The gradual destruction of the big blue 70%

Shimmering seas, I look out into the distance. I’m on holiday in the Dominican Republic with around 70 business school friends and their partners. This is where I decide I need to write about oceans.

Starting with a happy and personal pic first - this was in the Dominican Republic!
Waiting for the speed-boat to gear up in the Dominican Republic

This speed-boat (above) took us to a piscine in the middle of the ocean where we swam, and then to ‘Paradise island’ – a sandbar. We went snorkelling near the sandbar. This was my first time snorkelling. It was awe-inspiring. I kept thinking ‘Wow there’s a whole world under here.’ There was rich coral and fish of different shapes, sizes and colours, and the sound of my own breath. There were moments of panic when I’d forget to breathe through my mouth and think I couldn’t breathe. It made me value air. It made me realise how fish feel out of water.

~70% of the earth’s surface is water. Yet you might have heard scientists say ‘more is known about space than what lies in the depths of our own oceans’. On the whole, we’re land-obsessed, just because we live here. The oceans are neglected in our informationsphere, despite their importance and sacrosanctity. Life started in the oceans. Many deep-sea marine creatures today are very similar to what was around at the time of dinosaurs actually. One eye-feast example is the frilled shark.

Photo from the National Geographic. The Frilled shark - swims at depths of 1500m. National Geographic calls it a 'living fossil' because it looks similar to what creatures around the time of dinosaurs looked like. One was caught in Japan in shallower water once and taken to a marine park. It died a few days later. Beats me how humans are so naive as to think you can just take a creature that lives in immense depths and stuff it in a tank and it'll be ok.
Photo from the National Geographic. The Frilled shark – swims at depths of 1500m. National Geographic calls it a ‘living fossil’ because it looks similar to what creatures around the time of dinosaurs looked like. One was caught in Japan in shallower water once and taken to a marine park. It died a few days later. Beats me how humans are so naive as to think you can just take a creature that lives in immense depths and stuff it in a tank and it’ll be ok.

It’s easy to look into the vastness of nature and make the naïve assumption that we are so small in front of it therefore couldn’t possibly make a dent. But there’s SEVEN BILLION of us (and growing), consuming food, fuel, plastic. The effects our production and consumption decisions have had on the oceans are immense and undeniable.

Whilst working as a management consultant I did a six week project on oceans. This was the start perhaps of my journey into ‘hard-core’ environmentalism. I want to share with you several eye-opening insights about what plagues our oceans today.


 1. Oceans suffer from unbelievably poor global governance – there is no law covering two-thirds of oceans

Beyond 200 nautical miles off the coast of any land mass are the “high seas”.  These cover about two-thirds of the global ocean, amounting to 45% of the Earth’s surface. There is no law governing the high seas. This means any ship can dump any type and amount of waste there. Any ship can pass through waters emitting any type of signal.

Pretty much the only governance around oceans is The United Nations ‘Law of the Seas’ passed in 1982. In essence, the Law of the Seas states: “Each country governs fishing within its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends to a maximum of 200 nautical miles from shore.”  It has not been updated since 1982, despite the way we exploit oceans having changed significantly with modern technology e.g. newly started seabed mining.

Dark blue areas represent high seas - where there is no law. Fish, dump waste, mine, extract marine resources for pharma research here.
Dark blue areas represent high seas – where there is no law. Fish, dump waste, mine, extract marine resources for pharma research here to your heart’s content.

The Global Oceans Commission identifies the key gaps in ocean governance. You’ll be astounded these fairly basic points are not covered currently. Right now there is:

  • no formal recognition of the need to protect biodiversity on the high seas and no mechanism with a mandate to do so
  • no mandate for the establishment of high seas marine reserves
  • no place for emerging uses such as bio-prospecting
  • insufficient geographical coverage and lack of effective fisheries management
  • lack of regulation of ocean noise and its potential impacts on marine life
  • no conservation enforcement mechanism or competent enforcement body, and few or no sanctions against non-compliance.

2. Oceans are treated as the free garbage can

There are at least 5 great garbage patches in our oceans, covering a whopping near 40% of ocean surface. Rubbish collects where ocean currents sweep it together.

Here's a screenshot from the 5 gyres website, illustrating where rubbish collects.
Here’s a screenshot from the 5 gyres website, illustrating where rubbish collects. 5 gyres is a non-profit organization that conducts research and campaigns for reducing plastic pollution.

I’ve started thinking it’d be great if we can do a cruise for CEOs of the biggest companies to these giant marine garbage patches so they can understand first-hand what impact the current ways of doing business are having on our oceans. 

Firstly, the consequences for wildlife are tragic. One study found that nearly all Laysan albatross chicks – 97.5 percent – have plastic pieces in their stomachs; their parents feed them plastic particles mistaken for food

If you believe other species don’t really matter, you still can’t ignore this problem. It comes back to us. Plastic never biodegrades, but degenerates into small molecules. Plankton eat these molecules. Fish eat plankton. Big fish eat small fish. And then you eat sushi. The amount of mercury, plastic etc that you consume via seafood is astounding news to most people.

There's a reason pregnant women are advised to avoid sushi - high mercury levels
There’s a reason pregnant women are advised to avoid sushi – high mercury levels

3. Climate change is not just a land issue. It is one of the biggest problems for oceans – have you heard of Ocean acidification?

Oceans absorb 25-50% of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere (sources vary). Carbon dioxide dissolves in the water creating carbonic acid. This well-documented process is called ‘ocean acidification’ – see the schematic below.

Ocean acidification chemistry
Ocean acidification chemistry

The rising pH of oceans particularly affects coral reef and creatures with shells. Coral reef and shells are made predominantly of calcium carbonate. Ocean acidification reduces the amount of carbonate ions in the ocean for coral and shelled creatures to replace themselves and do repair work. If you look above at the schematic, you’ll notice that adding CO2 triggers a reaction whereby carbonate ions are converted into bicarbonate ions, which creatures and coral cannot use.

The long story short is that coral reefs around the world are degrading rapidly. We’ve lost 27% already (WWF: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/blue_planet/coasts/coral_reefs/coral_facts/). This is reef that took literally millions of years to form, it’s made of the fossilized remains of organisms. And we’re losing it in years now.

I saw a great ad by the Nature conservancy in TIME magazine lately:

Sorry guys couldn't find it online so the quality isn't great. But the message is bang on.
Sorry guys couldn’t find it online so the quality isn’t great. But the message is bang on: 51% of cancer-fighting drugs are derived from nature such as coral reefs.

4. Overfishing afflicts ~80% of fish species – global wild fish production has been declining every year since 2000

Wild catch (fish caught from oceans rather than farmed) volumes are declining year on year (FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010). The decline is due to overfishing. Overfishing is when you fish more fish than should be left in the system to replenish themselves via reproduction.

Tuna Graveyard
Tuna Graveyard – Frozen bluefin tuna at Tsukiji market

Bluefin tuna prices are crazy. In 2011, one bluefin tuna sold for an unprecedented $396,000. As a blogger in 2011 noted:

“In economic terms, perhaps it’s only right that it should cost $20 or $50 or $100 a mouthful to eat what might as well be flesh carved from the last of the unicorns after Noah’s ark has sailed away…. what a waste, I think now, to let this most magnificent of oceanic fish slip away for what amounts to a fancy night on the town.”

Also, certain countries can’t seem to leave even big fish which have slower replacement rates alone. Think about it next time you see shark fin soup. 

We joked around a lot about sharks when were were swimming in the Dominican Republic. But a world with no sharks is far scarier if you think about the big picture of ecosystems.
We joked around a lot about sharks when were were swimming in the Dominican Republic. But a world with no sharks is far scarier if you think about the big picture of ecosystems. Text on LHS: “Horrifying”, Text on right: “More horrifying”.

5. The marine food chain is hardly traceable – you might have very little idea what you’re eating

In 2013, the UK was enraged by the horse meat scandal – it turned out sausages and other meat products people were consuming were not actually the labelled beef or pork but horse. If you thought that was bad, if only you knew how reliable seafood labelling is….Oceana (a non-profit) DNA-tested 1215 fish samples from across the United States and found that a third of samples bought from 2010 to 2012  were mislabelled. In New York, 94% of samples labeled “tuna” were not tuna!! So do you really have any idea which mercury-laden, plastic-containing seafood you are consuming?

6. Ship and submarine navigation interrupts whale routes

I like to think that there are some parts of the earth that have been untouched by our presence. That there are patches of ocean – perhaps in the Pacific – that thing is massive – where fish and marine mammals are swimming around blissfully unaware that land exists, and that we exist. But a little research into shipping routes reveals that this patch could conceivably be non-existent.

Here’s a plot of shipping routes:

Yups, we pretty much go everywhere
Yups, we pretty much go everywhere

Whales and dolphins use sonar to navigate through the ocean. That means they emit high frequency sound waves which bounce of parts of the marine floor and allow them to form a vision of where they are and what their surroundings look like. They also use it to communicate with each other.

Now when a submarine or a ship emits sound waves into the ocean, they introduce confusing noise for whales and marine mammals. This can lead to ‘beachings’ – when whales end up navigating onto a beach. Beachings result in death – needless to say, these are huge animals, and if they end up on land, they can’t get back into water themselves, and over hours, their huge body weight collapses their heart. The water is key to sustaining their huge body weight.

7. Ballast water pollution introduces new species into different environments constantly

Ballast water is the water taken on board ships to help them balance. They then emit this water when they get to a port. This means species from one part of the ocean are transferred to other parts, with sometimes grave consequences for human health and ecosystems. See more: http://www.fao.org/fishery/topic/14776/en

8. Deep-sea mining is taking greed to new depths

Several companies have started mining for minerals in the ocean bed. Examples of the types of minerals mined this way: silver, gold, copper, manganese, zinc.

Destroying coral that took millions of years to form to mine minerals
Destroying coral that took millions of years to form to mine minerals

What can we do?

This warrants a separate long article itself. But there are some obvious things:

1. Don’t eat rare fish species

2. Cut back on seafood – for your health and for the world’s ecosystems

3. Reduce consumption and waste in your life – reuse and find pleasure in other activities besides for retail therapy

4. Care and talk about it – let environmental issues be a factor in who you vote for. And the more you talk, the more it pervades our society’s and our politician’s consciousness as an issue.

Feel inspired? Donate to the Ocean Conservancy here : http://www.oceanconservancy.org/healthy-ocean/


References

For amazing graphs of the world and marine impacts check out: National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis: https://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/GlobalMarine/impacts

The Global Oceans Commission

The Ocean Conservancy

The economics of extinction, one tuna at a time:  http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2011/01/07/the-economics-of-extinction-one-tuna-at-a-time/

Where did life originate http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/origsoflife_03

5 gyres institute: http://5gyres.org/who_we_are/mission/

Coral facts: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/blue_planet/coasts/coral_reefs/coral_facts/

Horsemeat scandal: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25715666

Ocean chemistry: http://chemistrykb.blogspot.co.uk/

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