If our Oceans are in trouble, We are all in trouble

Published on: June, 21 2011 – Sylvia Earle, Commentators – Opinion, The Independent –  If the sea is in trouble, we are all in trouble.

Footprint in sand beach imageThe report that the ocean is in trouble is no surprise. What is shocking is that it has taken so long for us to make the connection between the state of the ocean and everything we care about – the economy, health, security – and the existence of life itself.

If the ocean is in trouble – and it is – we are in trouble. Charles Clover pointed this out in The End of the Line, and Callum Roberts provided detailed documentation of the collapse of ocean wildlife – and the consequences – in The Unnatural History of the Sea.

Since the middle of the 20th century, more has been learnt about the ocean than during all preceding human history; at the same time, more has been lost. Some 90 per cent of many fish, large and small, have been extracted. Some face extinction owing to the ocean’s most voracious predator – us.

We are now appearing to wage war on life in the sea with sonars, spotter aircraft, advanced communications, factory trawlers, thousands of miles of long lines, and global marketing of creatures no one had heard of until recent years. Nothing has prepared sharks, squid, krill and other sea creatures for industrial-scale extraction that destroys entire ecosystems while targeting a few species.

The concept of “peak oil” has penetrated the hearts and minds of people concerned about energy for the future. “Peak fish” occurred around the end of the 1980s. As near-shore areas have been depleted of easy catches, fishing operations have gone deeper, further offshore, using increasingly sophisticated – and environmentally costly – methods of capture.

The concern is not loss of fish for people to eat. Rather, the greatest concern about destructive fishing activities of the past century, especially the past several decades, is the dismemberment of the fine-tuned ocean ecosystems that are, in effect, our life-support system.

Photosynthetic organisms in the sea yield most of the oxygen in the atmosphere, take up and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide, shape planetary chemistry, and hold the planet steady.

The ocean is a living system that makes our lives possible. Even if you never see the ocean, your life depends on its existence. With every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, you are connected to the sea.

I support this report and its calls to stop exploitative fishing – especially in the high seas – map and reduce pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But I would add three other actions:

  • First, only 5 per cent of the ocean has been seen, let alone mapped or explored. We know how to exploit the sea. Should we not first go see what is there?
  • Second, it is critically important to protect large areas of the ocean that remain in good condition – and guard them as if our lives depend on them, because they do. Large marine-protected areas would provide an insurance policy – and data bank – against the large-scale changes now under way, and provide hope for a world that will continue to be hospitable for humankind.
  • Third, take this report seriously. It should lift people from complacency to positive action – itself cause for hope.

Sylvia Earle is ‘National Geographic’ explorer in residence, the author of ‘The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Oceans Are One’, and the former chief scientist for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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The oceans may have already passed breaking point

Published on: June, 20 2011 – Jean-Luc Solandt, Commentators, Opinion – The Independant – The oceans may have already passed breaking point

Ocean sea shore and rocks imageOur oceans are complex systems, about as well (mis)understood as the human brain. A census of marine life was published last year, and, although extremely insightful, only covered a small percentage of the ocean’s biosphere. In many ways, this led us to realize just how much we don’t know.

And there are huge uncertainties over the impact of human actions on a global scale. But an enormous population increase in the past century, coupled with the seriously advanced mechanisation and access to the oceans means one thing: pressure on resources. Society and science are always on catch-up in, firstly, understanding our impacts on ocean systems, and then in doing something about them.

The IPSO report points out that “The main causes of extinctions of marine species to date are overexploitation and habitat loss” and that climate change-related stressors are now taking their toll. While action is needed to reign in our impacts on climate, this fact must not be taken as a signal that we might as well reduce our attempts to address the more direct environmental harm; those which may be possible to directly address must be tackled.

Taking one thread, the report highlights the need to carry out assessments of seabed trawling activities and to assess the impacts of trawling on vulnerable deep sea habitats. Solutions can be adopted by nation states, and, with investment in satellite technology and good ocean governance, technological tools can be employed to monitor progress and reverse harm. We can upscale what has been done in the Isle of Man, where the fishing industry has decided, with the input of fisheries scientists, to adopt marine protected areas – areas where the sea is left alone to regenerate brood stock, to allow the spill-over of adjacent areas.

For all of the points raised in the report, this isn’t a question of ‘conservation for conservation’s sake’, but a fundamental necessity for the continued provision of vital life support for the population, of human and other living beings, that inhabit our ‘blue planet’. The oceans may have already passed breaking point; if that’s the case, we would never know – with scientific precision – until it is too late.

The report, however, cites the need to adopt precautionwhen information isn’t available. This idea is not new, but we need to adopt this ‘precautionary approach’ because, while we’ve already degraded vast tracts of seabed to a plough-cleared field, we can’t afford still to ask later ‘what are the likely impacts’ – for all the pollution, overfishing and biodiversity threats raised by the report.

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