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How to turn blue seas green

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaLess oil please – the ocean does not need a massage or any more plastic bottles. Human miscalculations and greed are destroying marine life and reefs.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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The USS Guardian ran aground on Tubbataha Reef 17 January 2013

On 17 January 2013 the USS Guardian ran aground somehow on Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO marine sanctuary.

AS A SECOND TYPHOON swept through Hong Kong in the span of five days and I ramped up the defences – towels to line the windows where the wind was forcing water in through fraying seals – I felt for one proud moment like a captain on the bridge of a US destroyer steaming with the invincible Seventh Fleet, with one crucial difference. The skill to drive my home into a container ship has consistently eluded me.

The navy operates with stealth. Nimble warships turn their lights off at night, execute marine pirouettes, and do not respond to pings as they work silently to achieve their objective – not getting rammed by a slow moving oil tanker, or my house, when I have a full typhoon at my command. Fortunately, naval accidents at sea are rare in peacetime and usually do not involve commercial shipping.

A 2013 WWF survey – spanning 15 years – to identify the sea lanes most at risk for accidents that could imperil reefs and fragile marine ecosystems, determined that cargo ships made up 42 percent all vessels lost at sea. The study noted: “These types of vessels are often operating short shipping routes, associated with the tramp trading where vessels don’t have a set trade route and pick up opportunistic trade, particularly in Southeast Asia.”

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While fishing vessels accounted for 24 percent of all accidents during the period of its study, older cargo container ships, usually past 10 years of age, were a particular cause for concern, as their advanced age makes it “attractive for owners to register them with less reputable flags states in order to continue trading.” This can directly affect safety standards. “Southeast Asia, where the majority of these incidences occur, includes the Coral Triangle, the South China Sea and the Korea and Japan seas. These areas are particularly rich in biodiversity and therefore especially vulnerable to the impacts of shipping accidents.”

In early August 2017 Hong Kong was affected by a palm oil spill that shut down 13 beaches. Muck floated into the famed Fragrant Harbour too and had to be corralled. For Hongkongers, used to plastic litter on their beaches, this was nothing out of the ordinary and many dove in, not to help clean up, but to enjoy a leisurely swim.

{In January 2013 the USS Guardian ran aground in Tubbataha Reef and it was decided not to tow the ship out but to dismantle it to protect the coral

Spills, thrills, and the wrecking of coral reefs – accidentally, or purposefully as in China’s reclamation of disputed oil-rich islands in the South China Sea – are threatening the region’s rich biodiversity where it is estimated 75 percent of the world’s coral species and 35 percent of reef fish species, have enjoyed not entirely untrammelled access to life, liberty, bikini ogling, and freedom from boat propellers, and the idiocy of dynamite fishing popular in the Philippines and considered fashionable by giant clam hunters.

Beijing has hit back at critics of a military airfield that suddenly materialised in the Spratly archipelago, describing the activity as a “green” project. That’s splendid. But what happens once the military fatigues depart?

In January 2013 the USS Guardian ran aground in Tubbataha Reef off the Philippines and it was decided not to tow the ship out but to dismantle it section by section in order to protect the coral. Earlier, a patrolling Chinese frigate had run aground on a shoal in the Spratly Islands, about 100km west of Palawan. This broad swathe of sea is a marine park where sunken second world war ships form part of the brooding coral biodiversity – Japanese warships are a huge attraction for wreck divers headed for places like Coron Bay and Busuanga. There is no need for more.

Oil spills and collisions will continue to occur along the busy maritime lanes linking China, Korea and Japan with the Middle East as traffic squeezes into the Strait of Malacca and other bottlenecks. In January 2017 a Singapore container ship hit another cargo vessel with the release of 300 tonnes of oil. Singapore beaches at Changi, Pasir Ris and Punggol were affected and a few fish farms had to be temporarily shut down.

While these incidents are dwarfed by something on the scale of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico that released a record 210 million gallons of crude oil, Southeast Asia’s ability to cope with a major disaster – given the difficulty in coordinating multi-nation clean-ups across a patchwork littoral with conflicting territorial jurisdictions – is limited.

Studies point to an estimated six billion barrels of oil and natural gas around the Spratly area, Naturally, this has sparked more interest in the buried riches than in the marine biodiversity and could result in more green projects.

Travellers can do their bit to stop littering. The ‘great Pacific garbage patch’ caught up in the vortex of circling currents is variously estimated at between the size of Texas and continental USA (the latter perhaps a tad exaggerated). An Ocean Conservancy study pointed out that as much as 60 percent of ocean garbage is being spewed out by just five countries – Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, and China. As much as ‘80 percent of ocean plastic comes from land based sources,’ the study says.

If there’s a message in a bottle, no one is likely to find it. Keep a keen eye out. And next time you’re on your balcony, lean into the wind, and set course for the nearest oil tanker.

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