Monday, 27 September 2010

How Long Before We Kill The Oceans?

On the 23rd September, the first independent, peer-reviewed paper on the size of the Gulf of Mexico oil leak was published in Science. It concluded that some 4.4 million (± 20%) barrels of oil escaped into the ocean, and that is after taking into account the 804,877 barrels that BP collected at the site. That equates to 127,965 cubic metres of oil that has been pumped straight into the sea.

We’ve all seen the pictures of the poor birds struggling to breathe and flap their wings upon the shore. Now extrapolate that millions of times and try to comprehend the utter destruction we are subjecting the most important ecosystem on earth to. Think of the suffering, but, in a more long-term stance, think of how it will affect population numbers of fish, marine mammals, plankton, algae and all those other vital organisms that never reach the headlines. The release of toxic chemicals such as benzene, napthalene and toluene will cause unimaginable amounts of death and suffering.

This devastation may well, of course, go unreported, because we have a habit of ignoring the way in which we abuse the oceans for all it’s worth. It really does seem that, because the carcasses are well beyond our horizon or beneath the waves, we do not see it as a problem. We have a history of this.

The (primarily Asian) delicacy of shark fin soup – as well as the irrational belief that its meat has healing powers – has led to the plummeting of shark populations worldwide. It is now commonplace to see a 90% decrease in shark numbers since 1970. What happens as a consequence? The sharks’ prey numbers escalate enormously, and in turn their prey collapse. The whole ecosystem is subject to uproar. Those species which do rise in numbers will eventually cave in due to over competition and not enough resources for them. It is thought about 75 million sharks are killed each year, although this number could be vastly larger due to lucrative illegal businesses. To put that into context, the British human population is 61 million; consider killing everybody in Britain, plus many, many million on top of that, each year. It equates to killing the population of Luton (205,000) each day.

Our methods of fishing are abhorrent. We cast kilometre-wide nets – by their thousands – into the ocean, weighted by heavy balls of metal. The nets sweep up everything in their path, regardless of what it is. The carcasses of turtles, sharks, dolphins and undesired fish are thrown over the side as bycatch. Simultaneously, the weights at the bottom of the net scrape along the ocean floor, ripping up whatever happens to be down there.

Remember that these organisms have lived in a delicate balance without us for millions of years. Our arrival, as relentless predators of the guardians of the oceans, will create unrivalled desolation. We are utterly raping the ocean, and I would not be surprised if it were dead within my lifetime. Why do we let it continue? I can think of no other reasoning but because the trail of destruction immediately sinks. It is out of sight, and so apparently, out of mind. Would such actions be tolerated if they were on land?

It is estimated that between 70 and 80% of the atmospheric oxygen comes from marine plants. As we have established, disrupting ocean food webs could cause this number to fall dramatically. Hence therefore, we have a selfish reason to preserve the oceans, as well as a moral one. The statement that we’ll not have any fish to eat in future is one that is almost too blatant to point out. The rises in ocean temperature, acidity and the tremendous pollution we are pouring into it are merely afterthoughts, despite the horrendous potential each has for ruining our seas.

We depend upon the oceans for our lives. I don’t know why people overlook such a major issue. Possibly because data are difficult to obtain for an accurate picture to be formed (as Professor John Shepherd said, "Counting fish is like counting trees, except they are invisible and they keep moving”)? Possibly due to scientific illiteracy, and governments not appreciating how vital a role they play? Possibly due to deluded ideas that the world is for us to harvest (as proclaimed in Genesis)? Possibly because the carnage is out of sight? Possibly because there will always be the demand, and illegal fishing is so easy? I suspect the reality is a combination of each of these poisonous explanations.

Paper cited:
Magnitude of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Leak, TJ Crone & M Tolstoy.
Published online 23 September 2010; 10.1126/science.1195840

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