Submitted by Gianfranco Rossi, Reef Check Italy
One hundred fifteen disposable cups, 25 plastic bags, two flip-flops, a handful of bottles, a nylon rope and synthetic materials- a total of 6 kg of plastic found in the stomach of a dead sperm whale on the coast of Kapota Island, Indonesia. WWF Indonesia announced this in a tweet on November 20th, only the most recent of the many cetacean victims of the plastic pollution that characterizes Indonesia’s waters.
Indonesia is the country with the highest marine biodiversity on the planet supporting coral reefs with the highest number of hard coral species. In recent years, reefs around the world have suffered from mass coral bleaching events as a result of increasing global sea surface temperatures. After eight years of Reef Check Italy expeditions monitoring the reefs in the Bangka area of Indonesia, using Reef Check and Coral Watch protocols, the data show an almost total absence of coral bleaching in this region. The corals appear to be in good health, but unfortunately the other life that inhabits these reefs does not seem so lucky.
The good news- lack of bleaching corals due to global warming- is overshadowed by the overexploitation of fishery resources. But the most evident threat to the marine environment comes from plastic waste at levels that have few comparisons worldwide. Indonesia is second only to China in contributing to marine plastics pollution. Plastic is everywhere, on land and in the sea.
Bottles, glass and other objects get transported by the currents and slowly descend from the sea surface to the bottom, interfering with marine organisms at every level. Debris can kill marine animals that become entangled or starved after having ingested particles that they cannot digest. Toxins are released from the plastic as it degrades. These toxins end up in the food chain and become very dangerous for marine animals and even human health.
Non-governmental organizations in Indonesia are working to reduce plastic waste with actions such as: educating children at school, organizing beach cleanups, finding solutions for better management of plastic disposal and searching for biodegradable plastics. One of these organizations, the No-Trash Triangle Initiative, is committed to combining local actions with scientific research to prevent the Coral Triangle from being suffocated by plastic. It was founded by marine scientists from Indonesia, Italy, and Germany.
One of the projects of the No-Trash Triangle Initiative involved participants of the recent Reef Check Italy EcoExpedition in Indonesia. Children from the Junior High School of Lihunu Village on Bangka Island carried out activities aimed at raising awareness on the importance of corals and the negative impact of pollution on reef health.
The presence of members of the EcoExpedition, from Italy, Spain and Hong Kong, was the starting point for discussing what motivated these divers to come to the children’s island to study the health of corals. A strong motivation was the understanding that corals, which can appear to be rocks, are actually living organisms that provide livelihoods to the entire Indonesian population by supplying food and other resources.
The classroom activity culminated with the removal of plastic from the beach and a training to discover the wonders of the reef by means of a mask and snorkel. It was an incredibly exciting experience for both the children, who for the first time were wearing a mask, and for the expedition participants fascinated by so much enthusiasm.
The plastic removed during this event was a small amount compared to the amount that enters Indonesian seas each year (which according to estimates published in Science amounts to 1.9 million tons), but it certainly represents an invaluable contribution to the education of future generations of Indonesian citizens.