Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A Sailor's Thoughts on the State of the Sea Part Two

A message from Helen
Our Trustee,Theo continues his sailing adventure and has sent us another blog about his ocean reflections. To read Theo's full blog detailing in words and pictures his voyage visit his own blogsite. So, with that brief introduction I will pass over to Theo:

By Theo Stocker
I'm not a very good fisherman. At least, I've not caught a huge number of fish despite trailing a line for thousands of miles as we've sailed the coast and islands of west Africa. I've probably lost as many lures as fish I've caught, but the ones we have caught have been a tasty and welcome additions to our ship-board diet of gruel and hard tack (well, not quite, but anyway!). A nice little frigate mackerel or two, a dorado, a small barracuda and a squid have all found their way onto our plates.

For the people who live in this part of the world, fish is far more than a meal-time novelty; it is a crucial part of their diet as a protein staple and is a mainstay of the economy providing a living for many people on the coast. Morocco, Senegal, The Gambia and Cape Verde all have vast fleets of wooden fishing boats; brightly painted fishing pirogues and open boats, from two man canoes up to ocean-going vessels with 15 or 20 crew on board. In some of the main cities such as Agadir in Morocco and Dakar in Senegal there were small fleets of more western-looking trawlers, but these rust-buckets were a small minority. Mostly nets and lines are laid or thrown by hand and the fish are hauled back in without machinery. Further up the Gambia River, nets are strung across reed beds and seine nets are skilfully thrown, lasso-like by hand. This isn't glamorous or easy. It is a tough way to make a living – gruelling physical labour for minimal profit that leaves many of the fishermen among the poor of their societies.

In the places we visited the fish appears to be plentiful. Bustling quay-sides and markets in each little village and city-suburb where the catches are landed, put on display for sale and bought either singly or in bulk. In Dakar refrigerated trucks came to take away the prime catches; in Agadir there are enormous sardine processing plants. Mostly though, the fish goes to the local population, carried off in plastic bags or gutted by old ladies sitting around huge tubs and hung out to dry on palm mats and on piles of stones. Everywhere we went, fish with rice and a variety of sauces underpinned most menus – cheap and really tasty. In Cape Verde, barrows of fresh fish were wheeled from house to house, like a british milkman, in time for breakfast.

This seemed to me entirely reasonable and necessary. The amount of fish taken out of coastal waters and rivers at the moment appears not to impact local ecosystems too badly. The wildlife was abundant; petrels, guls and common dolphin in the Atlantic; egrets, herons, ospreys and fish eagles, to name just a fraction of the birds we saw, were plentiful in Gambia, where we even saw schools of bottle-nose dolphin hunting far upriver.

In many ways, it would seem there is nothing to worry about. That isn't the whole picture however. The bigger picture, I think, looks far more worrying.

Firstly, populations are growing, eating more and more and the number of fish taken out of the sea will have to increase to match this. Catch sizes from the same fish populations will have to increase and fishing methods will adapt to provide for this. Talking to the fishermen in Agadir, one proudly showed me his long lines of about 50 hooks each which, he told me, were for catching sharks (though this may have been a mis-translation). Long-lining is well known as a high-impact and not-particularly-sustainable means of fishing. Still, if you have to chose between making a living to feed your family or protecting the environment for future generations, I know I would choose the more immediate need.

Secondly, pollution. As I mentioned in my last article, plastic is inundating the oceans with waste that doesn't break down and I'm sure that plastic is merely the visible tip of other pollutants that end up at sea. Larger populations, all aspiring to better standards of living, are all consuming more, supported by more industry and creating a corresponding amount of waste which increasingly constitutes plastic and increasingly buys and throws away rather than reusing and recycling. Even if the countries become better equipped to deal with waste and pollution on land, I think it will be a long time before the well-being of the sea is a common concern. For now it is both a vast natural resource and convenient dumping ground.

The third reason I think the picture for the world's oceans look bleak, and perhaps most immediately worrying, is the shear scale of commercial fishing globally. In the coastal and deep water off the coast of west Africa huge rust-covered ships, mainly from the Far East, operate in fleets based around a main factory ship, catching vast hauls of tuna all of which was intended for export back to their home countries.

In the Canaries there was a shore-side factory belonging to the Japan Tuna Corporation. In Mindelo in Cape Verde, there were at least twenty non-local fishing ships coming and going in the harbour. I watched as one went alongside the mother ship and transferred by crane huge slingfuls of gigantic tuna, steaming with ice from their freezer holds. None of this fish ended up ashore to feed the local population and none of the profit from their catches provided incomes for local families.

That said, there is investment into local infrastructure by these visiting countries as recompense for the fishing concessions granted by cash-strapped governments. New roads and sports stadiums are popping up all over the Cape Verde islands. Similarly in The Gambia, Chinese agencies were much in evidence, although here it was a similar deal for the export of rice, based on loans given to farmers to buy fertiliser in return for a good price for the crop. Perhaps it's no different to the exploitation of any natural resources by foreign companies all over the world – oil, gas, minerals, wood... Not that that justifies any of it.

Fishing is absolutely essential to the communities in western Africa and for the most part the small guys don't have a huge negative impact it seems, for now at least. I can't see though how the appetites of a rapidly growing global population, the tastes that demand particular fish on an industrial scale and the use of the sea as a dumping ground can be mutually supported by our oceans. The oceans are big but they are finite.

Monday, 5 March 2012

A Sailor's Thoughts on the State of the Sea

A message from Helen
I am really thrilled to introduced Theo Stocker as our guest blogger. Theo is a Sea-Changers trustee and a passionate sailor. He is currently sailing across the Atlantic and along route has penned a number of blogs for Sea-Changers which we will post over the next few weeks. As well as his Sea-Changers blogs you can also follow Theo's adventure on his own blogsite. So, with that brief introduction I will pass over to Theo:

A Sailor's Thoughts on the State of the Sea
Theo Stocker

Having spent three years behind a desk in London, the call of the sea once more became too much to ignore, so resigning my job, I left for Spain in early December to help the owner of the good yacht 'Thankful' sail down the west coast of Africa and on to the Caribbean. It has been an quite the adventure, sailing from to Morocco, The Canary Islands, Senegal, The Gambia and Cape Verde, where we are now at anchor off Mindelo on the island of Sao Vicente. The time has almost come to leave this side of the Atlantic and commit ourselves to the trade winds that will carry us swiftly, we hope, to the tranquil beaches and rum dacquiris of Matinique.

While I have been sailing this side of the pond and having the time and opportunity to see for myself, a number of things have struck about the state of our oceans. I am not a scientist, oceanographer or anthropologist, so these are in no way scientific statements, but I am a Sea-Changer, so I wanted to report on what I've seen and the themes that have emerged consistently in all of the countries we have visited.

The three big issues appear to be these: the amount of rubbish being put into the ocean, the number of fish being taken out, and the poverty that afflicts the people who rely so heavily on the health of the ocean. The oceans are a finite resource. Enormous, yes, but still finite and it appears to me that we are using them up like we use other natural resources. I am going to post a blog about each of these issues. I hope you enjoy them and that they prompt your own thoughts and maybe even actions.

Blog One - Plastic 

In the old days, sailors knew they were approaching land by the change in the colour of the water, the presence of sea birds and clouds on the horizon. As we approached Dakar in Senegal, our first landfall in sub-Saharan Africa, the first sign of land we saw was plastic; plastic bottles and bags drifting out to sea, blown by the strong Harmattan winds that had battered us and covered our boat in fine orange dust from the desert. Closer in, we became aware of the smell of the land, a sweet smokey smell that was in part grilling meat on charcoal fires, but also the smouldering piles of rubbish we found on the streets of the city when we went ashore.

Beach waste, Dakar harbour, Senegal
 Dakar is a busy, dusty, bustling capital city and the largest port in western Africa. It is vibrant, interesting, friendly and has great music. Everywhere we were greeted with “Bonjour, ca va?” and warm smiles. But it is a poor city. People live next to their tiny fishing boats under a tarpaulin, or beg on the streets, eking a living where there seems to be none. So it hardly surprising that along the potholed and crowded streets, dealing with rubbish is not people's priority. Sometimes there are bins. Mostly it is dumped and piles of rubbish grow at regular intervals, bags split open, left to rot. Goats wander the back streets and graze whatever is edible from them, metal rusts or is taken, but the plastic remains. Rags of plastic bags, bottles, wrappers, and cups from the 50 cent espressos sold on the streets in the morning; it all simply stays there, trampled into the dust and swirled by the strong winds, carried down the streets. Some of inevitably ends up in sewers and on the beaches.
Similarly in The Gambia, though noticeably cleaner, predominantly from a smaller population, rubbish is dealt with in the same way, quietly dumped out of the way (or in the way, as often as not) to be eaten by goats and to be carried away by the wind. We did see efforts at least to collect rubbish in Gambia; a tractor and trailer filled to overflowing with rubbish collected from bins on the street and from houses. But the rubbish dump in Banjul the capital is simply a huge field enclosed by wire fences where the rubbish is tipped and left, not buried or covered or recycled. Similarly in Morocco, the Oueds - the dry river beds - were used as communal tips, rubbish cascading down their sides. When the rains come they come with enough force to carry boulders down from the mountains and so the rubbish goes straight out to sea. Even in the Canaries plastic littered the sea. Snorkelling in the marine reserve of La Graciosa, there were plastic bags in amongst the rocks and reefs. It is so frustrating that there is nowhere that isn't blighted by plastic.

Senegalese fishing boat
At first it appears like laziness both on the part of the individuals who dump it and on the part of the governments who don't provide the infrastructure to deal with it. But as I've spent more time in these countries the problem becomes inevitably more complex than that. Firstly, finding an environmentally friendly way of dealing with their rubbish does not feature as a priority compared to say, earning enough to feed the family and getting by day to day. Life is challenging enough as it is. Having said that, there is laziness when it comes to rubbish – people will just drop litter on street in front of their own houses without giving it a second thought. It seems that litter on the street simply doesn't bother people the way it offends our western sensibilities.

Secondly, there is a lack of awareness, as much in the UK as in western Africa, about what happens to our waste and where it goes once we've used it. So much plastic is used that ends up on the street, in the ground or out at sea and yet we continue to use it. Every purchase made in Senegal and Gambia is taken home in a little black bag which is then discarded. This made me think about our use of plastic in the first place. In the villages along the banks of the Gambia river that we visited, people really are poor and western style products with all their associated wrappers and packaging are simply not affordable. I am not condoning their poverty and how difficult life is for them, but in their more traditional way of living, they eat what their local environment can provide and the waste produced is virtually all organic so rubbish, particularly plastic, is far less prevalent. Why do we have to use plastic bags at all? What is wrong with cotton bags, or even baskets?
Waste disposal, Gambia

The final thing that has struck me is that in the west, we can hardly buy any products that are not first wrapped in cardboard and plastic, everything is packaged. Even if it is not food, we buy cheap products that don't last and that we throw away rather than mend. People naturally and rightly aspire to better standards of living and to work their way out of poverty. Sadly, this means more plastic bags, more low-quality factory made goods, more disposable goods, more packaging and more dis-connection from the natural world. Plastic seems to be fundamentally linked to the dream of prosperity. We are addicted both to that dream and to the plastic bags that swirl in the wind.

I don't know how plastic waste ranks as a global polluter of the oceans; maybe overfishing and chemical pollution are worse. But plastic pollution appears particularly bad in the poorer countries of western Africa. We need to tackle that poverty. We need the infrastructure to deal with the waste. And our love of plastic has to change, through policy and infrastructure, through awareness and education, and through the changing of our daily myopic habits, both in the UK and Africa.

All photos copyright Theo Stocker 2012