How Your Instagram Post Might Be Killing Aquatic Lives

The Internet is a series of tubes…that are sometimes attacked by sharks.

At one point in time, the internet was still considered a “short-lasting fad”, but today it has become essentially for literally everything from getting a quality education to people stuck in floods tweeting to get help. 

Well, you might think that all the communication that goes about through the internet is wireless but what most people do not know is that fact that actually there are fibre optic submarine cables which are laid deep, near the ocean bed. These cables are present all over the world, in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and in all other general large water bodies. 

For a complete map, you may refer to :

While the actual network and working of the cables is quite complex, the basic process is pretty simple : light goes in at one end and comes out the other, hundreds and thousands of kilometres away.

Reports of sharks biting the undersea cables that zip our data around the world date to at least 1987. In 2014, when a video of a shark biting an undersea cable laid by Google became viral, the New York Times reported that “sharks have shown an inexplicable taste for the new fiber-optic cables that are being strung along the ocean floor linking the United States, Europe, and Japan.” 

That is when Google started biting back – the company started wrapping its trans-Pacific underwater cables in kevlar to guard against shark bites. While kevlar is mostly harmless to undersea animals and even ingesting it would not prove to be very harmful, inhaling in toxic minute kevlar particles might not be as safe.

A 2006 paper by researchers at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary describes a unique biological survey of a cable on the deep seafloor off Central California. This survey found that the cable had only minor impacts on animals living on and within the seafloor. That is not all. Modern telecommunications cables are typically surveyed during and immediately after their installation to determine whether the cable has been installed properly on the seafloor. However, such installation surveys do not normally consider the biological effects of the cables. In fact, only one or two scientific studies have ever looked at the biological impacts of deep-sea cables. This is not surprising, considering how expensive it is to perform even a single dive on a deep-sea cable, let alone multiple dives to study various depths and sea-bottom environments.

That is that, but what about the legal aspect? A single cable can extend past the shorelines of multiple countries and even venture into international waters beyond a coastal state’s jurisdiction. This means that the environmental laws governing a lengthy cable’s construction and maintenance can quickly become complex.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea divides expansive oceans into different zones based on distance away from the shoreline of a coastal state. A state has more rights and control over zones that are closest to its shoreline. There are few provisions under this law that affect cables crossing multiple zones. For example, one article charges states with the general responsibility to protect and preserve the marine environment. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is one tool that states use to meet this obligation. EIAs examine how a proposed development project — like cable construction — will impact the environment and marine life. These EIAs might be a wonderful legal safeguard and obligation of states, but not all coastal states are required to conduct such assessments for cable constructions. This is where the ambiguity kicks in – some states have well defined procedures and laws to govern and plan these constructions and repairs while keeping in mind the safety of marine life, whereas some states do not. 

Now that it is quite evident that the internet is not just a short-lives fad, it is time to make things right and not just make do with how things are. Laws and cries concerning this are not quite popular due to the simple fact that there have been very few studies of the impact of your internet usage on marine animals, and while they may not have a significant impact and you and I might be wasting our time reading and writing this, it is worth a try – lives are at stake – literally.

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