By Aaron Dames
Originally posted at Divided Core on November 1, 2013
It is probable that every major ecological pillar however tenuously stabilizing the structure of the oceans is crumbling. Although some endangered fish populations and coral reef systems are being protected and restored, the seas overall are in deep shit. Overfishing and pollution are reducing biodiversity by killing-off large swaths of ocean life. The destruction of vast marine habitats will have catastrophic repercussions for humanity. [According to some earth scientists, oceanic ecocide poses a greater threat to the existence of humanity than climate change. Higher global temperature averages which melt icecaps and glaciers will lead to higher sea levels and the inundation of a plethora of coastal industries, cities, and urban centers that are responsible for contributing to environmental destruction and the mass production of excessive, heat-trapping, carbon-dioxide emissions. As in times of major economic depressions or financial stagnation, the inundation of coastal megalopolises will result in a decrease of industrial activity which may subsequently benefit nature as a whole (until industrial activity is resumed), but would have horrible consequences for humanity, especially for those hundreds of millions of impoverished coastal inhabitants who already live in deprivation, and who would become environmental refugees in the event of a significant increase in sea levels. (Click here to view an interactive map from National Geographic which depicts how coastlines would change if all glaciers and icecaps on Earth were to melt.)]
Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but human beings have caused a lot of trouble for life in the world’s oceans. The process in which the destruction of sea life occurs is largely two-fold. Large-scale destructive events like oil spills (Deepwater Horizon) and nuclear power plant disasters (Fukushima) can cause serious damage to the affected aquatic areas. Damage from such disasters is often immediately evident, such as the deformed and eyeless fish and shrimp that appeared in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or the dying sea lions pups and seals with bleeding lesions that have washed up on beaches in California and Alaska the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown. Yet as grave and harmful as they are, explosive, headline-making disasters are less deleterious to life in the seas than the cumulative, synergistic effects of routine human activities such as oceanic commerce, commercial fishing, and pollution. For example, a 2002 study by the National Academy of the Sciences found that the 85 percent of the 29 million gallons of marine oil pollution originating from North America derives from runoff from cars and oil-based machines and accessories (like lawnmowers and household robots) – and the sum of these tiny releases of oil, carried into the ocean by streams and storm drains, is equivalent to an Exxon Valdez oil spill every eight months. [As additional food for thought: there are apparently 90,000 cargo ships in the world. (Incidentally, there are also roughly 760 million vehicles and 30,000 commercial airplanes.) Many of these vessels run off of “bunker fuel,” a byproduct of the oil refining process. The burning of bunker fuels in cargo ships may be responsible for 3.5 – 4% of all carbon-dioxide emissions; and particulate pollution (such as sulphur-dioxide fumes) from cargo ships may contribute to as many as 60,000 human deaths a year. These chemical emission-related figures exclude the effects of pollution produced by navy vessels, cruise ships, and fishing fleets. Also, often overlooked are the human costs involved in the process of shipbreaking, where wretched working conditions plague extremely low-paid laborers, mainly on the Indian subcontinent. For a glimpse into their lives, check out the film Ironeaters.]
Daily activities which contribute to ocean pollution and the depletion of fish stocks are decimating underwater habitats, driving down biodiversity, and have the potential to reduce the populations of certain marine species to irrecoverable extents or down to zero. The elimination of any species from an ecological network could have devastating and unforeseen impacts on the rest of the planet. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “Overfishing may be the single biggest threat to ocean ecosystems. Today, 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited, overexploited or have collapsed. The global fishing fleet is operating at 2.5 times the sustainable level – there are simply too many boats chasing a dwindling number of fish.” Commercial, illegal, and game fishing operations are wiping-out the populations of major fish species, such as bluefin tuna and blue and white marlin; both of which species are likely to be overfished to extinction within the century. Dolphins and small whales are facing extinction off the coast of Japan, where over a million such creatures have been hunted and killed over the past seventy years. 100 million sharks are estimated to be killed by humans every year. (Click here to view a picture that was taken earlier this year and shows thousands of shark fins drying on a rooftop in Hong Kong.) It is unlikely that the current rate of exploitation and depletion can be sufficiently curbed in order to allow time for the dwindling populations of many fish species to recover. For those more interested in the subject of overfishing, I highly recommend watching the film End of the Line.
Pollution is another major force contributing to the demise of life in the oceans. Over the last century immense volumes of trash and industrial chemicals have contaminated whole cross-sections of the oceans. Toxins that enter the oceans are spread throughout food chains, and varying degrees of visible and microscopic waste accumulate in the water and on shores. One diabolical clusterfuck that highlights the deleterious effects of pollution on the marine environment is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Like other ocean regions, the North Pacific Ocean has immense gyre-like convergence zones which are formed by wind and rotating currents. The Pacific convergence zones currently contain astronomical quantities of accumulated rubbish, much of which has been or is being broken down into tiny particles of microplastic. Subsisting in the gyres and consuming the plastic are around 260 species of fish, sea turtles, birds, and other sea creatures. These animals often die from the consumption of plastic, which may also end-up in the bodies of the predators that feed off them, or, as in the case of the Laysan albatross, in their young. On the Midway Atoll, where twenty tons of plastic wash up every year, as many as one-third of all albatross chicks die due to eating plastic inadvertently fed to them by their parents.
In addition to plastic, a broad range of manufactured organic and toxic chemicals have made their way into the oceans. Many of these contaminants lodge themselves in the tissues of fish and bioaccumulate as the fish are ingested up the food chain. Studies have found high levels of mercury and industrial chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in dolphin and whale meat. What the hell are PCBs? Allow Cathy Britt to explain:
PCBs are manufactured organic chemicals that were primarily used as insulating liquids, such as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment, but were also used in other common materials such as paints, cement, adhesives, and even the flame retardants used in some children’s clothing…Though production of PCBs was banned in the 1970s because of its harmful effects to the environment, the chemical still presents a significant environmental threat today.
Orcas have accumulated such high concentrations of PCBs that when female orcas breast feed their young, the firstborn calf usually dies as a result of receiving a toxic overdose of PCBs contained in its mother’s fatty-rich breast milk. PCBs and other toxins are also known to cause health problems in other large Artic animals, like polar bears and seals. Although PCBs, some pesticides, and other persistent organic pollutants have been phased out and banned, many industrial chemicals (such as brominated flame-retardants) are still widely used and find their way into the oceans. Humans are not immune to this process of bioaccumulation, and toxins are accruing in the bodies of people as a result of eating fish. But perhaps the real blow will come later, when there are no more fish to eat.
Human beings are carrying out a slow kill of the world’s seas, as well as on much of the planet’s other ecosystems. Modern man finds himself in living in a paradox where he knows more than ever about how the natural world functions, and nevertheless the natural world is in its worst shape yet due to how modern man mistreats it. How is that we can care so much about ourselves and our friends and family, but so little about others and the natural systems that we depend on to survive? The Earth revolves through day and night, and it seems that billions of people are clocking-in and out of shifts to partake in the wholesale destruction of the world on their side of the planet. If the day arrives when the seas have become polluted dead zones void of great shoals of fish – assuming there will be humans to witness it, they’ll look out across the grey and desolate tides toward the bleak horizon and ask, “How did we let this happen?” And this is the answer: We let it happen through stupidity, laziness, arrogance, apathy, and greed. We couldn’t stop gorging ourselves, we couldn’t control our insatiable appetite, and we didn’t think to heed the warnings we were given (though we saw them); we didn’t think to step back, to slow down, and to stop ourselves and each other. It was a free for all, and we didn’t care enough about our world and Mother Nature to make a difference and to save her oceans from death. We are like addicts, and we only take; we always take, and we never give back. And in her darkest hour, when nature desperately needed a hand – when her battered reefs became bleached and white like bones, when her bays became choked with smog and clogged with oil, when the whales and dolphins were beaching themselves in mass die-offs along the shores, when the nets that we cast came back with less and less until there was nothing – when she needed us most, we refused to reach out and instead we looked the other way in betrayal. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can leave this planet in better shape than you found it. You can try to make a difference and stand up for those creatures on this planet that can’t stand up for themselves; even if it doesn’t work, they’ll appreciate that you tried. And you’ll also feel a lot better about yourself that you did.