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By Gerry Goeden
"For a long time it was believed that at least the sea was inviolable, beyond man's capacity to change and to despoil. But unfortunately, this belief has proven to be naive." (Rachel Carson, "The Sea Around Us ", 1951)
When I was only 16 years old, I had the immense pleasure of meeting the woman who changed the world and started the conservation movement through her books. Rachel Carson had already written "Silent spring" and "The sea around us" when I was going through my most impressionable period. I blame her for my career in marine science and thank her every day.
I often tell my students that because I couldn't be an astronaut, I started exploring "inner space" and that I was going to spend my life discovering the planet water. All he needed was some diving equipment and a lot of enthusiasm. Going there was simple! If humans had evolved on the Moon and decided to settle there, they would have called this place "Water" and not "Earth".
There are about 1,400 million cubic kilometers of water spread over 70.8 percent of the planet's surface, and 97.2 percent of that water is ocean. The blood that runs through our veins is a little more than sea water and we refer to it as our "life blood" for good reason. About 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe is produced by the tiny organisms that float in. the sea (phytoplankton), and their ancestors were the first life on Earth.
Our climate is driven by ocean currents and recent studies (2009) suggest that these can now change dramatically due to global warming, melting the Arctic and causing massive floods that will drown the cities of a quarter of the world's population.
Ecologists talk about biodiversity; on species richness in a given area. More types of living things make a healthier planet. The sea supports an incredible variety of life, an estimated 80 percent of all known life on Earth. And yet we spend far more money on outer space research than on understanding "inner space" near the coast.
Why are we so disinterested in sea level rise when 60 percent of the world's human beings live 60 kilometers from the ocean? Why do we dispose of 450 billion cubic meters of toxic and non-biodegradable waste in the sea every year?
Most of the world's fisheries are fish feed providers, supplying about 40 percent of the protein consumed by nearly two-thirds of the world's population. Some 38 million people make all, or most of their income, from fishing, landing between 90 and 100 million tonnes of fish per year.
Despite enormous efforts, these landings have remained about the same since the early 1990s. We continue to build more fishing vessels, some capable of reaching 350 metric tons per day, but landings are not increasing. The world's fleet is now 250 percent larger than needed to capture what the oceans can sustainably produce, and many governments are forced to subsidize wasteful fishing to maintain a food supply for their people.
Our oceans are in crisis! FAO estimates that 70 percent of commercial fishing has already collapsed or is collapsing. The devastation is widespread, from Peruvian anchovies to large whales. Sadly, many of these species will never recover and will be lost forever. Top predators, such as tuna, shark, and swordfish, have been reduced to a mere 10 percent of their original population and some species are in probable danger of extinction. I have been told that Malaysian fisheries have removed approximately 95 percent of their species. There is almost nothing left.
Every year we kill and discard 30 million tons of accidentally captured marine life (bycatch) around the world, including dolphins, turtles, crabs and juvenile fish. In northern Australia, 92 percent of the catch is of no use to fishermen. As we remove these animals from the food chain, we bring down biodiversity and suppress the ecological processes of the ocean.
Coral reefs are now the most threatened ecosystems in the world. These small "islands of life" under water are threatened by human activities, especially acidification. As we burn more and more fossil fuels we increase the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the planet warms and the pH (acidity) of the sea changes.
The acid threshold for coral is reached when the atmosphere exceeds 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. Unfortunately that happened around 1988 and in October 2012 it was 391 ppm. Current levels are higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years and probably in the last 20 million years.
Increased acidity in the oceans has a disastrous effect on marine life. A drop in pH from 8.1 (now) to below pH 7.3 is predicted in the year 2300. A long way to go? No need to worry?
With a pH of 7.7 we will reach the lethal limit for all mollusks with shells and reef corals; their shells and skeletons will simply dissolve and die. That's right, coral reefs and shell marine life will die!
When will this happen? The surprising answer is that scientific studies are pointing to 2065. Between now and then there will be major disruptions in the ecological food web as species will begin to disappear. From around 2065 onwards, we can expect rapid and catastrophic collapse of most species of marine life. This corresponds to a major scientific research program (Science, November 2006) that predicts that from 2056, the entire world's fish population will collapse. The ocean ecosystem will simply fail.
This situation is now the most pressing environmental problem we face, and as a marine scientist I believe it is the most pressing problem on the planet. I am not alone and my concerns have been joined by 155 senior marine scientists, from 26 countries who recently signed the Monaco Declaration (The Royal Society, July 6, 2009), highlighting the dual threat of increasing ocean acidification and global warming.
What amazing creatures we are! The red flags have been sounding since Rachel Carson published her wonderful book in 1951. During the past 60 years there have been more living scientists doing research than all the scientists who lived before us. Still, we continue a blind race down the path of the destruction of the oceans and, possibly, our own.
Gerry is a Malaysian-based marine ecologist, Research Fellow and Advisor from the National University of Malaysia, and a marine consultant for the Andaman Resort, Langkawi.
The Epoch Times