The last few months the world has been riveted by remarkable political turbulence – combat involving Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese, widespread sectarian violence in Iraq, intensified fighting in Afghanistan, and US Congressional elections whose results seemed to have been shaped by this international unrest. Important as many of these events have been, in the long sweep of history they may pale in contrast with some little noticed studies by ocean scientists. These studies have indicated that humanity is well on the way to pulling the plug on the marine food chain, risking mass starvation sometime later in this century. The terrible suffering in Darfur of the past few years could be visited thousands of times over in countries across the world. Rather than genocide this would be a mega-suicide, not a product of conscious design but instead policy inertia in addressing the effects of warming sea surface temperatures, growing acidification of the oceans, pollution of coastal areas and estuaries, and over harvesting of fish and shellfish.
All these factors seem to be interacting and efforts to address them have been piecemeal and have done little to slow our drift toward a potential cataclysm.
In early November 2006 a paper by an international team of scientists led by Boris Worm of Dalhousie University and published in Science indicated that a collapse of seafood stocks was likely by 2050. By the middle of this century the researchers projected massive depletion of seafood populations of all kinds.
A month later a study published in Nature and based on NASA satellite data from 1997 to 2006 indicated that warmer sea surface temperatures can affect the stability of the oceans by reducing phytoplankton production, in turn likely accelerating the warming. The study showed large drops in phytoplankton production already correlated with higher sea surface temperatures. The lead author of this study was Michael Behrenfeld, a biological oceanographer at Oregon State University.
For a while there have been reports of links between climate warming and impaired survival of various fish species. A study published in the August 14, 2003 issue of Nature showed that increased air and water temperatures in Lake Tanganyika in East Africa appeared to correlate with shrinking fish and algae populations. In July 2006 scientists reported that a dead zone of low oxygen water was responsible for fish and crabs washing up dead on Oregon beaches and suggested that this was associated with global warming. Australian Scientists studying effects of coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef report that smaller fish that feed on live coral are dying off, potentially throwing the fish food chain out of balance."
In Mexico CIBNOR (Northwest Center for Biological Research) is tracking fisheries trends along the Northwest Coast of Mexico, including effects of global warming. A central focus of the arresting film Al Otro Lado, produced by Natalia Almada, is the devastating effect that the crash of the fisheries in the State of Sinaloa has had on young people.
These local studies and reports might be viewed as canaries in a mineshaft of the potential risks of global warming or by skeptics, perhaps as isolated events that may be explainable by other factors. The recent global studies indicate, however, that we are no longer talking of isolated harbingers of danger; instead we have a freight train roaring down the tracks with grave risks for all of humankind.
Moreover, these projections don’t really begin to factor in what may be the greatest threat to the marine food chain – the increasing acidification of the oceans. We really haven’t fathomed just what this may mean for marine life, but it is hardly likely to be auspicious. It is remotely conceivable that heroic feats of geo-engineering might allow us to slow climate change despite proceeding with massive continued releases of carbon to the atmosphere. Yet this would be a Faustian bargain as the released carbon to the environment would very likely fuel acidification of the oceans, a process that might not be reversed for thousands of years.
In the closing days of the 109th Congress the Magnuson-Stevens Act was passed, changing rules governing the US fishing industry. Expected soon to be signed into law by President Bush, this bill mandates an end of over-fishing of depleted species by 2009 and sets up a system for trading rights in a fishery to promote conservation. A small step in addressing global over-harvesting, this will require similar action by other countries to make much headway in addressing the dire global trends. Welcome as it is, the likely new law will not deal with the effects of rising sea surface temperatures and more acidic oceans.
We hope in the coming months to broaden the climate protection discussions to include the many interacting factors that in combination jeopardize marine life. Soon after the Climate Institute was established we defined our mission as “protecting the balance between climate and life on earth.” We never envisioned how soon this balance would be in question on such a massive scale. Meanwhile, some links to groups that are on the frontline in protecting marine life within the oceans or estuaries:
MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (mangrove preservation)
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