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Sea Change: The Ecological Disaster That Nobody Sees

A Global Ocean Commission report says that we must act now to save the earth’s wildest and most productive ecosystem.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

This story is part of the Climate in Our Hands collaboration between Truthout and YES! Magazine.

On September 21, in what is being advance-billed as the largest climate march in history, thousands of protesters will converge on New York City to focus public attention on the slow-motion train wreck of global warming. But while Americans are becoming increasingly aware that our industrial civilization is destabilizing the earth’s climate, fewer know about another environmental disaster-in-the-making: the crisis of the global oceans.

Experts warn that we are currently facing an extinction event in the oceans which may rival the “Great Death” of the Permian age 250 million years ago, when 95 percent of marine species died out due to a combination of warming, acidification, loss of oxygen and habitat – all conditions that are rife today.

Within the past half century the oceans have been transformed from the planet’s most productive bioregion into arguably its most abused and critically endangered. That is the conclusion of a report issued earlier this summer by the Global Ocean Commission, a private think tank consisting of marine scientists, diplomats and business people, which makes policy recommendations to governments.

The report catalogues a grim laundry list of environmental ills. Commercial fish stocks worldwide are being overexploited and are close to collapse; coral reefs are dying due to ocean acidification – and may be gone by midcentury; vast dead zones are proliferating in the Baltic and the Gulf of Mexico caused by an influx of nitrogen and phosphorous from petroleum-based fertilizers; non-biodegradable plastic trash – everything from tiny micro-plastic beads to plastic bags and discarded fishing gear – is choking many coastal nurseries where fish spawn; and increased oil and gas drilling in deep waters is spewing pollution and posing the risk of catastrophic spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster which dumped an estimated 4.2 million barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico during a five-month period in 2010.

Yet these worrying trends have failed to spark public indignation. It may be a matter of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Climate in Our Hands: Inside the Ideas and Actions of a Movement“If fish were trees, and we saw them being clear-cut, we would be upset,” renowned oceanographer Carl Safina observed in an interview with Truthout. “But the ocean is invisible to most people, an alien world.” It is hard for those of us who only see ocean life when it ends up on our dinner plates to get worked up about its destruction, Safina said.

Nevertheless, this world under the waves is vital to our survival, according to Sylvia Earle, former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chief scientist. “The ocean is alive; it is a living minestrone soup with an even greater diversity of life than on the land,” Earle told Truthout. “It is where most of our oxygen is created and carbon is taken out of the atmosphere. With every breath you take, you need to thank the ocean.”

Trillions of microscopic ocean plants called phytoplankton contribute seasonally between 50 to 85 percent of the oxygen in earth’s atmosphere, far more than all of the world’s forests combined. Nobody knows for certain how plankton will adapt to warming seas. But one study published in the United Kingdom last year suggested, worryingly, that changes in the temperature and chemical composition of the oceans would make these critical organisms less productive. Planktonremoves carbon from the atmosphere during the process of photosynthesis. Fewer plankton will mean less oxygen and more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which will further intensify “a vicious cycle of climate change,” according to the study’s authors.

Equally scary is the prospect that, as some researchers speculate, changes in ocean temperature may melt a frozen form of methane called “clathrates,” which is ubiquitous under the planet’s continental shelves. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times as potent in the short term as carbon dioxide. If these vast reserves bubble up into the atmosphere, it will truly be “game over” for the climate as we know it.

“The ocean drives climate and weather,” Earle said. “It is a planetary life-support system that we have taken for granted . . . We simply must protect the machinery, the natural systems upon which our life depends.”

But up to now, there has been little political will to tackle the tough issues that are leading to a death by a thousand cuts for the seas around us. The Global Ocean Commission reports that the toothless international treaties that purport to regulate human use of the oceans have failed utterly to protect them.

In an email to Truthout, former UK Foreign Minister David Miliband, a co-chair of the commission, wrote bluntly that the high seas are “a failed state . . . beyond the jurisdiction of any government, where governance and policing are effectively non-existent and anarchy rules the waves.” Miliband insists that the open ocean beyond national boundaries needs to be brought under the rule of international law. At present, global treaties make nonbinding recommendations, which are routinely violated by nations and commercial enterprises.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the wealthy countries that are disproportionally to blame for the ocean’s woes. According to the commission, the freedom of the seas is being “exploited by those with the money and ability to do so, with little sense of responsibility or social justice.”

One way this is happening is the chronic over-harvesting of the high seas by massive, technologically advanced ships largely from countries like France, Spain, Denmark, Japan and South Korea (the United States is actually a relatively minor player with a lower yearly catch than many far smaller countries). These floating factories frequently employ highly destructive methods like bottom trawling,the practice of dragging a heavy net on the bottom of the ocean, a process which can destroy ancient deep sea coral colonies and other fragile ecosystems.

Other questionable practices include fishing out of season and the use of cyanide and underwater explosives that stun or kill all marine life over vast swaths of the sea. Indiscriminate trawl nets and long-line fishing take untold thousands of sea birds, turtles, marine mammals and non-target fish species (called bycatch) daily, according to Earle. “It is like using a bulldozer to catch songbirds. You simply throw away the trees and all the rest.”

The results have been catastrophic. In 1950, less than 1 percent of fish species were overexploited or close to collapse. Today, that number has swollen to 87 percent, according to the Global Ocean Commission report. Not only are there “too many boats trying to catch too few fish,” but this overfishing is being abetted in many cases by government fossil fuel subsidies, which have driven an otherwise flagging industry into dangerous overdrive.

The irony is that, while the productivity of commercial fishing has never been lower, and boats need to go ever farther to catch fewer fish, the number of vessels exploiting the ocean has never been higher. While affluent countries spend tens of millions of their tax dollars to prop up their national fishing industries, coastal fisheries in the global south are being depleted and some fisher folk are barely able to survive on their diminished catches, as I discovered during a recent reporting trip to Barbados. They simply can’t compete with the big commercial fleets that are operating with impunity just beyond their territorial boundaries.

This problem is exacerbated in Barbados and elsewhere in the Caribbean by the rapid coral die-off. Instead of the thriving reefs that one would have seen only a few years back, there are now ghost forests of bleached white skeletons covered in slime. As the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide increasingly gets absorbed by the ocean’s surface waters, it creates carbonic acid, which changes the pH of the sea, making it more difficult for coral polyps and other shell-forming organisms to produce their rigid homes.

When corals die (Earle said fully half of the world’s reefs are already gone, or in steep decline) the fish and other organisms that breed among them die off as well. Equally important, reefs are an invaluable line of defense against storm surges and destructive waves. Without these natural seawalls, beach erosion and damage to low-lying coastal areas during hurricanes can spiral out of control.

Human-made physical changes to the world’s coastlines pose another threat. Productive natural hatcheries like mangrove swamps, mudflats and salt marshes are being cleared in many areas to make way for coastal development, barrier islands are dredged to build ship channels, and freshwater streams, which fish use to spawn, are blocked by dams.

In his eloquent book Running Silver, marine biologist John Waldman writes that in East Coast streams, where our forebears could “walk dry-shod on the backs” of schools of striped bass, shad, sturgeon and other fish during their spring migrations, today’s runs are as low as 2 percent of what they once were. In some cases, they’ve disappeared entirely. Cold-loving fish like salmon and cod are leaving their traditional ranges and heading toward the poles in search of cooler waters.

Amid this rising tide of bad news, however, there are some glimmers of hope. Carl Safina told Truthout that the US coastal fish populations were in free fall “until about 1998 when the Sustainable Fisheries Act went into effect [which sets strict fishing quotas]. We saw a recovery of inshore species which are wholly managed by US law and policy, at the same time as there was a continuing decline of the big offshore species like shark, tuna and many billfish in international waters.”

The challenge, as Safina sees it, is to bring the rule of law that has worked for some US fisheries to the high seas, which he calls “the Wild West in the space age.” We need something like a UN peacekeeper force for the open oceans, he said, to enforce treaties, clamp down on illegal fishing and draft strict environmental regulations.As a model for what he has in mind, Safina points to regional multination fishery boards (like those which already manage and set quotas for fisheries shared by the United States and Canada.) As this kind of international cooperation spreads, we’ll have a fighting chance to save imperiled species that are currently being fished to exhaustion. Safina alsosaid we need to stop fishing some critical areas to give them an opportunity to recover.

President Obama was clearly thinking along these lines when he announced in June the creation of the largest marine sanctuary on earth, a no-fishing and drilling zone comprising 782,000 square miles of open ocean surrounding small, unpopulated US territories in the South Pacific. Pacific island nations like the Cook and Kiribati quickly followed suit, banning fishing in their own territorial waters.

Sylvia Earle told Truthout that these are big steps in the right direction: “Here’s the good news: places where fish are protected, where we stop the killing, if enough resilience is there, these systems can be returned to abundance. It’s happened in the Florida Keys; it’s happened in protected areas off the coast of Chile, in Mexico, where grouper, snapper and sharks are making a reappearance.”

Still, until we address climate change and pollution, and find a way to establish justice and accountability on the high seas, the prospects for the world’s largest ecosystem remain grim.

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