June 16 every year is World Sea Turtle Day while June 8 is always World Ocean Day. The Ocean has been described as the earth’s lungs, if in danger, man would be in trouble and oceanographers are beginning to raise an alarm.
The turtle is a vital part of the ocean that has survived millions of years but is now threatened by adverse human activities. According to available data, siix out of the known eight sea turtle species are on the verge of extinction. Various organisations are now raising awareness through ocean literacy. This year in Nigeria, #TeamSeas partnered with the Marine and Coastal Conservation Society of Nigeria (MCCSN) and the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR) as well as other not-for-profits to commemorate both annual celebrations with a beach clean up exercise.
The Nigerian Maritime News (TNMN) spoke with the Director IOI-Nigeria Centre, Mr Akanbi Bankole Williams who was special guest at the event during the exercise. He speaks regarding the ocean, sea turtles, climate change and marine pollution and how these are threatening marine space and by extension the earth. Have an interesting read!
TNMN: Why is this Beach Clean-up exercise led by #TeamSeas important?
Williams: The Ocean Conservancy marks today as its own Ocean Day but the actual World Ocean Day is June 8th. It is a day set aside by the United Nations to commemorate and to create awareness on the Ocean. A lot of people have little knowledge of the Ocean, what service it is providing for us and how it impacts humans. Some human activities are negatively impacting the Ocean and we need to be aware of it. That is the essence of today.
The theme for this year’s World Ocean Day is “Revitalization: Collective Action for the Ocean” and today was chosen by the Ocean Conservancy to commemorate the Ocean Day and the World Sea Turtle Day.
TNMN: How important is the ocean to man Sir?
Williams: The Ocean is like our lungs. It is the lungs of the earth. We breathe oxygen because the ocean gives it out and absorbs the carbon dioxide. Just like us it inhales and exhales. This is one of the Ocean’s activities.
The Ocean provides food for humanity. It is the source of food and seafood. It provides an economy for most coastal countries, even countries that are inland depend on the ocean for international trade etc so, the ocean has so many values. It is important to create awareness to increase the knowledge of the layman through what we call Ocean Literacy and that is what we are doing through several campaigns we have engaged in because intricately, every person on this earth, whether you are in the desert, in the deep Arctic or Atlantic, you are in a way connected to the Ocean and if you don’t treat the ocean right, the ocean will fight back at you.
TNMN: In what ways have people ill treated the Ocean, especially within Nigeria?
Williams: The Ocean is just one but it has several basins and these basins are connected. So, whatever we do in Nigeria can affect anywhere in the world. Whatever they do in America, Asia affects the rest of the world.
There are several human behaviours that are adverse to the Ocean, one is over-exploitation. As the human population is increasing, the demand for food, the demand for housing, the demand for everything increases too. As such, we need more fish, which is the cheapest form of protein. The amount of fish we are taking away from the Ocean is more than what is replenished.
Secondly, you would have seen even along the Lekki-Peninsula that there is high demand for accommodation, people particularly like good things. Being close to the Ocean offers you a lot of services like fresh air and good scenery, so people want to live around the coast. This is also because of the economy around the coast- the ports, industries also draw people close. Therefore, a lot of these activities, port activities, industries, demand for food, demand for social amenities is what is putting the pressure on the Ocean. If we are aware of how actions here and there can add up to bigger things, we will have attitudinal change.
TNMN: What is of great concern as the World Sea Turtle Day is marked globally?
Williams: The problem of sea turtles is that the rate at which they are being killed far outweighs the way they are replenishing. It is being consciously killed during fishing activities. During fishing, the nets take them. Fishing nets are sometimes lost at sea and become ‘ghost nets’ where the turtle gets trapped; they are air breathing organisms who find it difficult to breathe once trapped . They have air sacs or pouches around their throat so, what they do is that they come to the surface and gulp some fresh air which they can use underwater for 30 minutes or thereabout after which, they resurface again for fresh air. When trapped in a ‘ghost net’ for more than one hour, they would drown so that reduces their population.
People also kill them when they come to the beaches to nest and take their eggs. They catch sea turtles and sell them. The sea turtle is a reptile that comes to the beach to nest. It lays heavy eggs that must be on ground or the soil, they must come off shore to lay their eggs. Coming down to lay these eggs makes them vulnerable. They are not land animals and cannot harm people but people prey on them. And when we prey on those found on the beaches, it is like you are killing all the females and their eggs. Imagine that all women and all the children in a community are killed, obviously that community would never grow, it will definitely go down. That is the same thing happening to sea turtles.
Relating it to what we are doing today, a good beach is not only good for aesthetics, there are other organisms that inhabit beaches. If the beaches are littered by plastics, they change the configuration of the environment, which may affect organisms like sea turtles laying eggs on the beach. So, a clean good beach offers a very good nestling site for sea turtles, aside from the human aspect where we can even turn clean beaches to tourist places. People can help nurture and preserve sea turtles by setting parameters for people not to interfere in an environment where a turtle is laying eggs. It is a beautiful sight to see the hatchling (young turtles) going back to sea. It is a wonderful experience. Chances are that if we don’t disturb their present population, the sea turtle may recover. Most of the species that we have, except for one, have been classified as threatened, they can go extinct. Our children may not see them again.
TNMN: How compliant are we regarding the use of the Turtle Excluder Device (TED) while fishing?
Williams: The device was introduced in Nigeria for fishing companies particularly the trawling companies and I can say that there is almost absolute compliance. There is a lot of compliance particularly but when it comes to the artisanal such a thing does not exist. The artisanal fisherman catches turtles.
TNMN: Has oil spillage/ pollution contributed to sea turtles being endangered?
Williams: Anything that is pollution has an adverse effect. There is a difference between contamination and pollution. Contamination is the presence of a substance in an environment while pollution is the presence of a substance that is able to cause harm, devalue, deface or reduce certain things. In pollution, there must be an impact.
So, sea turtles come to the surface to breathe atmospheric air. If there is oil film on the water by the time a sea turtle lifts its head, it means that the oil would go into the lungs; automatically many of them would die out.
Secondly, oil spilled at the beaches would get into the sand where the eggs are laid, there is an exchange since the eggs are living things. The eggs may even die, the turtles that are in water trying to gulp up air would die; those at the beaches would also die. I don’t want to go into all forms of pollution but there is no form of pollution that does not affect them.
TNMN: There has been so much talk on the need for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Nigeria seems not to be doing anything about that, wouldn’t adopting this policy help our marine habitat recover?
Williams: At the stage we are in the world, there is need for MPA’s in every country, in every port that is accessible to man. If we do not create a safe haven for some of these marine organisms and special animals to recover and replenish, then we have a problem in our hands. The issue of MPA borders on many things which include the sensitivity of the environment. Some areas are enclosed and have sensitive organisms and a unique ecosystem. These are areas that are of higher priority but in open water it is still very difficult to delineate space. It would take a strong policy to establish MPAs but truly certain areas can be reserved. Take for example, Lekki Lagoon, just by the Dangote refinery, it can be designated as an MPA because of its sensitivity. I once read a long time ago that in the 60’s or 70’s, during the Civil War, they wanted to create a channel there for military purposes – an entrance to the sea. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. That water body is completely a freshwater environment, if the channel to allow the sea water come in was created, it means the hydrology and hydrography of that water would totally change into marine. Where would the organisms have gone? They would have traveled further inland which may not be so convenient.
A lot of will-power is required particularly from the policy makers to create MPA’s. There is scientific evidence but the political will to do so is difficult to get. Within the marine environment, we can create a space that will be a no taker. Our economy is still dwindling and we have not explored the resources enough. We need a lot of scientific evidence, there are some in the domain. We need facts to make well informed policies. MPA’s are good and are being advocated for world over. Nigeria too should take cue, policy maker should leverage on research/ information provided by the scientist to make informed decisions.
TNMN: Our inland waters are said to be drying up- Chad, Nkisi river, River Niger etc. Lakes and rivers of the last decade are quickly becoming dry land, what is happening?
Williams: Well, it is a known fact that the globe is warming up, the climatic environment is changing. Desertification is increasing as a result of global warming and when the water becomes warmer particularly in lakes it dries because when you heat up water it evaporates. It is the evaporation that is increasing desertification so areas that are inland, that is water surrounded by land, would start drying up as a result of the increase in temperature. According to the Paris agreement, the world temperature has increased about one degree. A layman would say what is one degree? It seems small but the impact of one degree is what we now know. Most of the ice in the Arctic and Atlantic are melting and there are evidences. I have a map that showed ice coverage in the 50’s and ice coverage as of now and we have lost almost 70% of it. It is there in the public domain, you can Google it. When the temperature increases what happens aside from the desertification? What is the impact on the Ocean? One, the Ocean becomes a bit more diluted, it becomes acidified. When you boil water in a container, it gets to a certain temperature and it starts expanding. It is the same thing. When the ocean warms up, the volume would start increasing and that is one reason why we are now having erosion, storm wages, climate changes and so on. The problem is enormous as a result of global warming and what are the causes of global warming? Greenhouse gases that we have been putting in the environment! I know there are other measures that are in place for gases but me as an oceanographer, the information that I can best provide is information it has on the ocean but intricately it affects other areas of the world. Everywhere is heating up. When I was growing up, I always had the school cardigan as part of my uniform. Early in the morning, when you are going to school, it was cold most of the time but now it is hot. I have a digital table clock in my room that has a digital temperature gauge, the temperature in my room sometimes goes up to 31 degrees except there is power and I turn on the AC or fan. There are evidences here and there which have been documented in the public domain but sometimes policy makers need to be well informed. For instance Donald Trump, who pulled out of the Paris agreement although they are back now because he said for all the researches that had been done for years, just one degree of global warming was recorded. A leader should be one with an open mind who is open to change. You cannot say the way it was done 20 years ago is the same way it should be done today. A leader you should be open to information, that is key for making better informed decisions.