From the North to the South and from the East to the West; from the Pacific to the Atlantic and from the Rockies to the Andes; from the Arctic to Antarctica and from the Trenches to the Benthic –our planet took a billion years to attain the structure that could sustain human life. While the formation was a prolonged process, the destruction would measure only the blink of an eye. The ecosystem of Earth is not exclusively inclusive of the Homo sapiens but, is additionally composed of the marine ecosystem. The plethora of life forms existing on this planet is so intricately inter-connected to each other that, the jeopardy of one’s life is bound to be a signal of endangerment for the other. Preservation and protection of the marine ecosystem(of which Benthic cover 70% of the area) is an inevitability for the qualitative sustenance and longevity of our Mother Earth; or else the activation of her ruination can and arguably will follow a Bottom-Up -Approach.
Micro-plastics and the Benthic:
A recent Study has once again tried to put a magnifying lens on the problems faced by the ‘ordinarily understood as insignificant’ organisms called Benthos, dwelling in the lowest regions of the oceans- the Benthic. It has brought into focus the inter-relationship of the rising micro-plastic pollution and the effect it has on the global oceanic belt. In common parlance, micro-plastics and their dire ramifications are frequently recurring topics of discussion but, with an insincere attitude. The deposition of this deadly manufactured product is responsible for transforming the biodiversity-rich Deep Sea Hotspots into pollution or plastic hotspots. However, a more careful analysis of this particular issue brings to fore another glaring revelation and i.e., the legal vacuum in the aforementioned environmental crisis. The ailing deep seas are seldom looked into with a bonafide insight, which is solely blameworthy for the incessant and irrational exploitation of the marine ecosystem by profit-earners and insatiable souls. While the matter requires urgent attention and specific legislation to fill in the legal gaps; it also demands a profound community effort.
Around 414 million pieces of plastics were found in the Keeling Islands of the Indian Ocean, according to a 2019 Report. This demonstrates the huge collection of plastics in our oceans. The slowing down of oceanic circulation due to climate change and the collection of plastics in the same ocean spots is a cause of worry. Data suggests that 80% of the ocean plastic comes from the land-based activities of humans. 99.5 million Tonnes of plastic out of a total of 270 million tonnes generated were found near the coastline. The entry of so much plastic in the unprotected marine ecosystem is bound to bounce back one day on the industries as well as the international economy. According to the UNEP Global Report on Single –Use Plastics, only 27 countries have dedicated laws to curb plastic production and pollution, generating a big legal vacuum.
The legal position concerning the protection of the marine ecosystem is determined by both international and national laws. In earlier times, the Freedom-of-the-seas Doctrine governed the international oceanic region beyond any nation’s jurisdiction. However, this led to the degradation of natural resources as no country claimed liability in such areas. It was the stir that led to the development of various sea laws.
Internationally, the IUCN or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (1948) is primarily concerned with the protection of environmental resources, which include aerial, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems. About the marine life conservation, the IUCN works on effective “Ocean Governance” which includes processes and agreements for the protection of “Areas beyond National Jurisdiction”. ABNJ consists of rich biodiversity exposed to high exploitation due to them not being under any nation’s jurisdiction. The UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) has divided this vast area –covering 45% (2/3) of the Earth’s surface– for effective protection of the vulnerable natural resources. However, no specific mention has been made about the benthic zone.
The United Nations Convention on Law of Seas (UNCLOS, 1982) has dedicated Part XII to provide for the legal protection of the marine environment. Article 207 generally explains the duties of the States towards the rejuvenation and preservation of the marine ecosystem; with a clause on prevention, reduction, and control of pollution in the specific area. However, it is Article 208 that talks about seabed activities. Seabed Activities of humans are directly proportional to the survival of the benthos. The Convention simply directs the States to make laws for such seabed activities which are capable of causing pollution, sans any directive to curb the growing pollution in the lowermost region. The rise in global plastic pollution calls for an urgent revamp of the UNCLOS, to deal effectively with the situation. The present ambiguity in the law is the biggest obstacle in dealing with issues surfacing in the specific oceanic zones.
However, an effective international effort for protecting our seabed was the founding of the United Nations Seabed Committee (1976). It proclaimed the natural resources beyond any national jurisdiction as common to mankind and the need to preserve them. It was a constituent committee of the discussions and debates that led to the adoption of the UNCLOS and the Stockholm Conference of the Human Environment. The Regional Seas Programme, the International Maritime Organisation, and the Inter-Governmental Oceanographic Commission are other organisations working for the preservation of the maritime ecosystem. The IMO in its many recent studies has highlighted the high plastic pollution and litter in the benthic region which can prove to be harmful to biodiversity. Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are other international instruments that can prove effectiveness in dealing with the deteriorating marine ecosystem, if implemented efficiently and in a time-bound manner.
Nationally, Article 48-A of the Constitution of India mandates the State to protect the forests and wildlife in the country, along with Article 51A (g) which makes it a fundamental duty for the citizens to do the same. The Environment Protection Act, 1986, and the Water Act, 1974 banned industries trying to pollute the environment, including the marine ecosystem. This is the right step to deal with the problem; however, the implementation must be looked into. A benthic-region specific law is what the deep seas require, until then it’s all, but a gamble. According to a 2015 UNEP Report, India was ranked 12th among 20 nations for marine water pollution and for dumping 0.6 tonnes of plastics in the oceans. This led to the development of India’s Automated Ocean Pollution Observation System (2018) for the protection of her 7500 long coastlines.
India has a series of legislations for the preservation of marine ecosystems such as the Maritime Zones of India Act (1976), the Coast Guard Act (1978) and the Merchant Shipping Act (1958). World Environment Day, 2018 was special for India as she was lauded for her efforts against the rise of single-use plastics usage. This shows a sincere effort on the part of the Indian Government to deal with marine pollution and preserve the marine ecosystem. However, a law dealing with the benthos particularly is important to tackle the dying seabed. But a glimmer of hope in these dark times is a joint study being carried out by India and UK to study the impact of plastic pollution on the marine organisms.
A glance at the problem is enough to showcase how deep it goes. The continuous exploitation is going to be unstoppable until and unless, a specific ‘benthic region law’ – both national and international- comes into the application. While it might seem a waste of time or sheer madness to formulate a law for such a small area during a time when the world is going through a medical emergency and has enough to cater to including politics, warfare and a deceased global economy- but right now, it’s only a legal backbone that is required to slow down the approaching doomsday. Mind you, the end won’t be kind to one and cruel to another; it is going to be equal for all. But a concerted effort towards the rising yet invisible degradation of our environment will make it a bit milder. The present time period is the perfect opportunity to revisit our environmental legislation, act for their effective implementation, and weed out procedural redundancy. Community discussions, government debates, and awareness campaigns are some easier strategies which can bring a change in the mindset of the masses. If not now, then when? If not for our Mother Earth, then for whom? All knowledge, all material gains will go in vain once and for all, if there’s no life left. In the words of Ban-Ki-Moon,
“The Earth is our only Home. Together, we must protect and cherish it.”
Sanighdha S is a student at University Institute of Legal Studies, Chandigarh.
Photo Credits: Pexel