All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean…And when we go back to the sea…we are going back from whence we came. John Kennedy
HUMAN beings no longer thrive under the water from which their ancestors emerged, but their relationship with the sea remains close. Over half the world’s people live within 100 kilometres (62 miles) of the coast; a tenth are within 10km. On land at least, the sea delights the senses and excites the imagination. The sight and smell of the sea inspire courage and adventure, fear and romance. Though the waves may be rippling or mountainous, the waters angry or calm, the ocean itself is eternal. Its moods pass. Its tides keep to a rhythm. It is unchanging.
Or so it has long seemed. Appearances deceive, though. Large parts of the sea may indeed remain unchanged, but in others, especially in the surface and coastal waters where 90% of marine life is to be found, the impact of man’s activities is increasingly plain. This should hardly be a surprise. Man has changed the landscape and the atmosphere. It would be odd if the seas, which he has for centuries used for food, for transport, for dumping rubbish and, more recently, for recreation, had not also been affected.
The evidence abounds. The fish that once seemed an inexhaustible source of food are now almost everywhere in decline: 90% of large predatory fish (the big ones such as tuna, swordfish and sharks) have gone, according to some scientists. In estuaries and coastal waters, 85% of the large whales have disappeared, and nearly 60% of the small ones. Many of the smaller fish are also in decline. Indeed, most familiar sea creatures, from albatrosses to walruses, from seals to oysters, have suffered huge losses.
All this has happened fairly recently. Cod have been caught off Nova Scotia for centuries, but their systematic slaughter began only after 1852; in terms of their biomass (the aggregate mass of the species), they are now 96% depleted. The killing of turtles in the Caribbean (99% down) started in the 1700s. The hunting of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico (45-99%, depending on the variety) got going only in the 1950s.
The habitats of many of these creatures have also been affected by man’s activities. Cod live in the bottom layer of the ocean. Trawlermen in pursuit of these and other groundfish like pollock and haddock drag steel weights and rollers as well as nets behind their boats, devastating huge areas of the sea floor as they go. In the Gulf of Mexico, trawlers ply back and forth year in year out, hauling vast nets that scarify the seabed and allow no time for plant and animal life to recover. Off New England, off west Africa, in the Sea of Okhotsk north of Japan, off Sri Lanka, wherever fish can still be found, it is much the same story.
Coral reefs, whose profusion of life and diversity of ecosystems make them the rainforests of the sea, have suffered most of all. Once home to prolific concentrations of big fish, they have attracted human hunters prepared to use any means, even dynamite, to kill their prey. Perhaps only 5% of coral reefs can now be considered pristine, a quarter have been lost and all are vulnerable to global warming.
A hotter atmosphere has several effects on the sea. First, it means higher average temperatures for surface waters. One consequence for coral reefs is that the symbiosis between the corals and algae that constitute a living reef is breaking down. As temperatures rise, the algae leave or are expelled, the corals take on a bleached, white appearance and may then die.
Hotter water, slimier slime
Warming also has consequences for ice: it melts. Melting sea ice affects ecosystems and currents. It does not affect sea levels, because floating ice is already displacing water of a weight equal to its own. But melting glaciers and ice sheets on land are bringing quantities of fresh water into the sea, whose level has been rising at an average of nearly 2 millimetres a year for over 40 years, and the pace is getting faster. Recent studies suggest that the sea level may well rise by a total of 80 centimetres this century, though the figure could plausibly be as much as 2 metres.
The burning over the past 100 years or so of fossil fuels that took half a billion years to form has suddenly, in geological terms, put an enormous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. About a third of this CO2 is taken up by the sea, where it forms carbonic acid. The plants and animals that have evolved over time to thrive in slightly alkaline surface waters—their pH is around 8.3—are now having to adapt to a 30% increase in the acidity of their surroundings. Some will no doubt flourish, but if the trend continues, as it will for at least some decades, clams, mussels, conches and all creatures that grow shells made of calcium carbonate will struggle. So will corals, especially those whose skeletons are composed of aragonite, a particularly unstable form of calcium carbonate.
Man’s interference does not stop with CO2. Knowingly and deliberately, he throws plenty of rubbish into the sea, everything from sewage to rubber tyres and from plastic packaging to toxic waste. Inadvertently, he also lets flame retardants, bunker oil and heavy metals seep into the mighty ocean, and often invasive species too. Much of the harm done by such pollutants is invisible to the eye: it shows up only in the analysis of dead polar bears or in tuna served in New York sushi bars.
Increasingly, though, swimmers, sailors and even those who monitor the sea with the help of satellites are encountering highly visible algal blooms known as red tides. These have always occurred naturally, but they have increased in frequency, number and size in recent years, notably since man-made nitrogen fertilisers came into widespread use in the 1950s. When rainwater contaminated with these fertilisers and other nutrients reaches the sea, as it does where the Mississippi runs into the Gulf of Mexico, an explosion of toxic algae and bacteria takes place, killing fish, absorbing almost all the oxygen and leaving a microbially dominated ecosystem, often based on a carpet of slime.
Each of these phenomena would be bad enough on its own, but all appear to be linked, usually synergistically. Slaughter one species in the food web and you set off a chain of alterations above or below. Thus the near extinction of sea otters in the northern Pacific led to a proliferation of sea urchins, which then laid waste an entire kelp forest that had hitherto sustained its own ecosystem. If acidification kills tiny sea snails known as pteropods, as it is likely to, the Pacific salmon that feed upon these planktonic creatures may also die. Then other fish may move in, preventing the salmon from coming back, just as other species did when cod were all but fished out in Georges Bank, off New England.
Whereas misfortunes that came singly might not prove fatal, those that come in combination often prove overwhelming. The few coral reefs that remain pristine seem able to cope with the warming and acidification that none can escape, but most of the reefs that have also suffered overfishing or pollution have succumbed to bleaching or even death. Biodiversity comes with interdependence, and the shocks administered by mankind in recent decades have been so numerous and so severe that the natural balance of marine life is everywhere disturbed.
Are these changes reversible? Most scientists believe that fisheries, for instance, could be restored to health with the right policies, properly enforced. But many of the changes are speeding up, not slowing down. Some, such as the acidification of the seas, will continue for years to come simply because of events already in train or past. And some, such as the melting of the Arctic ice cap, may be close to the point at which an abrupt, and perhaps irreversible, series of happenings is set in motion.
It is clear, in any event, that man must change his ways. Humans could afford to treat the sea as an infinite resource when they were relatively few in number, capable of only rather inefficient exploitation of the vasty deep and without as yet a taste for fossil fuels. A world of 6.7 billion souls, set to become 9 billion by 2050, can no longer do so. The possibility of widespread catastrophe is simply too great.
in The Economist