Sailboats moored in Chaguaramas.

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Today is World Oceans Day, celebrated annually on June 8.

This year’s theme as designated by the United Nation’s is “Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean.” The day is observed to raise awareness on the impact of human activity on the oceans.

The world’s oceans are known as the lungs of the planet providing most of the oxygen that we breathe. Oceans also provide food, medicine and recreation for humans.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) is the body mandated to collect, analyse and disseminate information relating to the economic, technological, social, legal and environmental developments in marine affairs and come up with programmes that can be implemented specifically to that field.

Over the past several months while the Government implemented stay-at-home orders restricting citizens from going to the country’s beaches and rivers.

In late May, microbiologist Sheldon Ramoutar began water testing at three popular beaches: Maracas, Las Cuevas and Chaguaramas.

In an interview with Guardian Media on Saturday, Ramoutar said the testing was done on five random dates: May 13, 19 and 20 and June 2 and 3. The tests looked for the presence of E. coli and enterococci, two types of bacteria found in faeces.

Ramoutar said where the presence of these bacteria is detected in high concentrations, seawater is deemed unsafe to bathe in. However, he said the possibility of an individual becoming ill by bathing in the contaminated depends on that individual’s general health—if they are immuno-compromised, they may fall ill, if they are healthy, they may have no side effects from bathing in the water.

He said while the test results have not been completed, preliminary results from the IMA labs indicate an improvement in the water quality.

“On seeing the values from the lab, they are much lower compared to previous years. I will use Maracas as an example, in Maracas in the dry season, the river and close to the river are where you usually find high values of bacteria and what we found that these five sampling days, all the levels were generally lower compared to previous years,” Ramoutar said.

However, he said the lack of rainfall in the dry season may have accounted for lower numbers as well as a reduction in human activity such as littering.

“It means that yes the lockdown is helping to decrease the levels but I think the (dry) season has a greater input.”

Deputy director of the IMA, Dr Rahana Juman also weighed in on the results.

“During the lockdown, you had nobody on the beach, all the facilities would have been closed, even in terms of the food facilities because a lot of them would have released grey water into the environment so that would have contributed,” Juman said.

“When you look at the beach during the period, you didn’t see any kind of solid waste or garbage, whereas normally when you have people on the beach they throw food and you have a lot of dogs that would be on the beach but as Sheldon says a big contributing factor is a fact that there was no land-based runoff because we had a very harsh dry season.”

Juman said the IMA will also conduct water quality testing in the height of the rainy season, where the value of bacteria is expected to be higher because of land-based run-offs.

She said the IMA is hoping to undertake an extensive assessment of the sources of bacteria at the beaches.

“We need to identify and fix the problem because it’s not going to get better if we don’t fix the problem and we just monitor and test, in terms of looking at the source of pollution with the hope of actually trying to rectify whether its malfunctioning sewage plants, whether it’s coming from the rivers, or from an agricultural facility where you have animals—if we can identify the source, then we can work with the regulatory agencies to mitigate,” Juman said.

In observation of World Oceans Day, Juman wants citizens to think about the connectivity between their activities and the ocean.

“I want them to know they should be cognizant of their activities, know that what you do in your backyard, whether you litter or dump your garbage, your grass, whether you have bad land practices- clearing the land and all the sediment runs off- it eventually ends up in our ocean and that impacts our lives as island people, enjoying the beach but it also impacts on our livelihoods in terms of fishing and the other food we take out of the ocean,” she said.