Marine pollution is a problem faced by the entire world. The ‘Garbage Patches’ located in the five gyres of our oceans continue to grow and accumulate millions of tonnes of marine debris. This consists of everything from bundles of abandoned fishing gear to large swathes of plastic. Some 45% of these garbage patches reportedly comprise ghost nets that have devastating impacts on ocean life.
Human-made trash such as microplastics washing up ashore in coastal regions across the world has also increased at an unnerving rate over the years. The results of marine microplastic pollution have led to catastrophic events for not only marine life, but humans too. These microplastics and heavy metals are ingested by microorganisms, fish, and seafood, contaminating them and then, in turn, poisoning the people who consume them.
World over, marine pollution has the same major sources; runoffs from weather, oil spills, littering, intentional discharge from manufacturing plants, and ocean mining. In the Maldives, as a nation composed mostly of water, the problem has escalated at equally breakneck speed even with several sound policies in place to protect against it. We have had fair progress, especially in recent years, with implementing policies that address new issues as they arise. One great step of note was the establishment of better waste management services in island communities which used to burn their trash close to the shores, leading to runoff pollution. The recent banning of the import of single-use plastics to the country was another monumental step in the right direction. However, there are still several significant issues that continue to direly affect the Maldives’ ecology that need closer and more urgent attention.
Microplastic pollution and the Waste Island
A study conducted in 2020 revealed that the waters around Maldivian islands have the largest concentration of microplastic pollution found anywhere in the world. The study revealed that the concentration of microplastics, or pieces of plastic measuring less than 5mm, was 55-1127.5 microplastics/kg at Naifaru Island, and 197-822 particles/kg at other inhabited and uninhabited islands in the Maldives. As stated earlier, the ingestion of these harmless pollutants by the organisms and marine animals of the sea directly leads to human poisoning, especially alarming given that a large part of the Maldives’ population are dependent upon fishing for their livelihoods and sustenance.
Professor Karen Burke Da Silva from the study was quoted as saying that current waste management practices, such as improper waste disposal at Thilafushi Island which was using waste as a landfill, contributed to this high number. The island of Thilafushi had itself come under international scrutiny earlier. In 2011, media conglomerates such as the BBC reported that trash had started spilling into the lagoon of the island from the ‘hills of rubbish’, along with highlighting the issue of toxins from the waste seeping into the ocean.
The promised waste management facilities, such as the biofuel facility, were not available on the island, and therefore, trash continued to accumulate with little in the way of proper disposal.
There were eyewitness reports as recently as 2021 in international media, that “700 tonnes of rubbish were dumped every day and burnt there, belching toxic fumes into the atmosphere.
Sinking of Fuel Boats Affecting Ecology
Another major issue that needs to be addressed more firmly in the Maldives is the frequent sinking of fuel boats. The sinking of any boat is enough to cause a dramatic shift in the surrounding ecosystem of the wreck, but a fuel boat capsizing is an ecological disaster. Oil, especially crude oil, can be notoriously difficult to clean up and cause environmental issues that persist for years on end.
In 2021 alone, there were three distinct instances of ships laden with fuel cargo capsizing in Maldivian waters. In March 2021, a fuel boat named “Savaaree” carrying 10,000 litres of diesel capsized near Hulhumalé phase 2, reportedly due to rough seas. The Sea Star, laden with 60,000 litres of diesel, caught fire and went down some 1.5 nautical miles off Embudhu Finolhu not even a month later. In July of the same year, the fuel barge ‘Mekunu’ ran aground west of Sh. Noomara whilst reportedly carrying large quantities of petrol and diesel. While these three incidents occurring so close together may be merely an unfortunate coincidence, the danger and resounding impact of such incidents are high enough to warrant special attention.
There are also tragedies arising from capsized cargo that were not fuel or diesel, but led to equally devastating results. One incident of note, not from home but close to it, was the capsizing of the X-Press Pearl over the coast of neighbouring Sri Lanka just last year. The ship caught fire and capsized while carrying ‘towers of containers’ full of 46 different harmful chemicals.
As though the danger of those chemicals leaking into the waters wasn’t enough, the ship also released a wave of tiny plastic pellets known as nurdles into the surrounding area. It wasn’t long before fish began to wash ashore at Negombo, their bodies bloated with the nurdles. Fishermen across the region had their livelihoods devastated when fishing was consequently banned in the area.
Ghost Nets and Ghost Gear
Ghost gear is fishing gear that has been abandoned, lost or discarded into the ocean. Ghost nets are carried across the tides and get entangled with marine animals ranging from turtles and seals to sharks and sea birds. Ghost gear also sinks over coral reefs, smothering them, and has highly destructive and disruptive effects on the ecosystem of the reef.
In the Maldives, ghost nets are a recorded issue affecting endangered marine animals, most notably sea turtles. The Olive Ridley Project, a non-profit organisation operating from the Maldives, reportedly removed some 1,340 nets from inshore areas between 2015 and 2020. In 2019, a ‘monster’ ghost net weighing an estimated 200kgs to 300kgs was removed from the popular diving site ‘Madivaru Corner’ located in North Malé Atoll. This massive ghost net was found at approximately 3m depth and proved almost impossible to remove due to its large size and heavy weight. When it was finally removed, using a speedboat to hoist it, the monster ghost net was found to have a plastic deck chair, a plastic staircase, and even a tree entangled in it.
For smaller but equally dangerous ghost nets, the reported entanglement rates of turtles in our nation are worrying. Between 2013 and 2020, the Olive Ridley Project rescued 630 injured sea turtles (257 of which were juveniles) in the Maldives. A study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin in 2020 further reported that the estimated drift times of eight ghost nets collected in the Maldives ranged between 7.5 and 101 days, indicating not all of them may have originated from outside of the country.