By Andrew Muse-Fisher
Senior Editor

With the United Nations Conference on Climate Change only a month away, countries the world over are preparing to discuss and hopefully find solutions to a variety of climate change issues. For some countries such as the island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the issues hit a lot closer to home. With sea levels rising worldwide as a result of global warming, island nations such as the Maldives and Tuvalu are calling for immediate action to mitigate the threat of rising seas, but their voice may not be enough; based on current warming and melting trends, the science behind rising sea level paints a grim picture for these low lying countries.

Rising sea level as a result of global warming is not a new phenomenon. Between 1901 and 2010, mean sea level rose by about 19 centimeters. Most if not all of this change is the result of melting land ice. Glaciers and ice sheets such as the ones that cover Greenland and Antarctica are melting at a drastic rate due to global warming and the greenhouse effect. This in turn is linked to the emissions of greenhouse gases since the beginning of the industrial revolution.[1] Though global warming presents a wide range of threats to the earth and its inhabitants, sea level rise threatens entire countries situated at low elevations, hinting at a future immigration crisis as island populations flee to less at risk nations. However, the true extent of this threat is hard to accurately predict. One study that examines sea level rise using paleoclimate data applies its findings to modern times to determine that sea level could rise by between five to nine meters if current emission trends keep up and cause the two major ice sheets to melt.[2] According to estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea level will rise by around 0.81 meters in the next century. For countries like Tuvalu and the Maldives, which have an average elevation of two meters and one meter, respectively, the next century will indeed see atolls and island shores progressively swallowed into the ocean.[3]

These findings point to a grave future for populations at low elevations, but keep in mind that they were found using current trends and projections. The most straightforward solution would be a global effort to reduce emissions to prevent the atmosphere from getting warm enough to melt a bulk of the world’s land ice. This may be straightforward, but it is by no means an easy solution. This would entail massive reductions in emissions, which in turn calls for lifestyle changes. However, to do so would have limitless positive externalities for countries of at all elevations, not just reef based countries. At the other extreme end of the spectrum, these island nations can prepare for the worst and arrange to resettle in other countries. However, this poses a high cost and is a process that could take decades depending on how quickly those that relocate are able to assimilate into an adopted culture. Both of these solutions present an enormous challenge, but the former creates the most good for more people, at least in the long term. However, due to the demanding nature of these solutions, it is more likely that a middle of the road solution will be implemented. Sea level will continue to rise, but by how much depends on the efforts of individuals and the global community alike. And as it rises the Maldives, Tuvalu and other island nations will have to work against the rising tides or find a new home. The best hope for these nations to raise their voice to compel world into action comes at the end of November when the UN General Assembly will demonstrate whether the global community is ready to take serious steps towards addressing climate change or if it will show its complacency to watch the oceans rise.

Photo by Nattu

1. Henson, Robert, and Robert Henson. “Oceans: A Problem on the Rise.”The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 2014. N. pag. Print.

2. Hansen, J., et al. “Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise And Superstorms: Evidence from Paleoclimate Data, Climate Modeling, and Modern Observations That 2 °C Global Warming Is Highly Dangerous.” Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics Discussions 15.15 (2015): 20059-20179. Environment Complete. Web.

3. Henson, Robert, and Robert Henson. “Oceans: A Problem on the Rise.”The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 2014. N. pag. Print.


Small-Scale Fishing in India

By Annam Raza
Contributing Writer

When nomadic humans first began to settle down, they exchanged their wandering lifestyles for more sedentary ones. This settlement did not occur in one place; these so-called cradles of civilization sprang up all across the world, from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East to the Andes in South America. They did all have one thing in common: they tended to form near bodies of water. As a result, alongside hunting and agriculture, fishing was one of the primary ways to obtain food. As societies advanced, fishing became a specialized skill, creating a community and culture around it.

Fast forward to modern day: industrialization rapidly expanded fishing, and technological advances meant that small-scale fisheries were eclipsed. Our newfound ability to catch large amounts of fish, back when there was a relatively pristine ocean, led to overfishing, depleting the ocean of its once plentiful resources. In the 1800s, we almost hunted whales to extinction. By the 1950s, Atlantic cod and herring, as well as California sardines, suffered a similar fate. The privatization of fisheries led to unequal distributions of marine resources, but despite this, the small-scale fishermen, entwined with history and culture, continued to fish. It was all they knew, but in a fishing market saturated with competition, this created a cruel self-perpetuating cycle: impoverished fishermen would harvest too much from the sea, making overfishing worse, but they had no alternative forms of livelihood.

Today, overfishing is one of the biggest problems faced by marine conservation, alongside pollution and climate change. Commercial fishing needs to be assiduously monitored, as its methods result in large amounts of by-catch and rapid depletion of resources, but the same does not apply to small-scale fisheries. Although they do contribute to the problem of overfishing, the solution is not to shut them down; the livelihood of 12 percent of the world depends on them, and they employ 90 percent of the world’s capture fishers and fish workers. Fisheries and aquaculture are the source of 17 percent of the animal protein consumed in the world and up to 50 percent in some Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Asian countries. Although small-scale fishers supply most of this food, their own families are often too poor to afford food. To overcome this paradox, as well as reduce the impact of small-scale fisheries on overfishing, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) collaborated with governments to develop a set of ‘Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication.’ One particular emphasis within the guidelines stands out: the role of women in fisheries.

Women are severely overlooked in fisheries, despite making up a significant percentage of the work force – almost 46 percent, according to some statistics. They are involved in pre- and post-harvesting work, as well as other forms of aquaculture such as collecting mollusks using hand nets, and managing households when men are away at sea. Despite their quiet (but clearly significant) contributions, they are rarely economically remunerated, and relegated to a lower socioeconomic status. By neglecting to include them in development and support systems, policies reduce their chances of breaking the cycle of poverty, but their importance in households is undeniable.

One of the strategies to curtail overfishing focuses on this importance: instead of urging men to find alternative forms of employment, women should be offered microcredit, providing them with resources to find food, and money, elsewhere.

What is micro-credit?

Founded in 1983 in Bangladesh, Grameen Bank decided it would extend small loans to impoverished people without collateral, a credit history or proof of steady employment. 95% of the bank’s loans are to women, although they are not necessarily gender specific. Although intended to help alleviate poverty in cities and agricultural communities, this theory could easily be adapted to suit coastal communities.

Not only would this help alleviate overfishing, it would also benefit the women. It would encourage them to develop their entrepreneurial instincts, and allow them to be more creative. More often than not, they cannot afford an education, but this would give them the liberty to exercise their intellectual muscles. This, in turn, would strengthen their presence in communities, allowing them to be acknowledged as visible strongholds. It is foolishly optimistic to think it would overcome gender inequality, but it would certainly help reduce it, and having actual capital to work with, their worth would be quantifiable. Over time, as they focus more on external avenues of income, women would be less inclined to have more children, as they would have a concrete reason to have smaller families. This could help address another problem plaguing our planet: overpopulation. The intrinsic education that would come along with learning to manage a small business would hopefully spill over into the awareness of a smaller family being a smarter idea. Over time, this could lead to better education, and eventually, the widespread adoption of contraception, which would again, reduce the population explosion prevalent in so many developing countries

Research suggests that women have better repayment skills, and focusing on helping women is favorable for societal improvement. As they also tend to have longer life expectancies than their husbands, they are usually the dominant gender in old age, replacing the men as heads of households. These schemes often allow for intelligent women that have been overlooked to shine in their own right, while still assisting their community.

This strategy is not merely theoretical; it has succeeded already. In Zambia, 700 women from the village of Mbete turned away from fishing the shores of Lake Tanganyika, as they simply could not turn a profit. Zambian fishermen used to be able to catch Buka Buka (Lates stapperssii) throughout the year, but by the mid-1990s, the fish were only rarely caught between April and October. Alongside this, the steep slops of the lake resulted in erosion and sedimentation loss. The importance of the maintenance of Lake Tanganyika, which provides a livelihood for 7 to 10 million people, resulted in the introduction of a revolving fund in 2009, which enabled those 700 women to receive small loans. Initially, they started by planting rice, but the success of their efforts has supported expanded efforts in poultry farming, vegetable gardening and fishpond farming. They even plant cena and pinecones to alleviate the effects of erosion. An initial investment of $60 has resulted in a yearly return of $279, allowing these women to feed their families and send their children to school.

And this was in Zambia. Modern microfinance has humble roots, but since starting in Bangladesh, it has slowly spread across the world. In 2006, the Microcredit Summit Campaign was founded, and members have pledged to end poverty by 2030. The 2014 summit will be held in Merida, Mexico, but there is a very similar one much closer to home; for the past eight years, a microfinance summit was hosted right here in San Diego by the San Diego Microfinance Alliance. The Alliance aims to educate people about microfinance, and contribute to alleviating global poverty. The change will not be a sudden one, but then again, the problem is not a simple one: poverty is intrinsically entwined with other dilemmas we face on our planet. Yet every step in the right direction will chip away at these issues. Although the victories described earlier do not seem like much, they have the potential to accumulate over time. With respect to overfishing, for each family that is no longer reliant on fishing to survive, there is an equivalent marine life population that manages to stay alive and reproduce. So, in this case, every drop counts.

Image by Christian Ostrosky


Monterey Bay Aquarium

By Annam Raza
Contributing Writer

Over spring break, when California’s harsh winter temperatures began to rise back up, I finally went snorkeling at La Jolla Cove, which is a bit embarrassing to admit, since I have lived in the La Jolla area for three years and the cove is about 10 minutes away by car. Although the reported visibility was good, I didn’t expect much; the occasional fish, maybe some kelp, probably no leopard sharks. Once I overcame my aversion to the genuinely cold water though, I was amazed by what I saw: mesmerizing sea grass, undulating gently, glittering with unusual numbers of Garibaldi, a bright orange fish that has been declared the official state fish of California. Dozens of other fish swam by, unfazed by my presence, and I even saw a few sea lions up close! Drying off on the nearby beach, I wished I could take home a small memento of some sort, just as a pretty little souvenir.

But I wouldn’t dare. It’s illegal to remove anything from the vicinity, even empty shells. Official signage posted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife clearly states that “No person shall disturb or take any plant, bird, mammal, fish, mollusk, crustacean, reptile or any other form of plant life, marine life, shells, geological formations, or archaeological artifacts…” because La Jolla Cove is part of a larger marine park, the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. All you can do is dive, snorkel or swim – no surfing! The lifeguards carefully enforce these rules. The enforcement is so fastidious in fact, that La Jolla Cove is one of best dive sites in the entire network of Californian Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs.

I already knew the status of the cove, but delving in a little further, I realized I had no idea how far the protected area stretched down the shore. Most of us, unintentionally, have been using Marine Protected Areas: 15 percent of waters in Southern California alone are protected, covering 355 square miles. These areas help conserve the ocean in a myriad of ways, by protecting endangered species, sensitive habitats, cultural heritage or all of the above.

So, what exactly is a Marine Protected Area? As defined by the MPA Executive Order 13158, written in 2000 and signed by President Clinton, it is “any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.” This official government definition is inexact, and this ambiguity is not only frustratingly confusing to read about, but also seriously complicates the development of policies that would allow the effective implementation of what has been proven to be an incredibly promising tool in marine conservation. In fact, of the MPAs that exist, 50 percent have been wrongly allocated simply because the name is misleading (National Park, Sanctuary, etc.). With the exception of the three percent of U.S. waters declared as no-take areas, defined by the NOAA as areas that totally prohibit the extraction or significant destruction of natural or cultural resources , protected areas are still being exploited, mainly by fisheries and tourism, which use the loopholes inherent in the legislation to find a way around it,to the ocean’s future detriment.

Although it may seem more advantageous to glean profits from the fish immediately, protected areas provide several ecosystem services that are far more valuable in the long term than the cost of the animals we so carelessly remove from within it. An excellent example of this is the economic valuation of mangroves to fisheries nearby: in the Gulf of California, fisheries landings are positively correlated to the presence of nearby mangrove forests. Per hectare of mangrove fringe, the annual economic median value of these fisheries is $37,500 [1].

In 2012, in an effort to remedy this problem, the IUCN redefined a protected area as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” This recasting helps undercut the exploitation of pristine areas. The effect of this action will hopefully be visible within the next few years!

And if you can’t wait that long to see results, just look at the fantastic success of the Chumbe Island Coral Park in Zanzibar. Declared a nature reserve in 1991, it is one of the last pristine coral reefs in East Africa, possibly even the world. It has a fully protected coral reef sanctuary and forest reserve, a visitor and education center, an eco-lodge, nature trails and historical ruins. The buildings and operations are designed to have zero impact on the environment, being modeled on state-of-the-art eco-technology. From a capitalist perspective, the island is not a commercial success, but from a biological perspective, it is priceless.

Besides the existence of parks like Chumbe Island, there is other promising conservation news, such as the proposal by the Cook Islands’ government to turn just over 50 percent of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as a seazone within which a state has special rights to control the use of the ocean) into a marine park, effectively granting protection to 0.25 percent of the Pacific Ocean and creating the largest marine park in the world. However the grim reality remains that the world’s oceans are still edging towards conditions that signal a major extinction event. These small victories shouldn’t mask the bigger picture; as Dan Laffoley, Marine Vice-Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas says, “It is time to stop pretending more of the ocean is protected than it actually is. Understanding what is protected in the ocean and how it is protected is of paramount importance in driving global conservation efforts forward.”

Research suggests between 20 and 50 percent of the world’s oceans need to protected to conserve biodiversity, so many more protected areas need to be established, ideally areas that transcend our borders. The oceans are a contiguous unit, with fish being able to swim freely throughout it, a fact driven home by the data recovered from tagged sharks, which regularly crossed political boundaries over great distances, often through areas with no protection. This data, along with other research, was used to predict likely habitats for highly migratory species such as whales, tuna and sharks. The research also underscored the importance of international cooperation when it comes to ocean conservation, an issue raised at the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Scientists at this conference also gauged methods of conservation for fragile habitats such as hydrothermal vents, and their reports revealed that richly diverse and productive places, such as the Sargasso Sea, the Tonga Trench and unique seamounts with cold water reefs, transcended national boundaries yet did not trigger any automatic protection. Upon this revelation, many governments called for a new legal instrument under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This measure was hotly debated at Rio+20 in June 2012, and governments agreed to make a decision by 2014 at the latest.

Hopefully, we’ll hear good news within the next year or so. Although we are gradually making progress on ocean conservation, we still have a long way to go. The implementation of new policies, as well as stricter rules about MPAs are definitely a step in the right direction, but significant differences will only become apparent over long time-scales. This doesn’t mean the small things don’t matter; I believe that the fact that I didn’t collect any shells on La Jolla Cove, even if it would have been illegal, could have been as significant as the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wing theoretically triggering a hurricane. Conservation is the cumulative effort of many individuals, and not a quick fix, so next time you’re on the beach, just pause for a second and consider what you could do as an individual to make the ocean a slightly better place.

1. Aburto-Oropeza O, et al. 2008. Mangroves in the Gulf of California increase fishery yields. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. Print.

Image by sgrace