Water covers nearly 70% of the surface of our planet – which is why it is called the "Blue Planet" – and the seas and the oceans hold about 97.5% of all of this water. In addition to offering a myriad of foods, our seas and oceans have many basic functions that make our world habitable.
The seas and the oceans contribute to biodiversity in that they are home to millions of living species. They also provide us with more than half of the oxygen we breathe.
In other words, our seas and oceans provide us with one out of every two breaths we take. By spreading excess heat from the equator to the poles through currents, they ensure heat balance and the formation of weather conditions.
Our seas and oceans also contribute greatly to food diversity. Fish alone account for 16% of all animal protein consumed in the world. Fishing offers many different products to our tables, such as seaweed and crustaceans.
Because of all these upsides, our seas and oceans can be considered the life support system of our planet.
A huge market opportunity
Human beings interact with water throughout their lives. Sometimes they take advantage of the power of water and other times of its blessings and food supply for survival. In this respect, mankind has built cities and living spaces close to water to capitalize on the opportunities it offers.
As a result of the construction of ships used in water transport in particular, access to seafood has become easier and as a result of the development of interregional trade, seafood has become a commercial commodity.
According to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) assessments, thanks to the potential they have, the seas and the coasts constitute a $3 trillion market, which corresponds to 5% of gross world product (GWP).
The opportunities offered by the seas and the oceans constitute the livelihood of over 3 billion people. Some 200 million people are employed in fishing activities.
The delicate balance in the universe manifests itself here, too.
Unfortunately, excessive and unconscious consumption has come to negatively affect the aquatic ecosystem, as well as the terrestrial ecosystem. Rapidly growing fishing activities are the main danger in our waters.
According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data, world fishery and aquaculture catches in seas amounted to 17 million tons in 1950, while this figure reached a record level at 84 million tons, marking a fivefold increase, in 2018.
In the same period, however, the world's population only tripled. This means per capita consumption increased, leading to demand for more catches, which negatively affected sustainability. Again, according to FAO sources, the fish stock at biologically sustainable levels was 90% in 1990, decreasing to 65% in 2018.
Increased fishing activities triggered by increased consumption is undoubtedly a major problem affecting the marine ecosystem. However, there is another significant problem affecting the marine ecosystem: marine garbage, a large portion of which is plastics. According to studies, plastics constitute 60%-80% of marine litter on average, and this figure is up to 95% in some parts.
Earth's new indispensable product
Plastics were introduced into our lives in the early 1900s. Their areas of use increased over time, reaching a production value of around 1.5 million tons on a global scale in the 1950s.
Currently, plastics have reached a production value of 350 million tons, becoming an integral part of our lives. They are extensively used in almost every industry, from automotive to health, from construction to packaging. However, it is inevitable that these products, which have such a wide range of use, will undoubtedly have negative environmental impacts.
According to UNEP assessments, an average of about 8 million tons of plastic waste reaches water bodies – streams, lakes, seas and oceans – every year. This means at least five bags of plastic waste in every step on every coast on earth, or a truckload of plastic waste every minute.
Plastics do not degrade for a long time due to their structure. Because they are artificial and are not generally biodegradable, they cannot be destroyed by natural systems.
While some pieces of plastic stay afloat due to their low density, others sink to the seafloor. However, even those on the surface may undergo photodegradation and break into small pieces as a result of sun exposure. Sometimes, degradation may also be faster due to waves. This causes more plastic waste to spread around.
In general, these parts, which are smaller than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) in size, are called microplastics, while larger ones are called macroplastics.
A scientific study conducted in 2019 confirms this situation. As part of the study, a model was developed to monitor the points where the plastic waste is thrown into the sea accumulated and the change it underwent over time. The study, covering the period 1950 to 2015, found:
– 122 million tons of waste thrown into the sea in this period were accumulated on the coast, with 82 million tons being microplastics and the remaining 40 tons being microplastics.
– In shallow areas where the depth is less than 200 meters (656 feet), 150,000 tons of the waste were macroplastics and 80,000 tons were microplastics.
– In offshore waters where the depth is more than 200 meters, 1 million tons of the waste were macroplastics and 500,000 tons were microplastics.
The study revealed that more than 75% of microplastics in all three regions were deposited before 1990 and that it takes many years for plastics to decompose.
At least 50% of marine trash is disposable plastics such as nylon bags, plastic bottles, cups and plates. As a result of natural factors such as waves and wind, these may break down and turn into microplastics and nanoplastics.
Marine animals may eat plastic waste because of its color and smell. And since plastic is not digestible, it can cause great destruction to the sea creatures that eat it.
For instance, the main nutritional source for endangered sea turtles is jellyfish. Since plastic bags visually resemble jellyfish, particularly when they are broken down by photodegradation, they are eaten by sea turtles.
According to one study, more than 800 living species are affected by plastic waste every year, and 40% of marine mammals and at least 44% of seabirds have plastics in their digestive systems.
It is estimated that plastic waste causes the death of 1 million seabirds, 100,000 sea mammals and sea turtles, and numerous fish every year, and that 99% of seabirds will have eaten plastic by 2050.
If consumption and disposal behaviors continue as they are, we are likely to have more plastic waste particles than fish in our seas by the 2050s.
Floating plastic waste islands
According to a study, it is estimated that there are 51 trillion microplastic particles in our seas and oceans, more than 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy.
Plastic waste accumulating in the oceans has formed islands on the surface – also referred to as the seventh continent in media. The largest of these is in the north of the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).
According to a study published in the world-famous science journal Nature in 2018, the garbage patch, looking like an island of floating trash, in the North Pacific consists of 1.8 trillion particles weighing 79,000 tons and accounting for 29% of the plastic waste on all sea surfaces, while the area covered by this waste is around 1.6 million square kilometers (618,000 square miles).
This figure is at least three times larger than the surface area of Spain, two times larger than that of Turkey and slightly larger than that of Alaska, the largest state in the U.S.
The same study reveals that fishing gear, including nets, fishing lines and ropes, constitutes 52% of the waste on the island of floating garbage.
Early fishing rods and nets were made of natural materials such as silk. With technological progress, they have been gradually replaced by ones made of plastic derivates since the 1950s. The affordability and durability of these materials were the biggest factors that made them preferable and more widespread.
Since these nets, known as the deadliest type of marine debris and referred to as ghost nets, are plastic-derived and are not naturally degradable, they continue to exist for a long time in seas and oceans, jeopardizing the lives of sea creatures.
Millions of marine creatures of a large number of species, from endangered sea turtles to dolphins, suffer from this effect. Sea creatures caught by ghost nets are in danger of losing their lives due to drowning, fatigue or prolonged starvation. They can also become entangled in coral reefs, causing them to be uprooted and displaced by currents.
The nets can cause great damage not only to sea creatures, but also to vessels when they get tangled in ship screw propellers. Ghost nets also jeopardize navigational safety at sea by damaging sailors' navigation systems.
A joint study by UNEP and FAO found that there are approximately 640,000 tons of ghost nets in the seas. Plastic-derived fishing equipment that has been dropped, lost or discarded for various reasons accounts for at least half of the marine litter caused by marine activities and at least 10% of all marine garbage.
Great risk for sea turtles
One of the most affected species is sea turtles. This is why the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), of which Turkey is a member, included sea turtles, which are important ecosystem engineers and are endangered worldwide, on its red list.
The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) has limited the international trade of these species. However, these measures cannot prevent threats at sea.
Sea turtles can stay underwater for up to seven hours, but also need to surface, albeit for a few minutes, to breathe. If they are caught by ghost nets, they gasp for air and, in the end, die.
There are three tons of ghost nets every kilometer off the coast of Australia, which is one of the most important breeding areas for sea turtles. Six of seven endangered sea turtle species live on these shores. Among them are flatback sea turtles that live only in this region. So, these ghost nets could become a big threat to them.
Although states have come to found global unions to tackle plastic pollution, it is very hard to overcome it as plastics may not degrade in nature for a very long time. It may take thousands of years for plastic types, such as Styrofoam, to degrade.
In addition to environmental and health problems, the issue has a financial dimension as well. According to a recent study, it is estimated that the economic cost of marine garbage stemming from fishing and tourism activities is $3,000-$33,000 per ton, and its impact on the global economy on an annual basis is $2.5 trillion. This being the case, the cruciality of controlling this waste is obvious.
A problem for Turkey
Ghost nets are also a big problem for our country, which is a peninsula and therefore has a high degree of interaction with the seas.
According to data, it is estimated that 15,000 active fishing boats in our waters leave or lose nets totaling 1,000 kilometers to 1,500 kilometers in length per year.
These nets, most of which are made of plastic, may continue ghost fishing for up to 8-10 years and can damage sea creatures and the ecosystem.
In 2014, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry developed and implemented a project focused on "Cleaning the Seas from Lost and Abandoned Fishing Nets and Gear."
As part of the project, a 65 million-square-meter (78 million-square-yard) area was combed in 600 locations of inland water (lakes) and seas, and 450,000 square meters of nets and 4,500 baskets, beam trawls and other fishing gear were removed.
In order to continue the project, the coordinates of the ghost nets floating in waters across the country were identified. Ghost nets were detected in 280-300 locations.
Meanwhile, Circular No. 2019/9 on the "Preparation and Implementation of Marine Trash Provincial Action Plans" issued by the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning stipulates the necessary measures against ghost nets.
Accordingly, "Commercial fishing boat operators are obliged, as a minimum, to inform the type, quantity and coordinates of the nets lost during fishing activities and to collect the garbage they see during fishing activities or that garbage that get tangled in their nets and deliver it to the fishing port."
Zero Waste Blue movement
Our seas surrounding three sides of our country serve many purposes, both recreational and commercial, such as transportation, fishing, swimming areas and tourism activities, and are of great socioeconomic importance.
Marine pollution and the destruction of marine ecosystems as a result of the growing population in coastal areas, industrialization, overfishing and maritime activities are among the most important topics in our country as is the case with the entire world.
Both marine garbage and ghost nets are important to us. In this respect, many studies are being carried out under the leadership of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning and with the support of other related institutions and organizations.
The most prominent among these is undoubtedly the Zero Waste Blue movement, which was initiated in June 2019 in order to implement the Zero Waste project, launched in September 2017 under the auspices of first lady Emine Erdoğan, in our waters as well.
That same month, in June 2019, Emine Erdoğan also attended the Group of 20 Leaders' Summit in the Japanese city of Osaka, which has been called the "city of water."
In her speech there, she called on the spouses of other G-20 state leaders to take action. She touched on the problem of plastic waste that threatens our waters, stressing that more fish, not plastics, can swim in our waters by 2050 if the right steps are taken. She called on all the spouses to join an all-out mobilization to combat plastic waste pollution, which threatens waters all around the world.
As her speech unfolded, the first lady proudly presented our Zero Waste Blue project, which was launched in order to achieve bluer waters in our country.
Certainly, she has shouldered this project so that our country, which is surrounded by seas on three sides, can have cleaner coasts and bluer waters, and that fish and children can swim more freely.
A total of 80,000 tons of waste, including 55,000 tons of plastic, have been collected and removed from our seas as part of the marine garbage clean-up initiated under the Zero Waste Blue movement.
One of the most important steps taken against the pollution that threatens the waters of our Blue Homeland is marine debris action plans to be prepared by coastal provincial administrations within the framework of the legislation developed by the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning.
At the same time that the Zero Waste Blue movement was launched, the circular on the "Preparation and Implementation of Marine Waste Provincial Action Plans" was issued and enacted by our ministry.
As per the circular, coastal provinces' action plans were prepared and implemented, including holistic and planned activities for region-specific measures and the removal of the existing marine trash in all coastal provinces, as well as about the dissemination of educational and awareness-raising studies at the national level.
Turkey has broken new ground in this area, like in many other areas, becoming the first European country to prepare and implement a nationwide action plan for marine garbage.
Certainly, the climate crisis on the one hand and the food and water problems on the other now affect everyone. Therefore, it is imperative to act jointly rather than individually.
The United Nations has set goals to this end: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. The 14th of these 17 goals is about “Life Below Water,” i.e., the waters in our Blue Homeland, which are invisible but are our standby life unit, as well as the underwater world which is home to countless creatures.
As with other goals, the basis of this goal is to highlight that we should use resources more efficiently and take advantage of the opportunities that nature offers us, taking into account the balance of protecting and utilizing them.
At this point, all of us have certain responsibilities, from individuals to societies and states. We all have a responsibility – and the power – to enact change.
*Deputy minister in the Republic of Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, chief climate change envoy
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