“It ought to be hard for a species that occupies roughly 10% of the earth’s land to mess up 70% of the planet’s entire surface. Yet humans are well on the way to wrecking the oceans.” Jennifer Duggan, Time, February 4, 2019
Life on Earth began in primitive seas about 3.8 billion years ago. Out of those humble beginnings emerged a spectacular tapestry of life prolific in abundance, diversity, complexity, and beauty in the sea, on land, and in the air. To this day, the oceans make life as we know it possible.
What’s more, oceans are home to millions of organisms, from tiny single-celled creatures to the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale. Oceans play a significant role in regulating climate, the hydrologic cycle, nutrient and materials cycling, wind patterns, and the overall health of the planet’s ecosystems. Not to mention the oceans’ contribution to economic, social, and cultural enrichment.
I guess most people are unaware of all this and take the global ocean for granted. Otherwise, how could we possibly find ourselves in a situation where, according to research done back in 2011, only 4% of the world’s oceans remain undamaged by human activity. Here are some updated specifics about what that damage looks like:
- Overharvesting of fish stocks: Fish stocks continue to decline in most places around the world. A third of global fisheries are operating at biologically unsustainable levels. The stocks of some species, such as bluefin tuna and Atlantic cod, have been reduced by 95%.
- Bycatch: Accompanying the overharvesting of target species, a huge variety of unwanted marine life also gets caught in nets and accounts for a shocking 25% of all the tonnage of species caught every year. Large numbers of juvenile fish, seabirds, sharks, turtles, whales, dolphins, and porpoises die in nets and are just thrown away. This is an extraordinary and immoral waste of life.
- Ocean acidification due to fossil fuel burning: Oceans absorb about 25% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere produced by burning oil, gas, and coal, changing the basic chemistry of the ocean, making it more acidic. Creatures with calcium carbonite shells (oysters, crabs, corals, etc.) have a hard time growing and maintaining their shells in this environment. In fact, some organisms’ shells are already dissolving in this more acidic water. According to the Smithsonian Institution: “Since the beginning of the industrial era, the ocean has absorbed some 525 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, presently around 22 million tons per day….In the past 200 years alone, ocean water has become 30 percent more acidic—faster than any known change in ocean chemistry in the last 50 million years.” Unless conditions change, one of the expected outcomes of acidification and warming is that all the planet’s coral reefs will be dead in the next few decades.
Coral reefs are like the rainforests of the ocean, full of life, home to the most abundant and diverse collection of marine species on the planet, and they provide important ecological services. Their loss would be devastating, environmentally and economically.
- Eutrophication of coastal waters: This problem is caused by excessive nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus – in the water because of the application of fertilizer on farmland, golf courses, and lawns. Excessive fertilizer and animal waste runs off the land and makes its way to estuaries and coastal waters leading to algal blooms. These blooms cause hypoxic (insufficient dissolved oxygen) and anoxic (zero dissolved oxygen) conditions that create dead zones. They are called dead zones for obvious reasons. They cause the suffocation of organisms trapped in those areas. There are now hundreds of dead zones in coastal waters around the world. The massive algal blooms in Florida in the last year caused largely by nutrient pollution from agriculture, human waste, and the profoundly arrogant and unwise re-engineering of the hydrology of the Florida peninsula for land development purposes, resulted in equally massive deaths of fish, crabs, manatees, turtles, and, well, you get the idea.
- Other forms of pollution from stormwater runoff, industrial discharges, shipping traffic, land use changes, and the behavior of consumers include – among other things – toxic substances and plastics. Ah yes, plastics. Every year, about eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean. You may have seen the report in March of a young curvier beaked whale near the Philippines that died from starvation due to nearly 90 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Unknown numbers of creatures die from consuming plastics, and the closer we look, the more damage we uncover. Plenty of good resources are available that explain the problem of plastics in the oceans. Here is a brief summary from the Center for Biological Diversity, and a fact sheet from the Earth Day Network. It is long past time for single-use plastics to be eliminated. The public interest and the interest of life on Earth far outweigh the financial interests of the single-use plastics industry. And it’s long past time for inconsiderate, irresponsible disposal of any kind of waste to end. In fact, it’s long past time for the concept of “waste” to end. Waste does not exist in the natural world, where waste = food.
So, what can we do about all this?
The nations of the world recognize this problem, and many other crises impacting the world, and created the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address them. These goals were embraced by people in virtually every nation. SDG Goal 14 is focused on oceans: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”
Goal 14 has established ten targets, some to be achieved by 2020 and others by 2030. Here is a summary of these targets:
- Prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds…
- Sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts…
- Minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification…
- Effectively regulate harvesting and overharvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices and implement science-based management plans…
- Conserve at least 10% of coastal and marine areas… (10%?? Seems like a low bar to me.)
- Prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies…
- Increase the economic benefits to Small Island Developing States and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources, including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism.
- Increase scientific knowledge, develop research capacity and transfer marine technology, taking into account the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Criteria and Guidelines on the Transfer of Marine Technology, in order to improve ocean health…
- Provide access for small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets.
- Enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law…
As you can see, these are far-reaching goals that require global action, with every country contributing. They require government action, which requires governments hearing from their citizens so that those governments will be held accountable for achieving Goal 14 and all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The SDGs were created to protect the rights of individuals everywhere, now and in the future, and secure a more resilient and livable world for life on Earth.
As the great oceanographer Sylvia Earle puts it: “Our past, our present, and whatever remains of our future, absolutely depends on what we do now.”
The “we” Dr. Earle is talking about is us, citizens of every country. Our individual behaviors are important, but insufficient. Without strong action on national and international scales, the situation will only get worse. Left to themselves, governments have not demonstrated the commitment necessary to achieve the targets of SDG Goal 14. Citizens working together to demand responsible action has made transformational impact in the past (see the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970), and can do so again.