Fish cannot scream (and other reasons to protect the reefs)

Diving in the deep sea waters of Miri, Sarawak. The World Bank has decided to approve a multimillion-dollar project that will come up with clever models to put a value on coral reefs and their related ecosystems that governments can understand and us
Diving in the deep sea waters of Miri, Sarawak. The World Bank has decided to approve a multimillion-dollar project that will come up with clever models to put a value on coral reefs and their related ecosystems that governments can understand and use in policy-making. -- PHOTO: TOURISM MALAYSIA

I came close to losing my life twice while diving – once in the Philippines and the other time in Indonesia – but I’ve never lost my love for the sea and its life-giving bounty of coral reefs.

So, I was very happy to hear that the World Bank has decided to approve a multimillion-dollar project that will come up with clever models to put a value on coral reefs and their related ecosystems (mangroves, for example) that governments can understand and use in policy-making.

The project, which has a modest starting grant of US$4.5 million (S$5.6 million), focuses on Indonesia and the Philippines, where much of the world’s reefs and related ecosystems lie. It is meant to encourage stewardship of these marine resources, which provide not just food security and livelihoods but also natural protection against storms and rising sea levels.

To know the sea is to love it. But too many of us still seem to treat it as a magic larder that can be plundered at will with no consequences. Part of the problem, I feel, is that the destruction is taking place under water, where the damage is not easily visible.

On land, causes for sustainable mining and farming have gained traction, helped along by the sight of devastated rainforests and the cries of animals in distress.

But fish cannot scream. And far greater tracts have been quietly destroyed underwater by a single commercial fishing net than have been lost on land to a roaring forest fire.

Every year, an estimated 130,000 sq km are lost to deforestation.

Every year, 15 million sq km under the sea are raked by bottom trawling, just one of the many types of commercial fishing that damage the sea floor.

To quantify is to begin to understand. Even then, governments face an uphill battle.

At one of the more successful ecological dive resorts I’ve been to in Indonesia, it took years of convincing, and years of enforcing a no-fishing zone (including hiring armed patrols) before local fishermen realised that the exclusion zone actually improved their catches outside of it.

As dive resorts spring up in the region and more young people abandon fishing for diving, the scales are falling off for more local communities.

I’ve talked to dive guides who used to be fishermen and some of their revelations are astonishing. Shockingly, many fishermen cannot swim and therefore cannot see the long-term damage being caused by trawler nets or dynamite fishing, much less understand that reefs and mangroves are the nurseries of the sea and therefore need to thrive.

There is some research that suggests that all is too late and that we might as well stuff our faces with our favourite seafood. Fish populations have been declining and for some species of trout, cod and anchovy, the numbers are thought to have dwindled to dangerously low levels.

There may be some truth to that. Since I started diving 10 years ago, I noticed that repeat visits to the same dive sites have yielded fewer sightings of shark – the presence of the apex predator being an important indicator of reef health – and that diversity in reef life has shrunk.

But there is also much more research out there that suggests that it is not too late at all.

We can all do our bit to support life in the sea. Boycott seafood caught by bottom trawling and other equally damaging methods. Or avoid eating the bluefin tuna and other endangered species to give their numbers a chance to recover. Or even, learn to dive and see for ourselves why life in the sea is worth protecting so very much.

sokling@sph.com.sg