Great Threats against a Shifting Baseline
We face a significant and growing challenge to the fundamental health of the world’s oceans. This threatens not only the ecological fabric and biodiversity of 75% of the planets surface, but also the vast array of natural services to human society- e.g. climate moderation, rainfall, reef building, fisheries, and even our entertainment. The windows of opportunity to resolve these issues are limited and will require important, difficult near-term decisions. While the local face of these issues may vary, the underlying threats are common worldwide:
- Chemical pollution and debris, ranging from low density toxins to the now famous ‘garbage gyres’ of the open sea
- Water temperature changes and acidification due to increased atmospheric CO2 disrupting life-cycles in key marine species like corals
- Sea level rise inundating coastal habitat (and land based pollution/ debris) and changing coastal marine habitat
- Over exploitation and destructive harvesting techniques like bottom trawling severely depressing natural populations
- Increasing separation between our daily lives and the health of marine ecosystems
Several factors have begun to dramatically raise the risk of an unhealthy ocean with serious consequences. First, our numbers and our conduct have pressurized the situation with an immense burden on marine habitats. Our world population will likely cross nine billion by 2050 – up 50% from current. More concerning, the rapid rise in living standards by most of these people, aspiring to reach western levels, will raise our foot print by another 2-300%. Second, the interaction of threats is pushing species and entire communities to the brink of collapse. The effects compound – severely depressed populations (>80% declines in most sharks, tuna and cetaceans), chemical and debris pollution interfering with foraging or breeding (high persistence plastics in seabirds), and physical destruction of the habitat through sedimentation, bottom trawling or the thermal bleaching of corals. What we once believed to be a vast, enduring sea of resources increasingly appears headed down a deteriorating and unstable trajectory.
Perhaps ironically, we do have powerful options and capabilities that could well create a path to restoration. There are very real choices in our daily lifestyles and consumer behavior. Technology for drastically reducing energy, material, chemical and habitat impact is also rapidly emerging. We also have the ability to improve ocean policy, governance, enforcement and resource management.
The fundamental challenge is not a lack of solutions, but our collective will to act. People around the world remain remarkably, tragically, un-informed and un-engaged. Despite living on our blue planet, most of us have little direct contact with or understanding of the ocean. We may know some of the ocean’s wonders through our popular media or aquaria; the candid truth about the loss and risk going forward is generally not understood. We have the foundations of good science, resources and available options. Building a global mindset of marine conservation is far and away the greatest challenge
We believe share a strong belief with marine conservation leader J.Y. Cousteau- Il faut aller voir. We must go and see for ourselves.
Have a look at this excellent summary video on PBS – link here
Toxins in the Ocean
In partnership with University of Miami we are testing the level of toxins in fish. Toxic chemicals trickle into the environment from various sources such as factories, farms, homes, automobiles, plastics, etc. These chemicals become a part of the plants and animals at the bottom of the food chain. These chemicals bio-accumulate in predators up the food chain, to the point where animals highest up the food chain retain the highest levels of the toxins. Fish studies are relevant to humans as well as the environment. Toxins make their way up the food chain as the big fish eat the little fish, and humans eat the big fish. The toxins become a part of the human diet, and can cause birth defects in children and toxicity in adults. Every country is a source of the run-off, which is why we need a global solution to reduce these chemicals.
Sea Dragon is working long-term with 5-Gyres and their partners to document the amount of floating debris in our world’s oceans. Partly through the work of this team, we have known for almost 20 years that plastic entered the ocean and was accumulating at sea. The emerging picture is now, perhaps, more concerning than ever. Plastic debris from modern society is entering the ocean at prodigious rates, carrying with it all the threats of both physical and chemical pollution. The debris – toothbrushes, straws, toys, bags and unrefined pre-production material called “neerdles” is accumulating all over the world’s beaches…and in great concentrations at sea. These areas form in what are called “gyres” or the centers of great oceanic currents. The Sargasso Sea in the north Atlantic is probably the best known of these for its legendary ability to trap ships. An area north of Hawaii acts the same way – and has been trapping large amounts of plastic for years. We have been saddened to see images of Albatross birds literally choking to death on discarded toothbrush. Carl Safina wrote of this in his tremendous 2002 book, Eye of the Albatross. In designating the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument, former First Lady Laura Bush captured the issue well:
Unfortunately, I also saw the marine debris that threatens the existence of these albatross and other animals that are there. From plastic toys to discarded computer monitors, trash is carried by currents from all over the world. Midway’s beaches collect derelict fishing gear from China, medicine bottles from the mainland United States, cigarette lighters from all over the world. This debris then finds its way into the birds’ stomachs, killing thousands of birds every year.
And we did, more than once, as we walked around yesterday, see the carcass of a little bird. And you could open it up and see all this plastic, because the adult albatross fish on the waters, they skim the waters for squid, and because this plastic floats, they pick it up and then feed it to their babies.
People everywhere have a responsibility to be good stewards of our environment, because the trash we throw in our neighborhood gutter can devastate rare wildlife half a world away. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, our government is working to keep the reefs and beaches clear of this dangerous marine debris. In 2006, NOAA picked up 21 tons of debris in the islands, and has collected more than 560 tons over the last ten years. Through a partnership between the state of Hawaii and the federal government, divers have cleared more than 120 tons of derelict fishing gear off the islands’ reef
The team is now on a mission to bring to light the much larger issue across the world’s oceans. We will search out areas with higher than normal loads of garbage, as well as trawling a fine mesh net and analyzing the plastic content of the trawl. The floating plastic project will also include counting debris on beaches, counting and cataloging the types of plastics, and extrapolating the distance of the transect counted with the larger area of the coastline affected by the currents. With this we can estimate the amount of plastics covering the surface of our beaches.
In collaboration with NOAA, we will carry a continuous carbon dioxide level meter. The unit will sample dissolved CO2 throughout the expedition by running sea water through the meter, reporting ocean CO2 saturation levels back to NASA.The increasing amounts of CO2 in the planet’s atmosphere is being absorbed by the oceans. The additional CO2 is driving significant increase in acidity, threatening corals, shellfish and many plankton species that utilize calcium. Click here for the project overview from NOAA.
Link here to Scripps Institute of Oceanography article on Carbonated Oceans