Oceans in the Balance

I can hear the ocean | Photo courtesy of Balloons Blow

I can hear the ocean | Photo courtesy of Balloons Blow

The University of Virginia has a Lifetime Learning program called “More than the Score,” that plans educational lectures in conjunction with the home football games each fall.

I was particularly interested in one talk from the series this year by Professor Stephen Macko, entitled “Is our Ocean in Crisis?”  I wasn’t able to attend in person, but I recently discovered that all the talks are available free as podcasts, so I just had a listen.

Professor Macko starts out by saying that he’s not going to answer the question for us. He’s simply going to cover the facts and let us decide.

The ocean covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, but though it is hard for us to imagine, the ocean is actually a rather thin veneer of water.  The ocean supplies myriad services that we mostly take for granted, including providing us with food, energy, minerals, oxygen and of course, recreational and aesthetic pleasure.

In tandem with human population growth, there has been a dramatic increase in threats to the oceans’ overall health.  Warming and acidification caused by higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, overfishing, and pollution from plastics and chemicals are all problems affecting the life of the oceans today.

A large part of Professor Macko’s talk is devoted to the importance of maintaining fisheries, with the observation that our failure to control fishing could mean empty seas in the future. One-sixth of the world’s protein comes from the ocean, but in spite of advanced technologies like underwater radar to find fish, we basically “flat-lined” on harvests around 1990.  The fish simply aren’t out there anymore. And the world over, there has not been a significant effort to reduce bycatch  (fish, turtles or marine mammals that are not the intended catch but are caught and die anyway).   According to Professor Macko, a pound of wild shrimp comes with 5 pounds of bycatch. Stocks of large fish such as halibut, tuna, cod and sharks are in steep decline due to overfishing and careless fishing methods that result in high quantities of bycatch and/or destroy underwater habitat.

Did you know that more than half of the world’s oxygen comes from plant life in the oceans?  There are some plant forms, such as ice algae, that grow on Arctic sea ice, and as we know, sea ice is shrinking at an unprecedented rate, so the ecosystem for these plants is disappearing.

The oceans’ health and productivity are adversely affected by toxic spills—some accidental, such as BP’s giant oil well rupture in the Gulf, or Fukushima’s massive radioactive dumping.  But much is due to chronically poor planning and containment on our part; eutrophication is caused by excess nutrients from  fertilizers, storm water runoff and sewage. There’s also mercury, most likely caused by burning fossil fuels. Last but not least, there is damage caused by widespread plastic pollution.

According to the professor, the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has caused a rapid increase in the acidity of the ocean.  Ocean acidity has increased about 30% in the last 50 years.  Limpets in Alaska already exhibit extremely thin shells, because the calcium carbonate of the shell forms less readily in a more acid environment.   The more greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, the more the oceans will absorb, driving further change in their basic chemistry.

The answer to the question, “Is our Ocean in Crisis?” is as plain as the nose on my face.   Not surprisingly, then, one of the first audience questions was “What can we do?”  The good thing is, there are many things we can do as individuals:

  • Vote.
  • Consume less energy from fossil fuels.
  • Eat sustainable fish. (See Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guides to sustainable seafood choices)
  • Cut down on use of plastics.
  • Pick up plastic trash when you see it to prevent it getting into waterways.
  • Think about disposal of your waste and handle it responsibly, especially things like motor oil.
  • Contact your representatives.  Ask that the U.S. become a party to the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”), an international treaty to safeguard the oceans, which the U.S. has not signed.
  • Keep abreast of ocean advocacy and research through an organization like Oceana or Mission Blue.
  • Tell a friend what you’ve learned about the state of the oceans.

The Earth’s oceans have been harmed by our ancient assumption that they can absorb any amount of human use and abuse. Recognizing that we are having real, measurable, and undeniably detrimental effects on the health of the oceans is a first step.  Then we must join with others in calling for international cooperation and leadership to begin reversing the damage.

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