Oceans, caught between devil and the deep blue sea… Part II

India’s one of the eminent Freedom fighters Swatantryaveer Sawarkar had written a poem, one of his inspiring and patriotic ones, in which he tells the ocean, “upon your promise I left my mother (land) to come to England, because you assured me to show diversities of the world, but I am feeling here suffocated now, so please take me back to my mother”.  Savarkar, who was an intellectual and an ideologist himself, reflected on ocean as his close confidant.

To many, ocean is like friend, philosopher and guide.  They get those intangible psychological, aesthetic, and even spiritual values from ocean. Many connect with ocean by watching the sun rise over the water or snorkelling among coral reefs or casting a rod into the surf or swimming. Oceans offer, most religiously, these immense pleasures to human beings.  More number of people therefore visit beaches to get these spiritual values or enjoy sea side activities, than visiting National Parks and sanctuaries.

 Ocean quiet meditation 1

Ocean of services

In last article, I had mentioned that marine pollution has reached unprecedented heights and shipping industry is one of the partners in this crime.  We therefore need to understand this issue well.  As said then, we will dwell more on this topic in forthcoming articles, but before diving deep into it, we will see details of plethora of ecosystem resources and services offered by oceans and how our survival completely depends on them.

Let us start with understanding what ‘ecosystem resources and services’ mean.  To put it simply, Ecosystem Resources and Services are ‘benefits which human beings obtain from Mother Nature’.  Provision of – food (sea foods or crops), water, raw materials (timber, silk, organic matter, minerals etc), energy (e.g. fossil fuels, hydropower), services of climate regulation or air purification or spiritual or recreational services (e.g. wind surfing, mountaineering, ecotourism etc) – are all ecosystem resources and services or benefits, this planet offers to humanity.  One study shows that open oceans and coastal services contribute 63% out of total ecosystem resources and services, which is a real major share.    Globally, human societies have relied on the marine environment for food, commerce, transportation and on superabundance of varied services since infinite times in past.

Natural resources

Since pre history, oceans are facilitators for International trade and maritime sector. Metal tools found along Yemen’s coastal plain and stone tablets uncovered in Egypt reveal a thriving maritime trade in and around the Mediterranean and Red seas dating back to the Bronze Age, some 5,000 years ago. By harnessing the strong trade winds and seasonal monsoons in the Indian Ocean, Arabs established long-lasting trade routes around 100 B.C.  Indian maritime history begins during the 3rd millennium BC, when inhabitants of the Indus Valley initiated maritime trading contact with ancient Greek or Mesopotamia, as it was then called.  Mesopotamian inscriptions indicate that Indian traders from the Indus valley—carrying copper, hardwoods, ivory, pearls, carnelian, and gold—were active in Mesopotamia.

Today 90% of world trade happens through seas.  It is difficult to quantify the value of world seaborne trade in monetary terms, as figures for trade estimates are traditionally in terms of tonnes or tonne-miles, and are therefore not comparable with monetary-based statistics for the value of the world economy.  However, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that the operation of merchant ships contributes about US$380 billion in freight rates within the global economy and they carry more than US $4 trillion worth of goods annually. Volume wise they carry over 10 Billion Metric Tons of cargo every year and by 2020 it is expected to cross 15 Billion.

For us, since I am part of shipping alliance, oceans’ services have more importance to us than anyone else.  We exist because sea exists and offers his services to us.

container-shipping2

Even older than maritime transport is the practise of fishing.  Fishing is an ancient practice that dates back at least to about 40,000 years ago. Isotopic analysis of the skeletal remains of 40,000-year-old modern human from eastern Asia has shown that, he regularly consumed fish.  Archaeological features such as discarded fish bones and cave paintings show that sea foods were important for survival and consumed in significant quantities. During this period, most people lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and they were almost always associated with fishing as a major source of food. Mankind continues with this tradition of being hunter-gatherer and seas continue to be provider of stocks of this staple.  Today, fish are the only significant source of the global food supply that people still continue to hunt, although on a scale completely unimaginable, over 100 million tons every year.

Two out of three major cities in the world are sited along the coast, and more than 2 billion people live within 100 kilometers of a shoreline. Millions more crowd the world’s beaches and coastal areas each year, bringing in billions of dollars in tourism revenues. Ocean floor deposits are the source of one fourth of the world’s annual oil and gas production, and as human populations continue to grow, these demands on benefits from oceans will intensify further.

These are only a few of innumerable Marine and coastal ecosystem services.  In next article too we will see few more services offered by oceans and how important they are to human society.

However most important point to ponder on is, these services are increasingly under threat from widespread and growing pressures on marine and coastal resources such as over-fishing, contamination of sea water, oil spills from ships, coastal habitat destruction, general loss of biodiversity in the oceans and so on… We will have to dive much deeper to understand all this.  Till then we can only sit back and say “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll…”

Milind Joshi

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