Distress Calls From Ocean

Appeared in:

  • Vall-E-Vents, suppl. to Southern Sierran, March 2010.
  • Sierra Club – San Fernando Valley chapter newsletter January 2008.
  • Orange Coast Voice newspaper as The Ocean Cries Out: Under attack on all fronts, March 2007, page 8.
  • Southern Sierran newspaper January 2007.

Illustration by Willis Simms.

Distress Calls from the Ocean
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

When one tugs at a single thing in nature,
he finds it is attached to the rest of the world.
— John Muir

Whether you are a career fisherman, weekend angler, surfer, snorkeler, skinny dipper, fish dinner connoisseur, or simply a never-gets-wet admirer of the ocean’s majesty, there’s nothing but bad news coming from recent assessments of the ocean’s health.

The scope and severity of the ills that experts report have made commonplace the phrase “collapse” in reference to the global loss of sea life and ecosystems. The assaults that appear responsible all stem from human activities, including over-fishing,  deforestation, overdevelopment of coastlines, overuse of pesticides  and fertilizers, oil spills, and general use of the ocean as a dumping ground for sewage, industrial chemicals and other human wastes. What follows is a brief look at some of the tragic changes scientists are reporting.1-3

Plastic Ocean Debris: Plastics have come to fill not only our daily lives but the ocean as well. What is worse, plastics do not biodegrade, especially in an ocean environment, but rather just break down into progressively smaller fragments. Some areas of the Pacific now contain six times more plastic than zooplankton, the very base of our food chain. About 46,000 pieces of plastic litter float atop each square mile of sea. The debris is mistaken for food by a myriad of sea creatures. Estimated deaths from ingestion of or entanglement in ocean plastics number about 1,000,000 for seabirds and 100,000 for seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales and sea turtles. Moreover, plastics can carry toxins into the food chain since they are oily and, as such, can concentrate oily toxins from sea water (like PCBs) onto their surfaces.

Unchecked Growth of Algae and Bacteria: Even partially-treated sewage dumped into coastal waters provides an excess of “nutrients” for algae, bacteria and jellyfish. Modern industry and agriculture also generate a continual flow of ocean pollutants (e.g. smokestack & tailpipe emissions, waste run-off from factory farms, fertilizers) that spur the growth of these more primitive life forms. Marine mammals, fish and coral die out as a result. Scientists liken this trend to a reversal to the more primordial seas of eons past. Poisoning from algae/bacteria is credited with causing over 1400 sea lions, seals and dolphins plus 650 gray whales to wash ashore on the West Coast in the last decade. Some emergent forms of bacteria and algae are highly toxic to humans on contact, causing breathing difficulty and severe skin lesions. Paralysis and even death can occur when humans eat shellfish tainted by feeding on certain algae.

Bleaching of Coral Reefs: Algal blooms cloud the water, blocking the sunlight on which corals depend for survival. Abnormal growth of algae and bacteria can literally blanket and smother coral as well. As a consequence, coral reefs across the globe are turning white and dying. Eighty percent of the corals of the Caribbean have been wiped out. Since corals nurture a myriad of fish species, the fisheries they support decline along with them.

Over-fishing: Technologies emerged after WWII that greatly accelerated fish catches. Since the 1980s, however, catches have been on the decline because of lack of forethought into the consequences of over-fishing together with the destructive methods that have been used to increase yields (e.g. bottom trawling). Also at fault is a piece-meal, species-by-species approach to regulation of fisheries that ignores the complex balance between organisms within any ecosystem. Within the last 50 years, worldwide stocks of bigger fish, like tuna and cod, have dropped to 10% of previous levels. Smaller fish are being depleted too as fishermen move to targets further down the food chain. This removes the fish that feed on algae and previously kept algae populations in check.

Habitat Devastation: The same forces that threaten coral reefs also decimate other unique habitats. More than half the estuaries in the U.S. and 75% of California’s kelp forests have perished in the last half century. Mangrove forests and salt marshes, the natural filters between land and sea, have literally been wiped out, allowing the free flow of pollutants into the sea. Complex ecosystems are being replaced by so-called “dead zones” where the takeover by algae and bacteria deplete the water of oxygen; stationary creatures like sea stars, coral and shellfish are killed off, and only highly mobile animals that can swim away survive. Dead zones now number 150 worldwide and are nearly doubling every decade. Ecosystems also are thrown into havoc by alien “hitchhikers”    introduced through the discharge of ballast water – the resident life forms are not equipped to compete with the foreign species.

Warmed, Acidic Oceans: Ocean temperatures have increased a full degree in the last century, a consequence of global warming. Although 1˚ Celsius might not sound like much, the delicate balance in nature achieved over the millennia can be turned on its head by even a small, relatively sudden temperature change such as this. Warm water stimulates bacterial growth. Some fish and other sea animals are ill-equipped to survive at warmer temperatures or they can suffer as the phytoplankton at the bottom of the food web are diminished. As industrialized societies relentlessly pump carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, about one million tons diffuse into the ocean each hour. The CO2 mixes with water to produce carbonic acid. The resulting acidification of the sea blocks the calcium carbonate needed to grow coral and sturdy shells. It’s also toxic to some fish eggs and larvae. Prior to the industrial revolution, the ocean was able to maintain a healthy acid balance and also act as a buffer against global atmospheric warming. Not so today.

Our Lesson: The ocean is crying out to let us know that we’ve abused and misjudged her. Yes, she is vast and resilient, but not infinitely so. The time is now to begin the process of repair before it’s entirely too late.

1-3Los Angeles Times; Algalita Marine Research Foundation; U.N. Environment Program.

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