and India (CounterMEASURE).
With support from the Government of Japan and being implemented by the UNEP Asia and the Pacific Office, the project collects, analyses and visualises information on “hotspots” in the tributaries of the Mekong and the Ganga basins. It integrates, among others, demographic and socioeconomic data, field survey data, geospatial information on land use and location of potential leakage sites, and drone imagery.
Preliminary findings have shown that plastic items of high leakage risk are often site-specific, for example, extensive use of sachets in India. Also, while large cities may generate a significant portion of the national plastic waste volume, the risk of plastic leakage into the rivers in rural areas may not be negligible, a consequence of poorly managed open dumps and the absence of a formal waste collection system.
As informal recycling is active in India, there is a tendency for waste pickers and recyclers to collect and sort out only high-value plastic waste (such as polyethylene terephthalate) and improperly discard low-value plastic items, such as plastic shopping bags and coloured plastics into waterways and open dumpsites, which are prone to flooding in the rainy season.
Through the CounterMEASURE project, clean-ups have proven to multiply benefits. In a dense mangrove site at Sagar Vihar in Mumbai, for example, a clean-up delivered a triple benefit: cleaning of a targeted area; increased public awareness on the hazards of indiscriminate plastic waste disposal; and generation of site-specific plastic waste data.
The exercise also served to verify the effectiveness of the ban on the use of styrofoam containers and disposable utensils. The volunteer team who organised the clean-up observed the near-absence of styrofoam among the collected waste. Increasing the availability of data on plastic pollution and understanding of plastic leakage pathways are crucial in promoting evidence-based and effective measures that lead to a reduction in marine litter and plastic pollution.
Considering the range of sustainable inventions you’ve read about in this piece, and many more we haven’t yet explored, World Oceans Day 2020 marks the beginning of a new decade of hope for life below water.