Monday, 29 April 2013

SOS - Save Our Seas

Growing up in Northamptonshire, I lived about as far from the coast as you can get in the UK. Two hours drive from The Wash; we visited the sea for family holidays and I remember rock pooling, screaming at occasional jelly fish (I've still no idea if these tiny creatures could have harmed us or not) and insisting that a snorkel and mask were a useful purchase for the muddy brown waters. It wasn't until a family trip to northern Scotland that I realised that not all UK waters were so opaque and I remember gazing down into the crystal clear sea amazed. I saw my first dolphins on that trip too and whenever I've visited the coast since I always gaze out in the hope of some sort of marine mammal sighting whether it's seals, dolphins or an elusive glimpse of a whale.

Now I live in Devon and the sea is only 30 minutes down the estuary (and the tidal effects of the sea stop only 20 minutes walk from our flat) I am acutely aware of how incredible the UK's marine wildlife is. From white and yellow gannets that pierce the waves like arrows to hidden gems such as our cold water coral reefs; our coastline is covered with life that is truly spectacular. Every summer we flock to the shores searching for crabs, starfish, or other signs of life under the waves and we are captivated.  Even one of the UK's most iconic dishes, fish and chips, comes from the sea.

We live on an island and as a nation we are rightly proud of our coast and all the wonders within it. In fact, it's easy to forget that many of these creatures are found in few other places on Earth. The UK is home to more than half of the world's northern gannets, the biggest leatherback turtle ever discovered was found on a beach in Wales measuring over 3 meters in length and we have some of the most important estuary habitats in the world.

But we are destroying the marine environments and ecosystems that we are so proud of and hold so dear to our national identity. From oil spill to over fishing news story after news story tells us that our coastal waters are worse off today than they were in the past.

In the last few weeks thousands of seabirds have been washing up onto the shores of Devon, Cornwall and Dorest covered in a gluey substance. The same substance that hundreds of birds were found covered in a few months ago. It is polyisobutene (PIB) a polymer used in many products including clingfilm and chewing gum. It is also used as an additive in oil lubricants and this appears to be the current source, when ships wash out their tanks at sea. A sticky substance on its own, when mixed with seawater PIB becomes a gluey mess like a very strong PVA. So imaging covering a bird in PVA and then chucking them in the sea. With wings stuck together and no waterproofing left for insulation sea birds have been drowning and starving and washing up onto our shores in their thousands. Even for those which are collected alive there is less than a 50% chance of survival. It's not a pretty sight. Covered in PIB the birds stick to everything including any rubbish on the shoreline or in the water.

If you haven't already seen the pictures have a look here, here and here.

If you are thinking that we must catch the people who committed this wildlife crime you may be surprised to find that despite the obvious effect it has on marine life it is completely legal to discharge certain amounts of PIB when washing out tanks according to international marine pollution regulation (The MARPOL Convention).

This is happening on beaches across the South West, beaches which in a few weeks will be filling with happy families enjoying the sunshine and our wonderful coast. I haven't heard whether other sea life has been affected by PIB. It may be that the substance floats and so mainly sea birds are affected or it may be that other damage caused by this incident is sinking under the waves never to be seen. Worryingly many of the birds show signs of burns and volunteers helping with the recovery have noticed irritation to the skin. It'll definitely be making me think twice before I dive into the waters around Devon this summer.

And that's really what stuns me the most about the whole situation. I can believe that some people just aren't interested in seabirds (but I wish I could take them to watch puffins or gannets and see if they change their mind) but our marine environment is important for the economy and we are wrecking it. Tourism is still one of the biggest incomes for the South West, yet we cover our beaches in dead birds and fill our seas with toxic substances, fishing is vital for many local communities yet we are slow to ensure that those communities have a sustainable income for future generations.

Wildlife cannot vote, it cannot speak up against injustices done to it, but we can. So whether it's because you want your children to swim in clear waters and discover starfish in rockpools or because you live in hope of seeing dolphins in the distance or just because you love fish and chips; do something now. Speak up and tell someone you love your seaside, that your life would be worse without it and that you want to protect it. To make sure PIB cannot be discharged legally into our waters and that those who do are held to account
sign the petition here.

What lurks hidden beneath the surface of our waters all around this island is often unknown. There may be giant turtles, whales, coral reefs and huge shoals of fish, or, very soon, there may be nothing at all except waste from ships, dead animals and empty cold water. Which will you choose?

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