Time for a sea change | Daily News

Time for a sea change

Follow the fish
Follow the fish

As Sri Lanka’s International airport opens again for visitors from around the world and the UK cricket team continue to circumnavigate the island, the tourist industry looks at new ways to enjoy the pearl in the Indian Ocean in a more holistic and sustainable way. The global pandemic has highlighted so many different issues, including the importance of being outside more and, in the case of Sri Lanka, going on safari or diving on one of the amazing coral reefs around the island, rather than spending any time indoors unless it’s your stunning hotel bedroom.

However, this new way of thinking has resulted in people focusing more on ocean issues and how to deal with the rising plastic disaster. Organisations trying to clear up the Ocean rubbish say, “All the plastic that we have produced since the 1950s that has ended up in the ocean is still with us in one form or another, so that wherever you swim there are particles of plastic near you. We are very close to reaching the point when every wild fish or piece of seafood you eat will contain plastic of one form or another.”

Shalini Gamage, one of the driving forces behind Ocean Sri Lanka’s sea clean-ups, realised first hand the incredible seriousness of plastic contamination, when recently preparing a fish curry dish for her eleven-year-old son. Cutting open the fish catch of the day, she found a green bottle top inside it and the experience not only shocked her, but nearly put her off eating fish for life. Looking further into this worrying matter, she discovered that a horrifying fourteen billion tons of trash are dumped into the ocean every year and, after talking among the community along the coastline of Sri Lanka, she feels that the global pandemic has done some positive things, like bringing into sharp focus the plight of the ocean and what it’s like for an entire planet of people to truly connect and to suffer simultaneously while also looking for positive long term solutions. Covid-19 may have impacted on the health and the economy of Sri Lanka, as well as global relationships and freedoms everywhere, but it’s sobering to think that something far more serious for the planet is coming our way unless we all change quickly in our day to day behaviours. She can see, along with fellow lovers of the ocean and its marine life, that behind the dramatic global headlines of this current world crisis, is another one, that of eating our own rubbish, which is potentially much, much more serious to our health long term and exposes that we have failed to protect our own food chain from contamination. The growing degradation of the world’s beautiful oceans, and ultimately the destruction of our natural environment is almost certain to bring about even more serious consequences than the current pandemic - not just for 2021, but for decades to come, unless we take stock now of the most basic objectives, like cleaning up the world’s oceans and teaching people not to throw rubbish into it, before we have a situation where there is more plastic than fish in the sea.

Currently, according to organisations that work in this arena, there are 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating around the world and growing daily into a large garbage land mass the size of France that is collecting in the pacific, polluting the water with not only plastic, but also toxic waste. To put this current crisis into context, an estimated 100 million marine animals are killed each year by plastic waste and over a million sea birds die from mistaking plastic tops for fish and choking on them, or, in the case of turtles, thinking that plastic bags are yummy jelly fish. The coronavirus is still, after a year, only responsible for two million deaths, putting into perspective the incredible importance of donning our swim-suits and diving kits and helping clean up the sea bed around Sri Lanka. Sir David Attenborough made the world focus on the real dangers to the ocean in his award winning TV series Blue Planet 1 and 2 saying, “Surely, we all have a responsibility to care for our Blue Planet. The future of humanity and indeed, all life on earth, now depends on us doing so.”

Shalini, recognising the importance of this statement, has joined forces with divers, The Galle Fort Underwater Gallery group of artists and anyone concerned with the marine world and its beautiful forests of coral that make Sri Lanka one of the top new diving destinations. She has called on friends and family to help with this ongoing ocean clean-up, which will take place on 1st of February 2021, along with the great contribution of the master divers at Central Cultural Fund and, most of all, the generosity of the diving centres in Unawatuna, who are also voluntarily contributing to the huge clean-up task force. She invites anyone with diving qualifications and a desire to help this sea cleaning initiative to join under the Ocean Sri Lanka flag, including kids who have completed their diving courses and received licenses in the last few months. Already a small group of families with children have started to explore the scale of the problem and bring rubbish to the surface, which is then up-cycled into art works, recycled or disposed of safely. She explains that an amazing 180 million pieces of rubbish are toxic in the ocean and before diving in wearing swimwear, we should always check that the dyes used have been fixed properly and will not further add to the poisoning of our seas. So, go on, dive in and join Ocean Sri Lanka with the island’s hands-on community clear up group on February 1st. Sir David Attenborough says, “Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there is a change in our societies, in our economics and in our politics.”

If diving is not your thing, be a change maker, as, each year, more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally, of which 10 per cent ends up as debris, including bags, bottles and food packaging, which flows into our oceans from rivers and streams. It is the equivalent of a rubbish truck of waste every minute; 91% of plastic is never recycled; and the frightening fact is that it takes 450 years for a plastic bottle, for example, to decompose; 2050 is the date projected for when the amount of plastics in the ocean will equal the amount of fish, if this is not halted.

As plastic degrades painfully slowly, it pollutes the oceans over a long period with yet unknown long term results. It breaks down into fragments called micro-plastics, which can badly affect living organisms as they become entangled in it or ingest it, ending up choking or poisoning them. 6,400 micro-plastics are inadvertently swallowed by the average European shellfish consumer each year. “This planet on which we live and which sustains us, is a miraculous living organism. We have to manage, look after and respect it and then it will respect us,” explains Prince Charles.

The question remains, if we do not help these initiatives will we still be here or will we have suffocated or been intoxicated by a sea of plastic bergs that if not cleared could consume us in plastic rubbish? Despite the great leaps forward in technology, the world has never been in such a mess, as exposed by the current pandemic. As Prince Charles put it, “Plastic is on the menu!” due to the increasing amounts found in fish caught for the dinner table. If you are not a diver, you can encourage friends to use a hessian instead of plastic shopping bag, and swap single-use cigarette lighters for matches, as environmentalists are frequently finding plastic cigarette lighters in the stomachs of dolphins, whales and birds. These measures alone and not allowing plastic wrappers to enter the ocean, would make a huge difference, along with using whicker baskets to transport loose fruit and veg from supermarkets and grocers to homes and hotels, and encouraging all travellers to exchange using plastic drinking bottles for glass made ones, as Jetwing Travels has done. If everyone did their bit, the sea would start to heal and marine life flourish, and we in turn eat healthier and enjoy a more holistic way of life. Artist and curator Janaka De Silva says his aim in starting the Underwater Gallery Project with other artists is to connect everyone to ocean life, so they see fish as friends with personalities, like us, and understanding marine life better will make us feel obligated to protect the largest gathering of whales in the world and the incredible lives of exotic tropical fish.” In the end, the sea has brought people together from all corners of the world for centuries, made trade of every kind possible and today has given us a chance to share Sri Lanka’s magical island history both on land and in the sea. So, join Ocean Sri Lanka and be the change that will make fish our friends and rubbish in the ocean a thing of the past by emailing Shalini Gamage for more details [email protected].