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Licence To Spill?

When we talk about the sea, it’s mostly about beaches, holidays, the weather or grilled fish for the lunch table. But we have never given any thought to a small, somewhat faded, yellow plastic duck which reached the shores of Carrapateira in the municipality of Aljezur in August 2004, because we didn’t hear about it. Newspapers don’t earn any money from such stories. But if plastic ducks could talk, this little children’s toy would have had many stories to tell of its world trip lasting approximately 12 years. World trip? The story starts on 10th January 1992 on the container ship Tokio Express, flying the Greek flag and launched in 1973. The 50,000 tonne freighter was on the way from Hong Kong to Tacoma in the US state of Washington and ran into a severe storm in the North Pacific close to the International Date Line. It lost three containers, which broke up. It is the story of 28,800 yellow plastic ducks, green frogs, blue tortoises and red plastic beavers that fell into the sea and set out on a long journey, swimming. Two-thirds of the plastic toys for baby baths headed south to start with, but about 10,000 drifted north. Some were found on the beaches of Australia, Indonesia and Chile in 1996. Others reached Alaska in 1998, the east coast of the USA in 2000; England and Wales in 2003 and Portugal in 2004. An interesting story, isn’t it? More on that in due course.

plastic ducks and frogs

We could also start this report in the autumn of 2015 with the life of the sardine: where it comes from, where it moves to, what it feeds on and where it ends up when caught by a fisherman. In the late summer of 1990, I bought a kilo of sardines at the fish market in Portimão for 60 escudos, the equivalent of 30 cents. In the summer I always ate sardines, I was mad about them. Nowadays, one generation later, I am back at the fish market – where I go almost every week – and I find a kilo of sardines for 10 euros, in other words 2,000 of the old escudos. The price is likely to go up more, I hear the fishmonger saying. In the old days, I got them at lunchtime, dirt cheap or even free just before one o’clock, because the sardine fishermen caught so many shoals that they didn’t know what to do with them at the end of the day. Our fishermen don’t face the same problem today. They catch too few, if anything. The sea in 2015 is somewhat empty compared to those days. Sardines are now on the list of those fish that will soon not exist any more if we continue to treat the Atlantic in this way. Within a generation, the catches of 900,000 tonnes annually fell to just 200,000 tonnes.*¹ In contrast, the human population has more than doubled its population in 40 years, and shows no sign of stopping. With the knowledge that we have today, the question is whether it wouldn’t be better to return to the good old days, to the traditions of our forebears, who gave themselves and the fish a break in the winter. Shouldn’t we fundamentally rethink the techniques of fishing? And while we’re at it, shouldn’t we also do some fundamental thinking about what value the sea and its inhabitants have for humans, and what the relationship is on earth between the land and the sea?

Who do the oceans belong to?

IMG_9595Do you have any idea how many ships there are sailing on the high seas every day, which routes they are sailing on, what goods are being transported across the seas and in what quantities – how important maritime trade is for the globalised economy? So many questions all at once. I will answer them one by one.

In 2014, 1,371,368 seafarers were sailing on almost 53,000 merchant ships worldwide, of which 41% were bulk carriers, 38% oil tankers, 14% container ships, and 6% general cargo ships. Passenger ships? Just one percent. Last year, nine billion tonnes of goods were transported, two billion tonnes of which was crude oil, followed by iron ore (1,093 mn), coal (976 mn), mineral oils (903 mn), natural gas (265 mn), grain (450 mn) and animal feed (1,205 mn), finished consumer goods in containers (1,550 mn) and miscellaneous other goods (992 mn). There is no question: the sea is the most important and the cheapest form of transport for international freight traffic. Merchant shipping accounts for 80% of the total volume of worldwide goods transport, air, rail and road transport for just 20%. Global income from shipping of 458 billion euros per year contrasts with income from air transport of 45 billion euros. Government expenditure in Portugal in 2015 amounts to around 85 billion euros.

Last year, government offices in the EU recorded 124 occupational accidents for every 1,000 full-time posts in maritime shipping. This compares with just 80 occupational accidents for every 1,000 full-time posts in the building industry. What is clear is that ships are getting bigger and bigger. Nowadays, just 16 crew members are needed to transport 16,000 containers in 22 days from Hong Kong to Lisbon. Soon, ships with a length of 350 metres and more will no longer be a rarity.

Bigger ships, bigger tugs, bigger crane and quay facilities, deepening of rivers and harbours, using flags of convenience from low-tax countries like Panama (39.5%), Liberia (22.6%), Marshall Islands (14.3%), Malta (8.6%), the Bahamas, Cyprus, etc. There is no sign of any regulation that would set limits to maritime transport. The green light globally for free shipping? The use of flags of convenience by ships takes place in the same way as the shift of industries with their jobs from industrialised countries in the west to low-wage countries in Asia: with textiles, computers, consumer goods etc.

The huge scale of international maritime trade appears to be unchecked. Where will growth lead us? No one asks how the sea and its wildlife are coping with this. Official statistics from insurance companies show that every year around 15,000 containers land in the sea. Every container and its contents is almost always a danger for the environment, for the seafarers, for fishermen and sailing yachts, and the risk of collision cannot be ruled out. To keep trade flowing and not impede competition, less than one container in every thousand is checked. Attempts by the EU to regulate maritime transport more tightly always met with great resistance from the shipping companies (ICS/ECSA*²).

Not a few of the merchant ships powered by heavy oil clean their tanks on the high seas, and others sink in storms with dangerous cargo, representing an extreme danger for the oceans’ biodiversity. Based on free maritime trade and its figures, the practices of a global world economy can be well illustrated: global trade and business make use of a wide range of sea routes at the expense of nature and its ecosystems. If I am unable to answer the question who the oceans belong to, it becomes clear that the seas must belong to the ship owners. They have simply helped themselves to them, and exploit them unrestrictedly without the slightest public control, according to their own laws; profits take priority, followed by the reduction of costs.

Oceanos6We hear little about the downside. How much do we know about the deep oceans, their inhabitants and the long-term consequences of pollution by oil and contamination by radioactivity? Since the 2011 Tepco atomic disaster in Fukushima in Japan at the latest, or after the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexiko in 2010, or since the ongoing melting of glaciers and ice in the north of our planet caused by the human-related greenhouse effect, we have known that clear ecological limits will have to be set on a free global economy. But the madness continues unchecked. A free trade agreement like the TTIP will continue to aggravate the climate, and boundlessly growing world trade will add immeasurable damage to the world’s oceans. We forget that the oceans are the basis of our existence and our most important resource. That the oceans are the origin of all life on earth and that water is our life’s elixir are things that are forgotten time and again, when we are allowed to do as we please, without restriction, in a world economy with the greedy prospect of profit and the right to pollute the seas and fish them empty. We only start thinking about water when we run short.

“Everyone knows about the problem of the seas that have been fished empty, but everyone just continues as if nothing had happened in all these years,” José Carlos Águas (55), a fisherman from Portimão, tells me. We have known each other for 25 years and often meet at the harbour. Zeca‘s ancestors were sardine fishermen. They owned an impressive fleet of several trawlers that kept some of the canning factories in the southern Portuguese town running in the middle of the last century, with many tonnes of sardines a day. At some stage, it was all over. The sardine business got more expensive: wages rose, and even then the catch quotas fell for the first time. But tinned sardines could be produced more cheaply by the Moroccans. “What we need today, without delay, is a five-year ban on catching sardines,” he says. He shows me his new, old, little fishing boat. For years, he worked as the captain of several tourist boats in Lagos and Albufeira. Since he decided to return to meaningful, traditional work as a fisherman, he has been working with fish traps again to catch octopus. At present he’s restoring his boat. (Read my interview)

Understanding connections.

The ocean and the fish

As we speak, the subject turns from fish to rubbish in the sea. There is plastic everywhere: on the sea floor, on the beaches, even in the traps for catching octopus, which are creatures that enjoy playing, he says with a grin. In the cages, he sometimes find empty yoghurt pots, as well as beer bottles and children’s toys which the octopuses keep in the traps for the fishermen as a way of requesting them to return them to land. Of course, the octopus itself prefers not to be caught.

Have we reached the topic of the sea? A small, yellow plastic duck travelled almost 29,000 kilometres before being washed up on the beach at Carrapateira near Aljezur. How could it have managed that? Thanks to the ocean currents. Between the sub-tropical and the sub-polar gyres, the Pacific currents are especially strong, writes Professor Dr. Mojib Latif in his current book “Das Ende der Ozeane?” (The End of the Oceans?) *³. Our plastic duck used these currents to head northeast. On the way, it must have missed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, where the biggest maritime rubbish tip of all time has accumulated in the Pacific Ocean, covering an area half the size of Europe. Inside it, there is a huge amount of plastic waste. Our plastic duck would have been carried here by the network of ocean currents spanning the world, via Alaska, the Bering Straits, Canada and the North Atlantic. Ocean currents transport substances and objects, long-lasting pollutants like plastic, but also carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal. Our oceans are also the biggest store of the emissions from our consumption-oriented lifestyle. Around half the carbon dioxide emitted worldwide ends up in the sea and combines with the water. Calculated over a longer time-span, our oceans increase in acidity (pH 8.1).

Oceanographer Professor Mojib Latif, who holds a senior position at the GEOMAR Institute in Kiel in Germany, where he researches and teaches, can provide information about this. ECO123 would like to talk to him. We make an appointment for an interview in Germany with the intention of exchanging ideas about whether, and if so how, the economy can be run in harmony with ecology. “Because if the structure of the ocean circulation changes fundamentally as a result of human activity, this could have serious consequences, for the climate, for the oceans’ chemistry, for life in the oceans and on earth as a whole,” the scientist stresses. You can read the interview with Prof. Mojib Latif.

Subdue the Earth?
We pollute the oceans, overfish the seas and exploit them. Have we lost our bearings? Is our compass broken? What are we doing, and why? We are standing at a crossroads and can decide in which direction we want to go. Shall we close our eyes and keep marching on as before? Or shall we stop, and turn around to see at what point we went wrong? What is the right way? What do we really need for a happy life?
The paradox of our philosophy of life is that, with every step towards greater prosperity and more economic growth, we are sawing away at the branch on which we ourselves are sitting. Our resources are getting shorter and shorter, the poisonous rubbish tips bigger and bigger. The impact after the fall will hit us at least as hard as the Fukushima tsunami.
*¹  The Economic Value of Oceans in Portugal from “Ocean Initiative” by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon
*² Data from the International Chamber of Shipping/European Community of Shipowners’ Associations
*³Mojib Latif, das Ende der Ozeane (the End of the Oceans), Herder-Verlag, Freiburg, Basel, Vienna

About the author

Uwe Heitkamp, 53 years old, started working after university in daily newspapers and from 1984 on in public tv broadcasting companies such as WDR (Collogne), NDR (Hamburg), SDR (Stuttgart/Baden-Baden) in the ARD (first programme), wrote several books and directed the cinema movie about the anti nuclear movement in Germany in 1986 (Wackersdorf). After emigration in 1990 he founded 1995 the trilingual weekly printed newspaper “Algarve123” and later the online edition www.algarve123.com. Heitkamp lives for 25 year in Monchique, Portugal. He loves mountain hiking and swimming in streams and lakes, writes and tells stories of success from people and their sustainable relationship between ecology and economy. His actual film “Revolutionary Roads” tells the 60 minute story of a long walk crossing Portugal. 10 rural people paint a picture of their lives in the hills of the serra and the hinterland. The film captures profound impressions of natural beauty and human life. Along which path is the future of Portugal to be found? (subscribe to ECO123 und watch the documentary in the Mediatec)



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