Earlier this year I was lucky enough to work and live on a small tropical island off the coast of Tanzania. Whale sharks, turtles, hippos, giant groupers and hundreds of species of fish, birds and butterflies swarm the sea, the land and the mangroves in between. At a glance, Mafia Island is unspoilt, a paradise unknown to the rest of the world.
But as weeks turned to months I witnessed almost every threat facing the marine environment I can think of. Foreign countries investing in development, unsustainable resource extraction, illegal fishing, over fishing, pollution, tourism, climate change…
Although I was aware of these threats and have read and lectured about them, seeing them caught me by surprise. They were no longer statistics on a page. I could see fields of dead coral rubble caused by the increased number of anchors and the skeletons of corals bleached by extreme temperatures. I spent days cleaning beaches of endless litter that would only reappear with the next incoming tide and spent nights watching mother turtles struggle through the newly appeared plastic. I heard diggers tear down homes and trees to make way for tarmacked roads and travelled in a local minibus alongside an endangered giant reef ray that had been caught hours before.
But perhaps the most tangible evidence of all was in living with the local community and learning how these issues affect them, their livelihood and way of life. People here rely on the rich natural resources around them for everything they do: fishermen need mangroves to make canoes but now they are being replaced with hotels and shrimp farms; fishing provides an income and the only source of protein, but now fishermen are reporting fewer fish; women harvest and sell red algae, but higher temperatures are affecting their yields; palm leaves are used to make walls and roofs but they are disappearing. Overall, coastlines are more vulnerable to storms and people’s income and food security are at risk.
Too often climate change and every other change happening in our seas is seen as a distant problem. Yet for the 500 million people dependent on coral reefs around the world, their life is becoming harder, less secure and less predictable due to changes in the ocean. Changes we are all part of. If there is one thing we can do, it is to remember that all oceans are connected. Our demands and actions are having consequences for far reaching environments, and people.
By Jennifer Freer