Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!
***Update 7/22/09: An Excellent New York Times article on how the damage from bottom trawling can now be seen from SPACE! Link.***
Back in June I wrote an entry on the North Pacific Garbage Patch. Despite writing on a myriad of uncommon issues that entry on the Garbage Patch has been unrivaled in popularity. In fact that entry has over 3 times as many visits as my next most popular entry. The entry focuses on how plastics are destroying our oceans and our health.
So if you thought that information is important or pertinent in any way then I strongly suggest you read this entry as well. The North Pacific Garbage Patch deserved its own entry but it is by far not the only problem facing our mighty oceans. Thinking about this topic puts me in a surreal place because as much as I’d love to be an optimist and expect things to change for the better the facts are strongly rooted in the concept of “There are consequences to actions.” I’m not trying to hoodwink you, I’m not a crazy environmentalist, I’m simply using plain logic and thoughtful reasoning. Please read what I have to say and if you have any substantial counter-evidence or proof things are just going peachy with the oceans then this will be a great weight off my back.
What Are The Oceans To Us?
I start with this question because it’s this question that brings mutual value to the oceans to us. The World Ocean is a mighty and terrible thing. She is so large we divide her up into sections and call her multiple names because even just one section is vast beyond comprehension. In fact, 71% (some say 72%) of this planet is bathed in Oceanic waters, while we tower only marginally above it with a paltry 29% of the surface clinging to our precious, dry, and hard land. It is no wonder why the most dangerous job in the world is fishing – no other job really can show you how insignificant you are to nature than being out on the stormy seas on a small fishing vessel. We all know the stereotypical fisherman who sits in the corner of the pub, drinking his alcohol deeply, scraggly and twisted – nobody can stare a man like this down because he has stared down death itself out on the oceans. And even fishermen distinguish themselves from us “land lovers,” or should I say “landlubbers!” If you are accustomed to working on a ship then you have joined a secret society that separates themselves from the rest of humanity – this is because being at sea affects you – it seriously affects you. It is one of the most powerful natural entities on this planet. When the ocean is upset – we know. Earthquakes, asteroids, weather – they all turn our oceans into a destructive force that gives no mercy. I just watched the show “Deadliest Catch” last night which proves the terror of our oceans.
The ocean is not just all powerful to us as humans – it is also all mysterious. The word “ocean” itself comes from the mysterious Greek Titan Oceanus. He represented a “river” that encircled the world. He had a serpent tail instead of legs and a long beard with horns. The ocean holds many secrets under its waves – shipwrecks, treasure, natural resources, species we didn’t know existed… I heard once that we know more about space than we do about our oceans. Of course – this is absolutely ludicrous because space is so massively large, complex, and mysterious that we can’t even begin to pretend we know so much about space. But the fact that our oceans can even be compared to space speaks volumes. What that quote might mean is that there might be more time, money, and dedicated resources spent on space than our oceans – while I have no idea if this is true – it wouldn’t surprise me. Studying space is a noble cause, and a cause I back 100%, but if our oceans are not getting the same dedication then we have an imbalance.
There are many creatures from the bottom of our oceans that we do not even know they exist. Don’t believe me? Let’s just take a minute to see some only recently videotaped/photographed creatures.
The Oarfish – According to the video this is the largest fish in the ocean. Yet I bet you’ve never even heard of it. In fact – this video is the only video where they’ve ever been seen alive. It lives deep in the ocean and only comes up to the surface to die. Their faces creep me out.
The Frilled Shark – Unknown even to exist today until this irrefutable evidence was shown to their world – the Frilled Shark carries many characteristics of sharks that lived about 300 million years ago. Is this species 300 million years old? We just don’t know because like the Oarfish the Frilled Shark lives deep in the hinterland of the oceans. Hard to find – even harder to study.
The Giant Squid – Tales of giant squid are as old as tales of mermaids – yet we never were able to photograph one alive until within the last decade. This video goes a bit in depth about giant squid all together – but is definitely worth a watch – for a few reasons.
These are just a few examples of the largest and longest-lasting creatures in the oceans – and yet we know virtually nothing about them. In fact, in the giant squid video, Dr. Steve O’Shea goes on a high profile mission with the Discovery Channel hunting for giant squid and though some were found, they died a short time later. Unfortunately, he ultimately ends up abandoned by the research community and lives his life almost entirely in the ocean, alone, praying for a second chance at finding a baby giant squid and raising it in captivity. His failure during his high-profile mission was due to ignorance of Giant Squid – for example – cubical containers killed the babies almost instantly while cylindrical containers kept them alive – they couldn’t possibly know this stuff already because they were the leading research team on Giant Squid. And now O’Shea is abandoned by financial contributors because he attempted to research and had mistakes happen that were unforeseen. The scene that struck me the most was when he’s explaining how interesting the ocean is and all the neat little things he catches (in hopes of finding a baby giant squid, but knowing without a better research vessel it’s virtually impossible) and how there is nobody there to share it with, then his reactions almost turn primitive, like Tom Hanks in “Castaway,” when he hears the port-a-potty wall outside his cave. O’Shea looks into the bucket, stops in mid-thought, and dives his head deep inside the bucket looking hard. Perhaps, feeling nostalgic about the last time the cameras were around and how he caught over 20 squid, he thought the luck had come back again. Disappointed, he draws his head away explaining that he thought he had a squid, but alas, it was not. He explains how he’s supposed to be a squid-hunter and yet he never catches them and even admits the embarrassment it causes him. But he explains that nobody else is looking for them, and so until someone else does, he’s going to keep trying. Imagine that – being the only man in the world out there trying to find a creature that is dastardly elusive while the rest of the world continues to focus on any number of distractions. At the boundary of special knowledge, O’Shea sits alone.
And because of this unique knowledge in which O’Shea carries he would be able to tell us some things about the Giant Squid, or squid in general, that the average person could not. And O’Shea explains that the difficulty in finding squid seems to be related to the fishing industry. He states how “squid are incredibly good barometers of environmental health” and explains that 10 years ago he was able to find 23 squid in a year. After which, there was a dramatic drop. What was the cause? A form of fishing called “Bottom trawling” where a net is dragged along the bottom of the ocean floor. What’s the problem with bottom trawling? O’Shea explains it wipes out centuries old coral communities, invertebrates of many shapes and sizes, and exhausts fishing stocks. O’Shea continues to explain that between New Zealand and Australia the ocean floor has been systematically trawled and is now moving to international water. What do our ocean floors look like after bottom trawling occurs? O’Shea says “A barron wasteland.” As he says those words the screen flashes a couple seconds of an untrawled area, filled with life, and a trawled area, looking desolate and empty (see image a short ways below).
Then O’Shea says something shocking, “But you think that the oceans are fine, but they’re not, there are no fish here at all, it’s been fished out.” Then he admits, fishing pole in hand, arms raised, “We can’t even catch a fish today!” He confides that within 10 years the Giant Squid might very well be extinct, and in fact there have been 5 species of octopus or squid that have gone extinct in the New Zealand area alone as a direct consequence to fishing. Bottom trawling is going to contribute to more mass oceanic death. Then the screen cuts back to Dateline host who chuckles about his desire to eat some squid.
And it’s this disconnect that I want to address here, because I find it truly significant. A man who spends hundreds of days of his life in the ocean, studying the ocean, with a deep passion for understanding the ocean just cried out that our oceans are dying and it’s our fishing that’s at fault and the response from the Dateline host is to get a craving for seafood. It takes hundreds of years for coral communities to be created and these communities are not unlike the highly complex living environment of our terrestrial cities. Yet – a city takes a lot less time to build. In effect, we are destroying underwater cities with little minding about it. It falls under the “Out of sight, out of mind” category.
The overriding mindset runs something like this. There’s a demand for seafood out there, typically by unaware, apathetic, people with money – like that Dateline host. The price for seafood rises to a point where a fisherman recognizes his financial benefit will be worth the effort. Fisherman uses the most effective technique for profit, even if it destroys cities without a voice, and returns with the goods to sell to the stores and restaurants so that Dateline man can be happy. Nobody sees the devastation left behind, nobody can claim damages to a centuries-old community to a fisherman. Because special (speeshal, not speshal) genocide is easier to deal with than hearing fat, rich, sea-food lovers bitch about regulations.
Overfishing and Poor Fishing Practices
“Yea,” you might reply, “but O’Shea is probably just one of those hippy environmentalists that are constantly shouting on how the sky is falling.” While there is always someone who is going to complain about something, O’Shea’s statements are real and common knowledge among those who actually study the ocean. The problem is that these people often don’t hold influential positions, and combine that with the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality and the result is the ocean becoming a silent victim. Callum Roberts, a leading researcher in the field of ocean depletion and a marine conservation biologist at the University of York, has attempted to warn us of this global overfishing pandemic in a book entitled An Unnatural History of the Sea. Alas, I have not read the book yet, but it is on my wishlist. However, I did check out this interview with Callum Roberts which briefly explains how overfishing has been a problem for over a century. Callum Roberts, a comprehensive researcher, is one of the few sources referenced when addressing the problems with our oceans in articles such as this one by the Guardian:
‘Quite simply,’ Roberts says, ‘agreements and deals brokered by politicians will never be satisfactory. They always look for the short-term fix.’ He and his team at York University did a survey of the last 20 years of EU ministerial decisions on fish catches and found that, on average, they set quotas for fishing fleets 15 to 30 per cent higher than those recommended as safe by scientists.
‘What that figure doesn’t tell you is that often, for less threatened species like mackerel or whiting, they have set quotas 100 per cent higher than the science recommended. So, in their efforts to pacify the industry, they are bringing populations that could be sustainably fished into the risk zone,’ he said
Still don’t believe me? The day I happen to be writing this portion of this entry is Tuesday April 14, 2009. Tomorrow, Wednesday, April 15, 2009 is opening day for fishing the prized bluefin tuna over in Europe. I’m not sure exactly what goes into determining the starting date, but April 14, 2012 falls on a Saturday. According to people who actually study data and care about the sustainability of bluefin tuna, it is quite possible on that day no boats will be heading out to search for this highly sought-after tuna – because the bluefin population would be absolutely depleted.
Bluefin Tuna – Imagine that – 3 years – not your great grandkids, not your grandkids, not your kids generation when they’ll die off – 3 years. And it is directly related to our human consumption of them. Personally, tuna gives me wretched heart-burn, I won’t even miss it, but the fact that we are losing another species on the planet, one so integral to the global diet, makes me think this is an issue that needs to be dramatically addressed.
“But it’s just tuna!” you say, “species go extinct all the time, theres plenty of other ‘fish in the sea,'” and then you probably laugh at the little pun you made. But the case is that overfishing has been a… I’m not sure what to call it… a “sin” mankind has been committing to himself for centuries. “Sure there might be less here after I’m done than when I started, but that is not my problem.” Generations of fishermen and fishing companies carried this attitude until present day. When we have 3 years left before tuna is depleted – the overfishing of centuries has fallen upon a crowd whose problem it most definitely is – ours. If you plan on being alive in 3 years and you have the audacity to believe that the bluefin is an isolated or overblown incident and no action is required please savor your moments of ignorance now so it can be all the more sweet to watch your witless smug face realize the very basic fundamentals of physics that actions do have consequences. And to clear the definition of consequences up, they are not always BAD, consequence simply means “with sequence” which basically means “with an order of events.” This depletion of ocean life is not something that we haven’t given ourselves fair warning on, and we can follow the trend, and we can come to future conclusions based on an unchanging trend – that is what the WWF did to determine that the bluefin are in serious trouble. This isn’t a political disagreement, this isn’t about viewpoint, this is a human crisis – it’s actually a global crisis. It involves everything in the entire world to an extent. We are systematically eliminating species for purposes driven by greed. If no other argument will reach you, then what will we eat when we deplete all the quality meat from every species? Can you imagine the Oliver Twist “please sir can I have some more” gruel lines we would have to be waiting in? But let’s have more nobler aspirations than that.
While that WWF article is very recent, here is an article from 2004 that clearly gave a strong warning signal, which if we would’ve acted then, would’ve more than doubled the time left to act on conserving these tuna. Now their depletion and possible extinction from the wild is all but certain. So aren’t there people who are supposed to do something about this? Who is in charge of keeping track of global tuna stock, how does anyone even go about achieving such a goal?
The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna – (or ICCAT) This is the face people point to when it comes to conserving tuna. They are the self-proclaimed largest tuna conservation organization in the entire world. They study tuna stocks and statistics throughout the Atlantic (specifically, I guess, I assume there is some global influence here as well) and make recommendations which 48 countries claim to follow and enforce – including Japan (the guiltiest party), United States, United Kingdom, and China. So it seems we found the right address, based in Spain, this organization claims on its own website their specific goal of conserving the Bluefin. So weren’t they warned of this catastrophe? Shouldn’t they have done something about it well before this point?
This 2007 article from the BBC was well ahead of the game and decided to find out what the ICCAT was doing for the bluefin. And the ICCAT’s response was… absolutely nothing. In fact, it was worse than that. Even though the United States (oh my God, the United States of all countries) and Canada backed by conservation behemoths like the WWF and Greenpeace proposed a moratorium for the bluefin due to the imminent depletion that was well known at that point (3 years after the MSNBC article above) ICCAT’s response consisted of allowing more bluefin to be fished in “a number of countries including Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia.” A lot of articles that mention ICCAT discredit it almost immediately, and I can only imagine it was in response to actions like these. Without accounting for illegal or underreported fishing the European Union overfished 4,000 tonnes over the limit, the ICCAT claims nothing more needs to be done to save the bluefin. The environmental groups were seething.
So a man I am keenly interested in knowing more about, and any investigative reporters please take this and run with it, is a man named Mr. Driss Meski; who even dares to put his face up on the website as the executive secretary of ICCAT, as if this were a position to be proud of. I’m not an investigative journalist but this guy seems to stay pretty low key despite his vital position in the continuance of a highly prized species. His personal response to the lack of preservation surrounding the bluefin was to point to a plan that began in 2006 that was too early to know the results of yet (right…) “The plan is still going on – our recommendations were that there should be no revision of the plan,” is a direct quote from Mr. Driss Meski. And here we are 3 years later from that quote and in 3 years the bluefin faces depletion. Why is Mr. Meski so cold and callous to preserving such a loved and cherished fish when he in fact should be the biggest crier of genocide? That’s the question I want to know, and I’m sure a good investigative journalist could start finding some connections with Mr. Meski that should not belong. How come he is not interested in making a sustainable tuna population to ensure the continuance of his job and a stable and steady food supply for decades to come? What is he choosing to focus on instead? I wish I knew.
Cod – So! New Zealand and Australia’s fishing stock is depleting due to overfishing and poor fishing techniques, the tuna of the Atlantic and Europe are are depleting due to overfishing and poor conservation management. What else could go wrong?! Actually – plenty! Good Magazine decided to give their eulogy to fish with a story of a cod fisherman off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts entitled Fin: The Last Days of Fish. His name is Ted Ligenza and he has been a commercial fisherman for over 35 years. Again, another source that seems reputable, he’s not a marine biologist, he’s coming from the fishing side of things. But he sings the same tune admitting that all the typical places he has found cod in 35 years are now empty.
The article illuminates that this is not a fringe-belief but a well documented fact explaining the collapse of the cod industry in Newfoundland and Maine. The article states that the coast off Cape Cod is about to fall off the precipice with its Northern neighbors, “Today, cod populations in the Georges Bank, off Cape Cod, hover near the brink, at levels 10 percent of what scientists consider healthy.“
This Good Magazine article supplies us with more terrifying facts, “What has transpired off the shores of Cape Cod is not unique. The same has occurred on coasts throughout the world. In 1988, at the peak of the output of the world’s fisheries, boats around the globe landed something on the order of 80 million tons of fish. Since then, depending upon which numbers you believe, the world’s annual catch has either plateaued or fallen by as much as 500,000 tons a year.“
Alas, there’s more: “And while fish stocks dwindle worldwide, an estimated 90 percent of large predatory fish—tuna, swordfish, cod, halibut—have disappeared since the mid-20th century. One study, published almost two years ago in Science, predicted a worldwide collapse of commercial fish stocks in just 40 years, if the present pace of fishing continues.“
Shifting Baseline Syndrome – This Good Magazine article did an excellent job at reporting on this, and I particularly like that they got to interview a renowned fishery scientist who said something incredibly poignant, that I am going to use in terms not just related to fish. The scientist is Dr. Daniel Pauly who is an avid supporter of establishing marine reserves (which we will talk more about later). The term he used was called “shifting baseline syndrome,” a term in which is a “habit of mind that allows us to adapt to the impoverishment of our landscapes.” Basically meaning over time, we lose track of the natural state of the world. I assume this is why we allow our major world rivers, the roots which sprung civilization, to be completely contaminated and polluted. I assume this is why we don’t mind depleting our timber resources yearly. And of course it’s why we don’t comprehend what it means to have an entire ocean brimming with fish. These changes don’t happen overnight, despite their freakishly fast speed, and we have a hard time truly perceiving the difference. I mean you go out one year and it’s a bad year, they happen. Hell – 3, 4, or 5 bad years in a row happen sometimes, and some people weren’t having the trouble you were… and before you know it it’s 2009 and the “oceans carry less than a tenth of the number of fish they once held, yet few of us have any sense that something is wrong.”
Then the Good Magazine article returns back to Ted Ligenza, the 35 year fisherman, and he confirms all of our suspicions about ethical fishing: “‘I wasn’t willing to do a lot of things that other people have done,’ Ligenza said. ‘I wasn’t willing because it wasn’t fair to the fish, and it wasn’t fair to my sons and the next generation. So I’ve always tried to fish in what I thought was an ethical manner. But I’ve paid dearly for it. If I’d have gotten in big, with a bigger boat, I’d have something to give my children now. But I never wanted to fish that way. I just didn’t have the stomach for it.‘” Mr. Ligenza did everything but point his fingers at the trawlers and unethical fishermen who were willing to forgo sustainability for profit.
Developing Nations – Though sharks are on the decline like the rest of our marine life they can easily be likened to developed nations predatory disposition towards the fishing stock in developing nations. In fact, developing nations can sell the rights to fish off their coasts to these powerful and rich developed nations and often promise more fish than are available depleting their own coasts as well. Nations such as the European Union, China, and Russia take part in these practices around the continent of Africa according to this New York Times article. Fishermen from these developing nations are casting in their nets and are starting to find nothing in them when they are brought back out. This is leading to emigration from developing nations by fishermen to developing nations to be able to gain access to better fishing. Again, trawling is the culprit for the depletion as well as poor governmental regulation.
Pierre Chavance, a scientist with the French Institute for Research and Development, said both foreign fleets and African governments allowed financial considerations to trump concerns for fish or local fishermen. “One side has a big interest to sell, and the other side has a big interest to buy,” he said. “The negotiations are based upon what people want to hear, not the reality.”
Quotes like the one above scream to my rational side because this behavior is so typical of humans. It is like having an owner of a football team wanting to have all the glory and win all the games (or fish), and the owner of the opposing football team is betting on the original team to win (to make a lot of money), and of course things are a lot easier when the opposing team throws the game for the sake of gambling profits. Everybody would love to be in this situation until it stops bearing fruit – when the opposing team has lost so many games, they couldn’t win if they wanted to anymore.
The coastal stock of bottom-dwelling fish is just a quarter of what it was 25 years ago, studies show. Already, scientists say, the sea’s ecological balance has shifted as species lower on the food chain replace some above them. In Mauritania, lobsters vanished years ago. The catch of octopus — now the most valuable species — is four-fifths of what it should be if it were not overexploited. A 2002 report by the European Commission found that the most marketable fish species off the coast of Senegal were close to collapse — essentially sliding toward extinction.“The sea is being emptied,” said Moctar Ba, a consultant who once led scientific research programs for Mauritania and West Africa.
Studies dating to 1991 indicated that Senegal’s fishery was in trouble. In 2002, a scientific report commissioned by the European Union stated that the biomass of important species had declined by three-fourths in 15 years — a finding the authors said should “cause significant alarm.” But the week the report was issued, European Union officials signed a new four-year fishing deal with Senegal, agreeing to pay $16 million a year to fish for bottom-dwelling species and tuna. Four years later, Mauritania followed suit. Despite reports that octopus were overfished by nearly a third, in 2006 Mauritania’s government sold six more years’ access to 43 European Union vessels for $146 million a year — the equivalent of nearly a fifth of Mauritania’s government budget. “I don’t know a government in the region that can say no,” said Mr. Chavance, the French scientist. “This is good money, and they need it.”
I hate to cut and paste so much, but it’s all incredibly important to the big picture. Not only are we depleting fish from the coasts of every major continent on the planet, we are removing local fishing as a possibility from our developing nations leaving them castrated, unable to become independent. Fishing is a huge food source, and it is being sold to developed nations by typically corrupt politicians.
In the movie Silent Hill an air raid siren screeches through the already bleak, shrouded, and inescapable landscape. Within an instant darkness consumes the town, walls melt into cages, blood wallpapering them, creatures of unspeakable horror emerge, and hopelessness engulfs the soul. I imagine Dead Zones are kind of like that to our fish and more complex forms of life in the sea – except they don’t get the air-siren. You see – there is a natural force on this planet called gravity and we largely let it do the determining of where our waste goes. What kind of waste? Sewage, fertilizer runoff, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide from fossil fuels, and you only need to make a gruesome guess at what else. All of this waste from us runs off into the bays and coasts of our oceans.
And this is what happens next – clear waters begin to cloud and this might be likened to the ash falling from the sky in Silent Hill. You see – all of this runoff from fertilizer and waste is organic which is like filling the troughs for certain bacteria and algae which would feast greedily then die floating to the depths decaying. And this organic material floats lazily to the bottom, blocking sunlight, and killing off natural growth. The organic material slowly falls to rest on coral reefs and in stasis in the water. Then the air siren would ring – and fish would dash left to right looking for a place to run, but there is none. The algae and bacteria die in such abundance that their decaying process starves the water of oxygen suffocating the rest of the nearby eco-system with hypoxia – deprivation of oxygen.
All living creatures that we would consider “a gift,” “useful,” “delicious,” “beautiful” are dragging along the ocean bottom in dead water. There are no walls in the ocean covered in blood like as in Silent Hill – instead of blood an eye-watering weed which covers you in sores and boils and grows at a rate of a football field in one hour sprawls across the ocean bottom. Deadly forms of bacteria murder the inhabitants of a coral reef and then degrade the coral itself until centuries of work are removed – until the cities of under the ocean are turned to pale, hollow forms of their once abundant self. Corals consist of only 1% of our oceans but provide home for 1/4 of all marine life – over 2 million species. The loss of a coral reef by trawler or by waste runoff are both unspeakably tragic to our oceans stability. The only life that remains are grotesque creatures not unlike those that exist after the air siren in Silent Hill – various worms and gelatinous jellyfish – countless jellyfish.
“Many of the same forces have wiped out 80% of the corals in the Caribbean, despoiled two-thirds of the estuaries in the United States and destroyed 75% of California’s kelp forests, once prime habitat for fish.” That is according to this well done and comprehensive article written by the Los Angeles Times entitled A Primeval Tide of Toxins. One man the LA Times and quite a few others of my resources turned to for information was a man by the name of Jeremy Jackson. He belongs to the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. And as far as I can tell he has no shady governmental relationships and seems serious about his cause. In fact he has released some studies providing factual evidence of the damage being caused in the oceans. On the topic of Dead Zones, “‘We’re pushing the oceans back to the dawn of evolution,’ Jackson said, ‘a half-billion years ago when the oceans were ruled by jellyfish and bacteria.‘”
Bacteria – Do you really believe we’re not doing 500 million years worth of damage to the environment in the span of a human lifetime? Due to our wastewater algae blooms form of a bacteria known as cyanobacteria – a bacteria first fossilized on this planet 2.8 billion years ago. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a warning out for cyanobacteria. They explain how first it clouds the water and makes it smell bad killing marine plants and animals. If humans or their pets come in contact with it, it can make you “sick.” It makes a special note to point out children are at higher risk for illness when exposed to this bacteria. It is cyanobacteria that is the cause of seaweed that grows at a rate of a football field an hour in hypoxic regions, because it is here that a form of cyanobacteria known as Lyngbya Majuscula (or “fireweed” and “stinging limu”) thrives. It consists of over 100 toxins, the LA Times Article elaborates:
“Lyngbya has lots of tricks,” said scientist Judith O’Neil. “That’s why it’s been around for 3 billion years.”
It can pull nitrogen out of the air and make its own fertilizer. It uses a different spectrum of sunlight than algae do, so it can thrive even in murky waters. Perhaps its most diabolical trick is its ability to feed on itself. When it dies and decays, it releases its own nitrogen and phosphorous into the water, spurring another generation of growth.
“Once it gets going, it’s able to sustain itself,” O’Neil said.
Ron Johnstone, a University of Queensland researcher, recently experienced Lyngbya’s fire. He was studying whether iron and phosphorous in bay sediments contribute to the blooms, and he accidentally came in contact with bits of the weed. He broke out in rashes and boils, and needed a cortisone shot to ease the inflammation.
Harmful algal events have been on the increase since the 1970s – they take place off of coastal waters because people are largely responsible for their cause. Which means we have to actively change this. Dinoflagellates are another bacteria bloom with harmful effects on both human and marine life. They commit genocide on the fish but can give us “gastrointestinal illness, permanent neurological damage, or even death.” Even Serratia marcescens, a bacteria found in the human intestine is being released into the oceans and decimating marine life.
Jellyfish – Jellyfish love to eat algae and microbes so Dead Zones have been helping the jellyfish increase in population. The Acting Director of Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth, Martin Atrill, seems to be a leading researcher keeping track of things on the jellyfish. He published a study which proclaims a significant increase in jellyfish for the next 50 – 100 years. Now I am pretty sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t want to be walking along the beach or watching a documentary in 60 years in which dozens of miles are covered like a blanket with jellyfish overflowing our oceans with no fish in sight. Yet with the increase in “Dead Zones” from human activity, it will only provide more reason for the jellyfish to thrive in this primordial stew in which it was made for.
Then the effect of this is cyclical because jellyfish also eat regular fish – so in addition to our overfishing practices and dead zones killing off the fish, we are helping the burgeoning of another species that also eat fish. And jellyfish predators have already been largely wiped out by… you guessed it… human overfishing. “Well when all the fish die then the jellyfish will too, right?” No – not right, because the jellyfish can survive on things other than fish. Indeed, the overabundance of jellyfish are hurting our fishing stock as well. Both that article and this one cite Atrill’s study as evidence that the jellyfish population is rising. But Atrill isn’t the only one who knows it, ask the Northern Salmon Company from Northern Ireland:
The jellyfish attack wiped out the entire stock of the Northern Salmon Company; more than 200 metric tons (about 440,000 pounds) of fish worth £1m or US $2 million was lost overnight, according to numerous reports in the European press….
John Russell, who had just started as managing director three days before, was understandably taken aback. “It was unprecedented, absolutely amazing. The sea was red with these jellyfish and there was nothing we could do about it, absolutely nothing,” he lamented. The company’s dozen workers tried in vain to prevent disaster, but their boats were unable to penetrate the mass of jellyfish to rescue the salmon. All were killed from a combination of stings, stress, and lack of oxygen. Ireland’s Chief Fisheries Officer with Ireland’s Department of Agriculture said there was nothing he believed Northern Salmon or any fishery could have done or could do to prevent this or future attacks.
Callum Roberts offers us a little peak into what this future would be like – with bands of rogue jellyfish without predators roaming the oceans in the Guardian article again:
Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at York University, predicts that by 2050 we will only be able to meet the fish protein needs of half the world population: all that will be left for the unlucky half may be, as he puts it, ‘jellyfish and slime’. Ninety years of industrial-scale exploitation of fish has, he and most scientists agree, led to ‘ecological meltdown’. Whole biological food chains have been destroyed.
Jeremy Jackson agrees:
Dead zones support “an extraordinary biomass of diverse microbes and jellyfish that may constitute the only surviving commercial fishery,” Jackson writes, but little else survives in a dead zone.
The comprehensive LA Times article went to see what the “jellyfishing” industry is like today on a trawler off the coast of the Atlantic:
Plop. Splat. Whoosh. About 2,000 pounds of cannonball jellyfish slopped onto the deck. The jiggling, cantaloupe-size blobs ricocheted around the stern and slid down an opening into the boat’s ice-filled hold.
The deck was streaked with purple-brown contrails of slimy residue; a stinging, ammonia-like odor filled the air.
“That’s the smell of money,” Simpson said, all smiles at the haul. “Jellyballs are thick today. Seven cents a pound. Yes, sir, we’re making money.”
It’s simple math. He can spend a week at sea scraping the ocean bottom for shrimp and be lucky to pocket $600 after paying for fuel, food, wages for crew and the boat owner’s cut.
Or, in a few hours of trawling for jellyfish, he can fill up the hold, be back in port the same day and clear twice as much. The jellyfish are processed at the dock in Darien, Ga., and exported to China and Japan, where spicy jellyfish salad and soup are delicacies.
“Easy money,” Simpson said. “They get so thick you can walk on them.”
This seems to be confirming what the experts in these fields are telling us. The LA Times resorts back to Dr. Pauly for more expert advisement:
As their traditional catch declines, fishermen around the world now haul in 450,000 tons of jellyfish per year, more than twice as much as a decade ago.
This is a logical step in a process that Daniel Pauly, a fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, calls “fishing down the food web.” Fishermen first went after the largest and most popular fish, such as tuna, swordfish, cod and grouper. When those stocks were depleted, they pursued other prey, often smaller and lower on the food chain.
“We are eating bait and moving on to jellyfish and plankton,” Pauly said.
An argument I can see argued here is that our fishing of jellyfish will keep their population in check – but that is unlikely – despite the fact they will become a greater part of our diet:
Of the 2,000 or so identified jellyfish species, only about 10 are commercially harvested. The largest fisheries are off China and other Asian nations. New ones are springing up in Australia, the United States, England, Namibia, Turkey and Canada as fishermen look for ways to stay in business.
Pauly, 60, predicts that future generations will see nothing odd or unappetizing about a plateful of these gelatinous blobs.
“My kids,” Pauly said, “will tell their children: Eat your jellyfish.”
I quoted so much because I really wanted to stress the importance of this. We are turning our oceans into rampant breeding grounds for bacteria and jellyfish. If we consider the abundance of life in the sea just one century ago, and we compare it a century in the future – and how can you not feel ashamed to be human?! Millennia of effort by evolution to give us a lush, stable, diverse planet teeming with all forms of higher life forms – decimated – due to greed and lack of foresight (perhaps Epimetheus did create us after all). The good news is life can rebound exceptionally quick if given the chance – but I prefer we do this before we have to stand in an Oliver Twist jellyfish line for our daily rations.
Leatherbacks – You might say, “There must be SOMETHING good that likes to eat jellyfish!” and the truth is, there is – the Leatherback turtle, the largest turtle in the world is a natural predator to jellyfish. The leatherbacks, bigger than humans and can live almost as long, have existed for over 100 million years. But two things have been killing leatherbacks and neither of them have to do with fishing. The first is that their eggs which they bury on the beach and leave to never return again are picked up in countries like Thailand and Malaysia by people claiming the egg has a love-potion in it. The other problem is that leatherbacks mistake plastic (oh fucking plastic!) for jellyfish and end up getting full bellies of plastic, becoming malnourished, and dying early. Very few leatherbacks get to live an entire life because of these dangers despite a whole ocean brimming with its favorite food. Again we are our own worst enemies.
Global Warming and Ocean Acidification
Oh yes – I dare to tackle it! And I’m not going to pull any punches. I’m just going to lay down the law to crazy (typically) Republicans who seriously dare to have the audacity – the sheer audacity – to deny the existence of global warming still. Global Warming is real. And if you dare respond to me that those are all examples of “liberal media propaganda,” I will respond to you that there isn’t any media outlet that reports on imaginary news – which apparently seems to be the only acceptable news to people with extremely narrow agendas that revolve largely around the preaching (but not the practicing) of Christianity, the denial of evolution, the complex philosophy of the definition of ‘marriage’ and caring enough about gay people to care what the fucking STATE calls their relationship (wasting taxpayer time and money- this is a ‘rights’ issue, not a ‘definition’ issue), frowning at abortions and stem cell research that could cure millions and buying “Pro-life” memorabilia, and denying the existence of global warming. Why this band of complete fuckups got in control of one of our two major parties infuriates me to no end. And to DARE pretend like the media agenda is “liberal” shows that the last time you read any real news must’ve been sometime before I was born when the political world was two-dimensional and pong-like in structure. Politics today are hairier and scarier than they’ve ever been and it is a 3 dimensional, surround sound experience. The intricacies and the complexities of politics today are not as cut and paste as things were back in the last time most Republicans checked the news. And I carry some real conservative beliefs – like fiscal responsibility and humility – which the Republicans were proud to turn a blind eye to with Bush because they are a bunch of slimy cowardly hyenas that blindly follow a leader instead of embracing the foundation of checks and balances in this country and instead bitch about petty issues not relevant for the 21st century. And, again, to clear the record – I am NO democrat – but at least they are standing for pertinent issues they believe in and affect the country as a whole.
The fact that I’m even wasting space on this immense article to just clarify that I’m not just some lost pathetic person caught up in the “liberal agenda,” which must be some imaginary spectre returning from the 1960s, is frustrating beyond recognition. Now other ‘arguments’ surrounding global warming is “sure – there is evidence that it’s real – but who says it’s man made?” And I will grant this sliver of credit that there is less definitive research on the precise correlation of mans impact on the atmosphere, but the fact that global warming is occurring is clearly a fact – understand a fact is a fact. And whether you want to blame the sun or other natural events on this “non-man-made” global warming it IS occurring. However, I warn you, if you believe that mankind, in his (and her) global occupation and colonization of every corner of this Earth, with all the manufacturing done around the entire planet unceasingly day and night, with all the cars, trucks, trains, and planes that are driven/rode/piloted daily, does not play a significant impact on this environment – don’t mind if I stare at you, because I rarely am gifted enough to see ignorance in such a pure and crystallized form… (I take that back, I get that luxury often). But this is how the argument goes, “Well if it’s natural (or mostly natural) then there’s nothing we can do about it anyway – temperature on the planet has gone through many heating and cooling periods and this is most likely just another thing like that and we’ll just have to adapt and thats how things go.” The problem with that is that there are going to be extreme modifications to our climate and whole systems that humans (yes, humans, people, like you and me humans) depend on to survive. On land this is true – but that’s not what this entry is about – this entry is dedicated to our boundless neighbor – the sea. The proof will follow. But the overarching point is this – we need to respond to global warming in a manner that is (I vote) the most beneficial to humans. And I have come to learn that what is best for man is abundance – because we are a sinister being when in the face of scarcity. Specifically abundance in life is beneficial for man – because when we have abundance – we can all eat, share, give, love, and relax. However, we can not gorge on abundance voraciously depleting our stocks. Yet this is precisely the attitude we took with fishing our oceans, and now global warming is coming to help get rid of those we have not yet massacred.
If you read Atrill’s article he doesn’t even account for the hydra of Dead Zones popping up each decade as the cause for the increase in these bone-chilling, floating, stinging zombies – alive, yet not alive, sentient, yet unaware – void of evolutionary progress. Despite dead zones clearly playing a factor in the increase of jellyfish (as we have discussed) Atrill and others account for global warming as the main culprit.
So how does carbon dioxide make oceans acidic? Well with the massive increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the oceans are naturally going to absorb some of the carbon dioxide too which lowers the ph levels of the oceans. In 1900 the ocean acidity levels were at 8.2, but with all of the absorption of carbon dioxide it is predicted that the ph level of the ocean will be at 7.8. Why is this a problem? Because coral will die out and crustaceans shells will dissolve leaving them paper thin thus eliminating even more bountiful species from our already hemorrhaging oceans. You see their shells are made of calcium carbonate, and they need carbonate ions which are easily found in the oceans now. But will disappear with increased acidification through carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere.
How do we know what happens when our oceans reach 7.8 on the ph scale? NewScientist made a video studying a naturally occurring carbon dioxide vent in the Mediterranean Sea. On the outside of the vent the ph level was normal and mostly coral dominated. However, once the ph level reached 7.8 then sea grass and invasive algae took over. Corals and crustacean shells were weak and damaged. ScienCentral has a video documenting ocean acidification already occurring on the Western Coast of the United States.
Then we have professor Timothy Wootton of the University of Chicago whose mussels seemed to be disappearing. He would go to remote islands way up in the most northwest part of the lower 48 states in the state of Washington. Again, the culprit points to ocean acidity. Additionally Wootton admits that he’s nervous because the ocean seems to be acidifying at a much faster rate than predicted.
National Geographic completed its story on ocean acidification in November of 2007:
Users of the mineral aragonite—a very soluble type of calcium carbonate—are especially vulnerable. They include tiny pteropod snails, which help feed commercially vital fish like salmon. Computer models predict that polar waters will turn hostile for pteropods within 50 years (cold water holds the most CO2, so it is already less shell-friendly). By 2100, habitat for many shelled species could shrink drastically, with impacts up the food chain. And as the acidification reaches the tropics, “it’s a doomsday scenario for coral reefs,” says Carnegie Institution oceanographer Ken Caldeira. If current trends continue, he predicts, reefs will one day survive only in walled-off, acid-controlled refuges.
Time wrote its article on coral extinction in July of 2008:
You don’t have to be a marine biologist to understand the importance of corals — just ask any diver. The tiny underwater creatures are the architects of the beautiful, electric-colored coral reefs that lie in shallow tropical waters around the world. Divers swarm to them not merely for their intrinsic beauty, but because the reefs play host to a wealth of biodiversity unlike anywhere else in the underwater world. Coral reefs are home to more than 25% of total marine species. Take out the corals, and there are no reefs — remove the reefs, and entire ecosystems collapse.
NewScientist also has taken the time to write an extensive research article on ocean acidification citing a study from James Zachos of the University of California at Santa Cruz where he documents a case of ocean acidification 55 million years ago creating massive species extinction and 100,000 years of an acidic dynasty until alkalinity was restored to the oceans. Ocean acidification is real – and if our overfishing doesn’t kill our fishing stock, then our inaction on ocean acidification will.
Almost all the information given is the same. Currently our oceans are already 30% more acidic than in 1900. By 2100 the oceans are expected to be 150 times more acidic. This would be the biggest global change in the oceans in 20 million years. Invasive algae will become the new dominant species in the ocean. Each year the sea absorbs about 2 billion tons of carbon from the air. If and when ocean acidification takes effect it will threaten the existence of over 1,000,000 species on the planet.
Serious Red-Alert Danger
So, I don’t know what else to write. Time is warning us, National Geographic is warning us. These are not crazed wing-nuts. When we add our list up we have a lot to account for that nobody truly feels the need to be held accountable for it. And this will impact us all – the guilty just as equally as the innocent. Let’s finalize the list of things decimating our ocean:
Things Decimating Our Oceans
1. Overfishing on a global scale.
2. Bottom trawling.
3. Unethical inter-governmental practices.
4. Plastics (See NPGP entry).
5. An “out of sight, out of mind” mentality coupled with an imperceptible time shift during which there is a weakening of fish stock for the planet making most apathetic on the issue.
6. Excessive nitrogen from fertilizer and organic waste dumped into our bays creating Dead Zones.
7. Accelerating environmental modifications through various vehicles which increase ideal conditions for dangerous bacteria, lower, dangerous, or less nutritious life forms.
8. Carbon emissions that get absorbed by the ocean which raises its acidity.
9. Insatiable greed.
The gravity of the situation is dire. And from my chair right here after all this research things look very bleak. When articles like this one which claims 40% of fish caught by global fisheries are wasted come around, I cringe at the length we must go to overcome our own incompetence. One article I read struck me in a different way from all the rest. It was this article on the overfishing of anchovies, one of the many endangered species in the ocean not yet mentioned in this article. It reminded me of an episode of Futurama I saw where Fry ends up with the last tin of anchovies in the world because they all went extinct shortly after Fry was transported to the future. They end up eating the last anchovies on the entire planet – I just wonder who will get that privilege, or rather sinful duty, in reality. And there are hundreds of thousands of species, on the brink of extinction, all awaiting our action, or rather lackthereof, to determine their final fate. And when they are gone, we will learn the definition of humble once again, because we apparently are so far removed from it that we think we can fly without wings, breathe without air, and eat without a source.
A large portion of this entry was to help make you aware and convince you of the immensity of the problem. However, without giving some basic guidance on where we go from here I am not doing a complete job. The fact is there are some measures that could be taken to avoid oceanic catastrophe. Here is what they are:
Become aware of what fish are endangered: In this Guardian article it’s clear that sellers in Spain are willing to overlook conservation efforts for a profit. This means that as consumers we need to become more aware of what species should not be eaten so as to loosen the demand on these species fighting for their very existence! This does not have to be complex either – think of some of your favorite fish and then head to the Online Seafood Watch Guides for Sustainable Seafood Choices and find out of they are on the “best choices” list or on the “avoid” list or somewhere in between. Make personal lifestyle changes if you are eating off of the “avoid” list – have some humanity and become the change that needs to be seen. There is also this IUCN Redlist of globally threatened species to help clarify our boundaries for us. And if you’re really passionate about helping out with this – cuz we need some passionate people for sure – you’ll go through these lists and make an easier to use more comprehensive list that ensures proper guidance for sustainability.
Proper information and labeling of fish: Steve Hatt is a fishmonger who has already taken the above advice and is a well-informed fish distributor. He practices ethical fish purchasing and tries to keep his customers well informed. But he admits how difficult to understand everything in the fish buying industry. Being more specific with labelling was central to this interview by the Guardian. This allows consumers to have the most information needed for the most informed choices.
Listen to the right sources: When the UN tells us that fish stocks are in trouble, we need to listen. Of course these are the faces of those who are focusing on these issues. (click links for more info on the person)
Just last month some of the scientists above issued a warning to ban fishing in about 1/3 of those worlds oceans. These warnings should be listened to now. They are harder to understand the need of now but we can have significantly better chances if we began now instead of waiting until things get worse.
Underwater Protection Zones: For every $99 that goes towards protecting and conserving land, $1 goes to protecting and conserving the ocean. This has left a major gap of safe-havens for underwater life. There have been discussions to change this, my suggestion is you support these programs regardless of financial cost:
Protection zones are the most popular alternative, he says. “They should be the ecological underpinning of sea management. One estimate from 2004 put the cost at $12-24bn a year to run a worldwide network of marine reserves covering 30% of all oceans and seas. It seems a lot but they would cost less than the $15-30bn we currently spend on subsidies that encourage excess fishing capacity and prop up exploitation.”
Create containment and cleanup programs that work: Look to the examples that have worked in the past. The Baltic Sea has been dealing with algae blooms for years now and 2007 was their best year to date. Find out what the Baltic countries are doing right. In Queensland they have a Lyngbya management strategy to keep the toxic weed from spreading.
Support legislature that enforces serious reduction of carbon emissions: To slow the acidification of our oceans down we must not only stop producing but also find a way to extract the carbon out of our oceans for the chance of our oceans staying at a more evolutionary sound place.
Be extremely mindful on how much plastic you consume and throw away: Minimize both!
Demand strict inter-governmental rules on the practices of fishing: Just off the top of my head here I say no more than 49% should go to any foreign nation. But also a sustainable fishing stock should be maintained in the agreement.
Support the illegalization of bottom trawling: It’s just a really bad practice. It needs to end.
Encourage public interest in the ocean: I’m leaving this one up to someone else!
Better cleaning of organic and nitrogen-based waste: Let’s prevent Dead Zones – I’m sure it would take only minimal work.
Massive movement of regeneration of leatherbacks: Make it against the law to be in posession of a leatherback egg under penalty of death – I’m serious – let’s get this awesome species back thriving and sick them on the jellyfish. Let’s fight this right! And there’s no excuse for making a species go extinct because you want to pretend that it carries magical love powers. Not acceptable. I find death an acceptable punishment for being counter-productive on a global scale.
Check out these links from the LA Times: Loaded with information, these links are all you need to be your own personal ocean expert.
*You might have noticed some countries or regions in the color red while you were reading. If you live in any of these areas then these problems are affecting you. I wanted people to recognize how wide-spread this problem really is. Feel free to comment below!