Neglect and Abuse Are Killing Our Oceans
Our oceans are in trouble. Serious trouble. According to a recent study that was led by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, almost half of our oceans are “fairly degraded”, and just under 4% have exhibited close to some or no impact from human activity.
The oceans absorb carbon dioxide, and thus help keep the environment in balance, but they are overworked in this activity. As a consequence, the seas have risen, and the waters have warmed and acidified all over the world. Combined with overfishing, these effects have caused the disappearance of 90% of the ocean’s big fish, says Leon Panetta, co-chair of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative. “Pollution has led to almost 26,000 US beaches being temporarily closed or put under advisories, and nearly 90% of our wetlands, the nurseries for fish, have vanished, due to development. The oceans are in crisis.”
An Ocean en Gelée
Moreover, in recent years, scientists have observed increases in jellyfish populations around the world. Jellyfish are considered to be the cockroaches of the sea, since they
proliferate in areas of declining ocean health. Not only are they becoming more numerous and more widespread, they are now appearing in places they have rarely been seen before, say scientists.
"The jellyfish near shore are a message the sea is sending us, saying, ‘Look how badly you are treating me’", said Dr. Josep-Maria Gili, a leading jellyfish expert at the Institute of Marine Sciences of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona for over 20 years.
Jellyfish are a constantly growing problem. Until recently, there were jellyfish alerts for only several days every few years. Now threats of jellyfish appear daily on the evening news, and are a constant nuisance to local officials.
Many professionals who care for sea creatures see the effects of this deterioration every day. Frances Gulland, the director of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California,
treats sea lions with cancers thought to be caused by PCBs, a persistent chlorine-benzine compound banned in 1970, as well as parasite-infected sea otters (caused by swimming near run-offs), and toxic algae-sickened fur seals. These animals are “an early warning system” she says. “All these things could happen to us.”
Government Concern? Close to Nil
And what is our government doing about all of this? Practically nothing. Only $400 per square mile is spent on the National Marine Sanctuary System. On the other hand, $18,700 per square mile is spent on the National Park System. And according to Debra Erickson, executive director of the Kerzner Marine Foundation, a non-profit
organization, private donor organizations exhibit a similar pattern. “Close to 99%
of conservation dollars donated go to land causes, and 1% to oceans,” she says,
but over 70% of the earth is covered by oceans.”
Part of the reason that people have not been paying attention to the problem up to now, may be that the sea looks healthy and clear from an above-the water perspective.
“Yet below the surface is a whole different story,” observes Professor Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University in Corvallis. “When you see a reef that has the proper number of fish in it vs. one that doesn’t, it takes your breath away.”
Treating the Oceans as a Sewer
As far back as 1970, a member of a Washington, DC-based film crew working in Guam (which teems with some of the most abundant sea life on earth), while doing a shoot on one of Guam’s best beaches, observed a sewer runoff outlet emptying directly into the ocean. Later on, he asked the Governor (for whom the crew was working directly) why the public works system would implement anything so short-sighted as this. The Governor looked at the man as if he were the stupidest person he’d ever seen, and replied that the ocean was more than capable of absorbing whatever they dumped into it.
Humans still seem to feel, as the Governor did way back in 1970, that we can continue to
exploit the oceans to our hearts’ content.
Well, we can’t.
Our profligate consumerism creates more and more waste, which ultimately finds its way into the air, the earth, and the sea. We are running out of landfill space, as the relentless production of still more waste goes on, as the population of the world increases, and developing countries grow up.
The sea is finite. When the plant and animal life in it is gone, it’s gone forever, at least for as long as man’s time on the planet lasts. The deterioration we are witnessing has taken but approximately fifty years to get to this appalling state. In that time, the human population of the earth has quadrupled. It is predicted to increase by a third in the next thirty years.
Can the oceans keep up?
- John Burr