Thursday 3 October 2013
The health of our oceans is ‘spiralling downward’, and still we act like nothing is the matter
Without drastic action, the damage will be catastrophic
This week’s review from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean is a salutary warning. According to the IPSO, the evidence is clearer than ever that the effect of climate change is being felt most acutely by the world’s seas. Whilst their vast expanses absorb heat and CO2 – thereby ameliorating the effect on us land-dwellers – the results are having disastrous effects on marine life. The oceans are increasingly acidifying; warmer water holds less oxygen; and combined with overfishing and pollution from heavy metals, organochlorines and plastics, the outlook is darker than ever.
All this because we seem to ignore the great expanse of water on which we depend. 90 per cent of the earth’s life is to be found in its oceans; its phytoplankton provides 40 per cent of our oxygen. A large percentage of our food comes from the sea; it carries our trade: 90 per cent of the UK’s trade is conducted via the oceans. And yet by the very fact of our increasing disconnection from the sea, we allow it to be polluted and ravished.
In the past month I’ve taken part in three events at which experts in their fields have painted a gloomy prognosis for the oceans. At the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, the ‘Beagle Debate’ used a game-show format in which 5 experts evangelise for five marine species – shark, ocean sunfish, plankton, coral, and whale. The shark won – on the gruesome and emotive statistic that 100 million die each year to provide Asian diners with shark fin soup.
But we also learnt, from coral expert Dr Kerry Howell of the Marine Institute, that in cold water reefs only identified in British waters last year, spires of these ancient, slow-growing animal colonies up to 4,000 years old were being mindlessly destroyed by trawlers. That same week, a panel convened by Horatio Morpurgo in Bridport, constituting of myself, George Monbiot and the eminent marine biologist, Callum Roberts, examined the state of play of one of Britain’s only marine protection zones in Lyme Bay, on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. The measured despair of us panelists was not matched by one member of the audience, who shouted out that the best way to stop the trawlers was to dump old cars in the bay, thereby snagging their nets. A great piece of direct action – if somewhat drastic.
And a few days ago, the Natural History Museum called a day-long conference marking 100 years of records of cetacean strandings. It was a unique opportunity to hear the latest, state-of-the-art research on why whales and dolphins appear to ‘commit suicide’ by beaching themselves. One positive aspect which emerged was the notion that more strandings are being reported because the public are actually more aware of their plight – and less likely to hoick the carcasses off to render down for their fat, as was common in earlier days.
But here too was depressing news. Dr Paul Jepson, of the Zoological Society of London, delivered a lecture which showed that PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, used as flame-retardants, among other things, and now banned but still heavily present in the oceans) in the waters around Europe have begun to affect resident populations of killer whales to the extent that none of the pods of these magnificent, apex predators have given birth to calves in the last ten years. As a result, it may be that European killer whales – off Scotland, in the North Sea, and the Mediterranean – are doomed to extinction.
Is there any good news to be had? Well, the mere fact of these three events, all in the past month, all attended by packed audiences, shows the extraordinary concern of the general public. But they also demonstrate how appallingly we are being let down by our politicians. Earlier this week we had Owen Patterson proclaim that climate change might actually be good for us (tell that to the soon-to-be drowned Pacific islanders of Kiribati), while earlier this summer his fellow minister, Richard Benyon, agreed to implement just 31 of 127 recommended marine protection zones on the south coast, as advised by the UK Wildlife Trusts and other expert bodies. And even then Defra have not proposed any timetable for their implementation.
Britain is a maritime nation. We should be leading the way in creating the conditions for cleaner, cooler seas – if only out of self-interest. The fact is that without drastic action, there really might not be any more fish in the sea. I only hope we don’t have to resort to dumping old bangers in the Channel to get our way.
Widespread: A trash bag is wrapped around a gorgonian coral at 7,000 feet off the coast of Oregon
Everywhere: A rockfish in a shoe. The study took place over the course of 22 years and found trash everywhere they looked on the sea floor along the West Coast and around the Hawaiian Islands
Batteries included: In addition to choking and suffocating creatures, some trash can contaminate the deep sea with caustic chemicals
The world has created the crisis in the oceans through overfishing and pollution. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean there is a mass of floating plastic that kills marine life.
Whale washed up dead found to have eaten pieces of rope, plastic and a golf ball
Man frees rare right whale off Va. coast (Video)
As the whale reached him, the rope was clearly visible and the animal appeared to slow down
The oceans and seas are dying, losng their ability to sustain life, which means the earth is dying, which could mean wars. Competion for natural rsources in the Arctic has already begun.
World’s oceans move into ‘extinction phase’
The next generation may lose the opportunity to swim over coral reefs or eat certain species of fish, scientists have warned, as the world’s oceans move into a ‘phase of extinction’ due to human impacts such as over-fishing and climate change.
By Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent
6:00AM BST 21 Jun 2011
A preliminary report from an international panel of marine experts said that the condition of the world’s seas was worsening more quickly than had been predicted.
The scientists, gathered for a workshop at Oxford University, warned that entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, could be lost in a generation.
Already fish stocks are collapsing, leading to a risk of rising food prices and even starvation in some parts of the world.
The experts blamed the increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for pushing up ocean temperatures, boosting algae so there is less oxygen and increasing acidity of the water.
The conditions are similar to every previous mass extinction event in the Earth’s history.
Dr Alex Rogers, scientific director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) which convened the panel with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said the next generation would suffer if species are allowed to go extinct.
“As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the ocean the implications became far worse than we had individually realised,” he said.
“This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level.
“We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime and, worse, our children’s and generations beyond that.”
The marine scientists called for a range of urgent measures to cut carbon emissions, reduce over-fishing, shut unsustainable fisheries, create protected areas in the seas and cut pollution.
Oceans on brink of catastrophe
Marine life facing mass extinction ‘within one human generation’ / State of seas ‘much worse than we thought’, says global panel of scientists
By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Tuesday, 21 June 2011
The world’s oceans are faced with an unprecedented loss of species comparable to the great mass extinctions of prehistory, a major report suggests today. The seas are degenerating far faster than anyone has predicted, the report says, because of the cumulative impact of a number of severe individual stresses, ranging from climate warming and sea-water acidification, to widespread chemical pollution and gross overfishing.
The coming together of these factors is now threatening the marine environment with a catastrophe “unprecedented in human history”, according to the report, from a panel of leading marine scientists brought together in Oxford earlier this year by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The stark suggestion made by the panel is that the potential extinction of species, from large fish at one end of the scale to tiny corals at the other, is directly comparable to the five great mass extinctions in the geological record, during each of which much of the world’s life died out. They range from the Ordovician-Silurian “event” of 450 million years ago, to the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction of 65 million years ago, which is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs. The worst of them, the event at the end of the Permian period, 251 million years ago, is thought to have eliminated 70 per cent of species on land and 96 per cent of all species in the sea.
The panel of 27 scientists, who considered the latest research from all areas of marine science, concluded that a “combination of stressors is creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth’s history”. They also concluded:
* The speed and rate of degeneration of the oceans is far faster than anyone has predicted;
* Many of the negative impacts identified are greater than the worst predictions;
* The first steps to globally significant extinction may have already begun.
“The findings are shocking,” said Dr Alex Rogers, professor of conservation biology at Oxford University and IPSO’s scientific director. “As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realised.
“This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level. We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime, and worse, in the lifetime of our children and generations beyond that.” Reviewing recent research, the panel of experts “found firm evidence” that the effects of climate change, coupled with other human-induced impacts such as overfishing and nutrient run-off from farming, have already caused a dramatic decline in ocean health.
Not only are there severe declines in many fish species, to the point of commercial extinction in some cases, and an “unparalleled” rate of regional extinction of some habitat types, such as mangrove and seagrass meadows, but some whole marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, may be gone within a generation.
The report says: “Increasing hypoxia [low oxygen levels] and anoxia [absence of oxygen, known as ocean dead zones], combined with warming of the ocean and acidification, are the three factors which have been present in every mass extinction event in Earth’s history.
“There is strong scientific evidence that these three factors are combining in the ocean again, exacerbated by multiple severe stressors. The scientific panel concluded that a new extinction event was inevitable if the current trajectory of damage continues.”
The panel pointed to a number of indicators showing how serious the situation is. It said, for example, that a single mass coral bleaching event in 1998 killed 16 per cent of all the world’s coral reefs, and pointed out that overfishing has reduced some commercial fish stocks and populations of “bycatch” (unintentionally caught) species by more than 90 per cent.
It disclosed that new scientific research suggests that pollutants, including flame-retardant chemicals and synthetic musks found in detergents, are being traced in the polar seas, and that these chemicals can be absorbed by tiny plastic particles in the ocean which are in turn ingested by marine creatures such as bottom-feeding fish.
Plastic particles also assist the transport of algae from place to place, increasing the occurrence of toxic algal blooms – which are also caused by the influx of nutrient-rich pollution from agricultural land.
The experts agreed that when these and other threats are added together, the ocean and the ecosystems within it are unable to recover, being constantly bombarded with multiple attacks.
The report sets out a series of recommendations and calls on states, regional bodies and the United Nations to enact measures that would better conserve ocean ecosystems, and in particular demands the urgent adoption of better governance of the largely unprotected high seas.
“The world’s leading experts on oceans are surprised by the rate and magnitude of changes we are seeing,” said Dan Laffoley, the IUCN’s senior adviser on marine science and conservation. “The challenges for the future of the ocean are vast, but, unlike previous generations, we know now what needs to happen. The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now, today and urgent.”
The report’s conclusions will be presented at the UN in New York this week, when delegates begin discussions on reforming governance of the oceans.
The five great extinctions
The Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction(the End Cretaceous or K-T extinction) 65.5 Mya (million years ago)
Plankton, which lies at the bottom of the ocean food chain took a hard hit in an event that also saw the demise of the last of the non-avian dinosaurs. The giant mosasaurs and plesiosaurs also vacated the seas. An asteroid or volcano eruptions are thought to be to blame.
The Triassic–Jurassic extinction (End Triassic) – 205 Mya
Having a profound affect on sea and land, this period saw 20 per cent of all marine families disappear. In total, half the species known to be living on Earth at that time went extinct. Gradual climate change, fluctuating sea-levels and volcanic eruptions are among the reasons cited for the disappearing species.
The Permian–Triassic extinction (End Permian) 251 Mya
A period known as the “great dying” was the most severe of the earth’s extinction events, when 96 per cent of marine species were lost, as well as almost three-quarters of terrestrial species. The planet took a long time to recover from what has also been called “the mother of all mass extinctions”.
The late Devonian extinction 360–375 Mya
Three-quarters of all species on Earth died out in a period that may have spanned several million years. The shallow seas were the worst affected and reefs would not recover for another 100 million years. Changes in sea level and climate change were among the suspected causes.
The Ordovician–Silurian extinction (End Ordovician or O-S) – 440–450 Mya
The third largest extinction in Earth’s history had two peak dying times. During the Ordovician, most life was in the sea, so it was sea creatures such as trilobites, brachiopods and graptolites that were drastically reduced. In all, some 85 per cent of sea species were wiped out.
Waves of destruction
Case Study One in the panel’s report assesses the “deadly trio” of factors – global warming, ocean acidification and anoxia (absence of oxygen). Most if not all of the five global mass extinctions in prehistory carry the fingerprints of these “carbon perturbations”, the report says, and the “deadly trio” are present in the ocean today.
Case Study Two looks at coral reefs, and the fact that these “rainforests of the sea” (so-called for their species richness) are now facing multiple threats. The panel concluded that these threats acting together (pollution, acidification, warming, overfishing) will have a greater impact than if they were occurring on their own, and so estimates of how coral reefs will respond to global warming will have to be revised.
Case Study Three examines pollution, which is an old problem, but may be presenting new threats, as a wide range of novel chemicals is now being found in marine ecosystems, from pharmaceuticals to flame retardants, and some are known to be endocrine disrupters or can damage immune systems. Marine litter, especially, plastics, is a huge concern.
Case Study Four looks at over-fishing: it focuses on the Chinese bahaba, a giant fish which was first described by scientists only in the 1930s, but is now critically endangered: it has gone from discovery to near-disappearance in less than 70 years. A recent study showed that 63 per cent of the assessed fish stocks worldwide are over-exploited or depleted.
Fishing in troubled waters
Fish populations once thought to be inexhaustible now face the prospect of extinction if policy changes are not made soon
Sylvia Earle and Susan Lieberman
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 14 March 2010 10.00 GMT
Texas Wetland Restoration Could Be Model For Gulf
By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI 06/30/11 07:19 AM ET
Blue catfish catch a Virginia record, and a monster of our own creation
By Justin Jouvenal, Published: July 1
MECKLENBURG COUNTY, Va. — Talk to fishermen here, and you will hear the legend of Buggs Island Lake: A Navy diver sent to recover the wreckage of a small plane encounters a fish the size of a man on the lake’s bottom. He bolts to the surface and refuses to dip a toe in the waters again.
The yarn seemed as dubious as any other fish tale — until two weeks ago. An angler hooked a 143-pound blue catfish in this reservoir along the Virginia-North Carolina border; it smashed the state record by more than 30 pounds and could be a world record.
It is likely not the only one lurking out there. A monster fish that can easily top 100 pounds and stretch nearly five feet has come of age in the region’s waterways.
It has a distended beer gut of a belly, a chin studded with whiskers tipped with taste-bud-like sensors and a grunt like a pig’s. Like a creature from a Hollywood B-movie, it has grown fat from conditions created by pollution.
Blue catfish have exploded in numbers and size in many local river systems, biologists say, spawning the type of giant fish more commonly found in the species’ native Mississippi River — or in the pages of Mark Twain. And no one is sure how big they’ll get here.
The rise of “blue cats” has spurred a response as strange as any fish story. Nearly everyone agrees it is a monster of sorts, but whether that is necessarily a bad thing depends on whom you talk to.
Many biologists are increasingly alarmed at the spread of the species, which they fear may be muscling out native catfish and gobbling up other local fish. The top predator has been described as the Bengal tiger of local rivers.
It is that size and fierceness that has made the blue cat a hit with anglers, who have flocked to southern Virginia waterways, generating tourism dollars for struggling rural areas.
“A lot of people love it. A lot of people hate it. It’s kind of like the snakehead,” said John Odenkirk, a Virginia state biologist, referring to another invasive species of fish that has captured the public’s imagination.
Buggs Island Lake, at 50,000 acres and with depths of up to 100 feet, is a good place for a monster to lurk. Nick Anderson was fishing there with his brother and father June 18 when he got the hit on his line.
“I got real nervous,” said Anderson, after he saw the lumbering gray mass. “It took about 50 feet of line and went straight down to the bottom.”
Over the next 45 minutes, Anderson, 29, a high school football coach from North Carolina, battled the blue cat until he was exhausted. Four times he reeled it to the surface, and four times it dove back into the depths of the lake.
Finally, he got it to the side of the boat. His father netted the fish, but the net was only big enough to cover the beast’s head, so Anderson grabbed the fish’s torso and his brother got hold of the tail. They wrenched it on board.
A place at the top
The blue catfish is, in part, a monster of our own creation. Virginia first stocked the fish in the James and Rappahannock rivers in the 1970s for sport fishing. By the late ’90s, the fish was showing up in large numbers in the Potomac River. Today, populations of various sizes are in Chesapeake tributaries around the region.
In the Potomac, blue catfish are increasing in size each year and could soon match those seen in southern Virginia.
“In a decade or less, the Potomac will top that record fish at Buggs,” Odenkirk said.
The population has grown so rapidly and so large because it has found ideal habitats here, biologists said. The James, Potomac and other bodies are fertile systems that create smorgasbords for the fish. In some cases, this natural fecundity has been juiced by fertilizer, sewage runoff and other pollution, which creates blooms of phytoplankton, the first link of the food chain leading to blue cats, biologists said.
The mature fish are voracious predators, sucking up gizzard shad, white perch, freshwater mussels — even rocks — into a mouth that looks like a vacuum-cleaner attachment. The fish can live more than two decades.
Data on the blue cat’s impact on other species are incomplete, but some fear the fish could harm already decimated populations of American shad, river herring and other species.
“The blue catfish can utilize nearly any habitat and will eat anything,” said Tom O’Connell, director of the Fisheries Service for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “When you look at their size, they could reduce or eliminate some native species.”
Biologists say one thing is clear: Eradicating blue cats is virtually impossible. Anglers can’t catch enough, and the commercial market remains small. States have recommended limiting consumption because they can contain toxins such as PCBs.
A team of fisheries managers from around the region is considering suggesting that states come up with plans to control blue cats, O’Connell said. The specifics are being worked out, but they could include stronger penalties for stocking the fish in new rivers and streams, a government subsidy for harvesting blue catfish, or attempts to increase the commercial market.
Hope in the form of a fish
Back on shore, Anderson quickly encountered a problem: No tackle store had a scale big enough to weigh the fish, and there was no one to call for help. The Andersons decided they only had one choice — call 911.
“I said, ‘It’s no emergency, but it is, sort of,’” Richard Anderson, Nick’s father, recalled telling the operator.
Two officers from the Mecklenberg County Sheriff’s Office arrived and speedily escorted the trio to a supply store with a bigger scale. The fish was 57 inches long and 43.5 inches around.
The International Game Fish Association could certify the fish as a world record in the next couple of months. Despite efforts to keep the fish alive and return it to the lake, it died the next day.
Anderson’s catch is what any catfish angler dreams of — and so do a number of towns in southern Virginia. A multimillion dollar tourism industry has grown around the blue catfish on the James, according to a report by state wildlife officials.
Some officials hope to replicate that success in Mecklenburg, which abuts Buggs Island Lake and has one of the higher unemployment rates in Virginia. In 2002, the county lost its biggest employer, a Burlington Industries textile factory. That, combined with the decline of tobacco farming, has left the county looking to pump up tourism.
“People talk about the great recession, but we’ve been there for 12 to 15 years,” said Dallas Weston, editor of the Mecklenburg News-Progress.
Meanwhile, many think an even larger monster is lurking in a local river.
Twain wrote about seeing a “Mississippi catfish” more than six feet long. There are unverified reports of blue cats of up to 315 pounds being caught on the Missouri River before 1915.
“I heard the rumors of a man-size fish, but I didn’t believe it until I saw it eye to eye,” Nick Anderson said. “Who am I to say there isn’t something bigger out there?”
West Coast boasts underwater Serengeti, study finds
By Juliet Eilperin, Published: June 22
Jun 17, 2011
Record ‘dead zone’ predicted in Gulf of Mexico
By Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
An ocean of trouble
The future looks bleak for coral reefs, according to OSU researcher
Gulf oil spill could cause lasting damage to fish populations, study finds