Ocean is Doing Just Fine, thank you – for Algae and Jellyfish, that is

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

November 9, 2013

For centuries, humanity has treated the seemingly infinite oceans of our planet with utter abandon, that is to say, with extreme carelessness and callousness. We assumed that their vast size and unfathomable bulk meant the seas could absorb or shrug off essentially any and every unthinking insult we puny humans tossed their way.

Heck, when I used to chum around with salmon fishermen up in Canada and Alaska, they even referred to the sea as the “salt chuck” – because they literally chucked all waste overboard, from onboard trash and fish waste to human feces.

Humanity’s cavalier disregard is badly outmoded. Overnight, in the geologic time frame, industrial civilization and an exponentially expanding human population have transformed into a titanic force of nature, a proverbial bull in a china shop. William Catton, author of the classic ecology book, Overshoot, writes that in essence we are no longer Homo sapiens but Homo colossus.

It is now becoming ever more apparent that humanity has unleashed an unprecedented assault on the Earth’s oceans and the diverse creatures that inhabit them.

A recent report by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) confirms the dire state of the seas. In releasing the report, Professor Alex Rogers of Oxford University, IPSO’s scientific director, said: “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought.”

Not only are the oceans absorbing much of the atmospheric warming caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but they are acidifying as a result of atmospheric CO2 dissolving into carbonic acid. The ocean surface is now 30% more acidic than at the start of the fossil fuel era and human population explosion. This harms shell-forming marine organisms such as oysters, corals and pteropods (sea butterflies).

Other human-induced stresses include decreasing oxygen concentrations from climate change and nitrogen runoff, other forms of toxic chemical pollution, and severe overfishing.

As one recent article in Foreign Affairs, entitled “The Devolution of the Seas,” puts it:

Of all the threats looming over the planet today, one of the most alarming is the seemingly inexorable descent of the world’s oceans into ecological perdition. Over the last several decades, human activities have so altered the basic chemistry of the seas that they are now experiencing evolution in reverse: a return to the barren primeval waters of hundreds of millions of years ago.

In what oceanographer Jeremy Jackson, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., calls “the rise of slime,” we are transmogrifying complex oceanic ecosystems with intricate food webs into simplified systems dominated by simpler organisms like jellyfish and algae. “In effect,” writes Alan B. Sielen in Foreign Affairs, “humans are eliminating the lions and tigers of the seas to make room for the cockroaches and rats.”

Marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin documents the improbable ascent of the jellyfish as masters of the brave new ocean in her fascinating and disturbing new book, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean.

As Gershwin points out, jellies are unassuming animals with simple needs: fewer predators and competitors, warmer waters to enable rapid growth, and more spots for their larvae to settle down and grow. Generally, an ocean less favorable to fish is more welcoming to jellyfish. Unfortunately, these are the very conditions that humans are unwittingly creating through industrial-scale fishing (especially bottom trawling), habitat degradation, coastal construction, pollution and climate change.

It’s high time we humans started acting like responsible stewards of the sea, not its callous exploiters, unless we want to preside over its complete degeneration.

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