23. Dire Straights for the Oceans

Water, air and soil are all basic to our survival on this planet and yet, to my bewilderment, we are dramatically failing to protect them. Commercial exploitation, pollution and greed are all major factors, but I find it embarrassing how persistently we don’t get our priorities right even when the warning signals from our bees, trees, fish as well as our own health are so clear. Indeed the whole system of planet earth is being undermined irrespective of the mounting evidence. We don’t like the scientific facts or the necessary conclusions, coldly observes ecologist Thomas Lovejoy.1

Our oceans are now more acidic than they have been for 300 million years — affecting the vast number of species in them. This is in part due to the emissions of carbon dioxide produced by burning coal and oil for electricity, heating, manufacturing and transportation. Several decades pass between the carbon dioxide being emitted and the effects being recordable in the oceans. This implies that further acidification and warming of the seas is inevitable as the greenhouse gas emissions continue.

More than a third of the carbon dioxide that we have been producing are absorbed by and dissolved in the oceans. Prof. Alex Rogers of Oxford University says “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated.”2

Overfishing is also contributing to the crisis in the combination of destructing forces imperiling marine life on which a large proportion of the world’s population depends for its nutrition. But not a single nation is really tackling the problem of overfishing according to the latest reports. Are we going to end up with:

“Water, water everywhere but no longer any fish to eat.”

Three-quarters of the world’s edible fish populations are being over-exploited. Controlling the use of mile-long fish nets, huge inboard freezers, and other destructive fishing equipment on the subsidized, large commercial vessels are all seen as critical. This also would give the large number of small scale operators a better chance of survival.

The “Critical State” of the Oceans is the headline of a scientific report out this month. The bad news extends from the cumulative impact on the entire spectrum of marine life, starting at the base of the food chain, marine phytoplankton.3

Most phytoplankton are invisible to the naked eye. This extraordinary species, of which there are 5,000 known varieties, sustain the aquatic food web, and they are responsible for 50% of the Earth’s oxygen. Half of each breath you take comes from these micro-organism!

Marine phytoplankton can be sensitive to the rising CO2 level and lowered pH. Only of late, however, have oceanographers begun to examine how these trends affect the phytoplankton species. A 2010 study by Dalhousie University in Canada published in Nature found a 40 per cent decline since 1950 in phytoplankton. More recently, and in concert with the continual warming up of the open seas, studies analyzing 1.5 million plankton DNA sequences show temperature plays a critical role in the chemical cycles of these organisms altering them by changing the natural cycles of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorous. This negatively affects their reproduction, making them scarce, and thus impacting life all the way up the food chain.4

The list of growing problems begins with ocean acidification, a direct result of burning fossil fuels. This acidification is occurring at a rate 10-to-100 times faster (depending upon the area) than ever recorded, with some estimates that by the end of the 21st century, the surface waters in some areas of the ocean may not be able to support shell-bearing plankton.5

The IPSO report claims coral is especially at risk because acidity dissolves calcium carbonate skeletons, which create reef structure. As well, increasing warmth leads to bleaching, causing corals to lose symbiotic algae. The report claims current governmental plans to cut emissions do not go far enough, nor fast enough, to save the world’s reefs. Corals are vital to the health of fisheries because they serve as the nurseries for the young fish and provide nourishment for the larger varieties.

The IPSO report also states that the carbon dioxide absorbed by the seas is higher than previously anticipated, The world’s oceans, by absorbing carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere, have shielded or slowed the rate of climate change on land. Accordingly, to a large extent, the potential harm associated with climate change has been hidden underwater.

Acidification diminishes development, i.e., growth and reproduction, of coral reefs, shellfish and plankton. According to Jane Luchenco, former director of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the effects of acidification are already present in some oyster fisheries, like those of the West Coast of the U.S. According to Luchenco, “You can actually see this happening … It’s not something a long way into the future. It is a very big problem.”6

Ninety percent (90%) of all life on the planet is in the ocean, a body of water so vast that scientists are only beginning to grasp the full extent of anthropogenic-caused degradation as a result of burning fossil fuels. I must add here that pollution has added to the disaster scenario: Our seas have become a dumping ground for a wide variety of pollutants, including pesticides and nutrients from aquaculture, sewage, industrial discharges, urban and industrial run-off, accidents, spillage, sea dumping by ships, mining, waste heat sources, and radioactive discharges like the Fukushima disaster.

Plastic marine debris pose a particularly severe threat: an estimated 90% of floating debris is plastic which can take centuries to break down. A section of the Pacific (the North Pacific Gyre) is home to the world’s largest floating “island” of trash, known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. The polluted area covers millions of square miles in an area larger than the entire United States. Ideas for dealing with this abound but little is actually being done as this is in international waters.

Mankind finds it hard to accept the scientific evidence that the upper 150 feet of the oceans have warmed by a full degree centigrade over the past 50 years and that there are no indications that the speed of such increase is changing. As the water temperature rise, so do the water levels because not only does ice around the poles melt but the water itself expands.7

Trevor Manuel, co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission, pronounced that its latest report this month was a “deafening alarm bell on humanity’s wider impacts on the global oceans.” He contends that governments “must respond as urgently as they do to national security threats.”  Will our short-term politicians now take heed of the longer term disaster threatening our oceans and in turn our very survival?

1Thomas Lovejoy, “Let Science set the facts,” International Herald Tribune, October 3, 2013.
2Fiona Harvey, “Mass Extinction feared over acidic oceans,” The Guardian, October 3, 2013.
3The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) State of the Ocean Report. October 3, 2013.
4A. Toseland, et al, “The Impact of Temperature on Marine Phytoplankton Resource Allocation and Metabolism,” Nature, 2013.
5See: C.L.Dybas, “On a Collision Course: Oceans Plankton and Climate Change,” BioScience, 2006.
6Fiona Harvey, “Ocean Acidification due to Carbon Emissions is at Highest for 300M Years,” The Guardian, October 2, 2013.
7“Climate Science,” The Economist, October 5, 2013, p.12.

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