Save Our Seas
ON THE SWIMQUEST MALDIVES TRIP THIS APRIL, SWIMQUEST GUIDE MIA RUSSELL SAVED A TURTLE FROM SOME PLASTIC FISHING NET, WHICH PROMOTED AN OVERWHELMING RESPONSE ON OUR TWITTER FEED. HERE MIA REFLECTS ON HER TRIP AND THE IMPACT PLASTIC IS HAVING ON OUR ENVIRONMENT.
The Maldives conjures dreamy picture-postcard images of tropical atolls and palm-fringed islands with white sandy beaches, swaying coconut palm trees, wooden dhonis sailing on gentle sea breezes, and gin-clear waters teeming with a myriad of colourful sea life, and in reality, it doesn’t fail to deliver.
However, this oceanic slice of heaven also has a dark side, and it comes in the form of plastic. The devastation caused by the throw-away lifestyles of the West is clearly and very sadly evident around the country on both the land and sea, with balls of plastic nets, bottles, boxes, and flip-flops floating on top of the ocean and gathering in piles on the island’s sandy beaches.
The Maldives produces an estimated 500 tons of rubbish per day, with vast amounts of water-borne waste from other countries carried in daily on the Indian Ocean currents. All garbage collected in the Maldives is taken to ‘Trash Island,’ otherwise known as Thilafushi, an island landfill made entirely of waste. The islands’ sole waste-processing plant on the reclaimed island is itself built partly from rubbish and is stretched to capacity with the huge influx of floating plastic bottles, bags and junk being found on the islands’ beaches.
The increasing levels of ocean-bound plastic and pollution are not only an eyesore for a country that relies so heavily on tourism as their primary source of income, but is also having a devastating effect on the local wildlife. Everything from crabs and fish to turtles, dolphins and even whale sharks get caught in the enormous netballs that can be found floating around the ocean, as well as consume the tiny plastic particles that are created from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic. According to statistics, almost 700 marine species are threatened with extinction because of this material.
It is estimated that around 50% of sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs and it is predicted that by the year 2050, all seabirds will have ingested plastic. Further up the food chain, the Environmental Investigation Agency found that 70% of dolphins stranded on beaches had ingested plastic debris and even the magnificent whale sharks that filter vast amounts of seawater are susceptible to storing high amounts of pollutants from marine debris, including plastic.
Sea turtles are under serious threat across the world’s oceans and are officially listed as threatened by IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature). Five of the seven species of sea turtles can be found in the Maldives, with the two most common being the Hawksbill turtle and the Green Turtle, which are often sighted living on the reefs. The Olive Ridley Turtles are sadly most often found in Maldivian waters after becoming trapped in drifting ghost fishing nets, while the Loggerhead and the Leatherback are more rarely spotted.
As the plastic and pollution problem seems to be escalating around the world, the Maldivian government announced an aggressive plan to fight back against the floating menace, working with the islands’ 1200 pole-and-line, handline and longline fishing boats. The project aims to have fishermen sweeping plastic rubbish from the sea while they fish, and shipping the garbage back to the capital, Malé, where it will be transferred to long-distance ships for recycling into plastic-based fabrics.
The government has also been working with sportswear giant Adidas and have already transformed more than five million plastic bottles into running shoes, flip-flops, and sports clothing, including shirts for the Spanish football club Real Madrid.
Other projects to reduce the flotillas of plastic blighting Maldivian beaches include mobilizing school children across the islands into rubbish collection squads and imposing a 400% tax on imported plastic bags. Since then, the islands of Bodufolhudhoo, Keyodhoo, Maalhos, and Ukulhas have gone plastic bag-free, and there are high hopes the other islands in the archipelago will follow suit.
“Oceans are fundamental to the health of the planet – the very lifeblood of the Earth’s ecosystem. To survive and prosper, mankind needs to have a harmonious relationship with our planet’s oceans, and it is up to us do all contribute towards the fight against plastic.”