When oceans are raised in most sustainability circles, the fact that they are warming is generally the only factor brought to the table. At NaturaLiving, we’ve decided to dig deeper and ask about the oceans themselves – are they healthy? What is happening to them as climate change grows from a mere afterthought to an imposing reality? Our best scientists have tried to answer these questions in the most recent Ocean Health Index. They determined that our oceans are only 60% healthy, which is enough for most people to take a day off work (Ocean Health Index, 2016; Parry, 2012).
We know precious little about oceans but what we do know is that humanity is slowly weakening them to levels that they have never reached before. The ocean floor is being altered by poor fishing practices, coral reefs are bleaching, sea creatures are being pushed closer and closer to extinction, pollution is disrupting the pH levels, and less and less oxygen can be produced. The first step in any process is to understand the problem and that is what we have purported this article to do. We will first explain why our oceans are so incredibly important to humankind and then conduct a health analysis of the body parts that make up the ocean: phytoplankton, sea creatures, the ocean floor, water quality and algae. We have also provided an explanatory section on the big three impacts affecting oceans (global warming, acidification, and deoxygenation) as they are the root causes of unhealthiness across all parts that make up the ocean. Come learn with us so that we can be more empowered, more educated, and armed with more ammunition when we stand up for our planet and call for a change to a more sustainable way of life.
Why Are Oceans Important?
Besides containing more than 97% of the world’s water (a human necessity), oceans create more than 50% of the oxygen we need to breathe (Thomson, 2016). If that’s not enough, oceans are also the world’s largest heat sink, absorbing almost 90% of the heat coming from the sun in the form or radiation. If we had no oceans to trap this heat, humans would not be able to survive (Doyle, 2013). The ocean provides over 15% of the world’s protein while fishing and aquaculture provide the livelihood for 10% of the world’s people (The Economist, 2017). Weather patterns are directly attributed to changes in our oceans’ temperatures and the interaction they have with our atmosphere. Half the world’s people live in coastal zones, and ocean-based businesses contribute more than $500 billion a year to the global economy (Suzuki, 2015).
Oceans quite literally shield us from the effects of climate change and if we do not help them, that shield will wither. At least one-quarter of all carbon dioxide doesn’t stay in the air; instead, it dissolves into the ocean. The World Economic Forum estimates that since the beginning of the industrial era, the ocean has absorbed approximately 525 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and presently it soaks up around 22 million tons per day (Jezard, 2017). The ocean is like a massive plant, able to change carbon dioxide into oxygen for us to breathe while providing us with plenty of food. The video below summarizes its intrinsic importance to humanity.
The big three impactors to the health of oceans
Global Warming, or climate change, is now a household term but it’s difficult to explain or understand. We’ll try to keep it simple: greenhouse gas emissions are produced as by-products when is energy is taken from gas, oil, coal and other fossil fuels. Practices in industries such as in agriculture play a minor role by producing high levels of methane, a greenhouse gas, but the burning of fossil fuels is the primary source. When these greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere, they can absorb some of the sun’s radiation, thus warming our planet. As more greenhouse gases are created, more radiation is absorbed. When the temperature in the atmosphere rises, so too does the ocean’s average temperature. This stimulates glaciers and ice caps to melt faster than they are created, which causes sea levels to rise. Some ocean regions have already warmed by more than 3 degrees Celsius, which causes a disruption in marine ecosystems and forces a change to migration patterns of many species (Deutsche Welle, 2017). The weather is also directly linked to ocean temperatures – the warmer the ocean, the more frequent occurrence of stormy weather (Doyle, 2013).
Acidification is the result of chemical reactions caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide by seawater. These reactions reduce the pH, the carbonate ion concentration, and calcium carbonate minerals (Allianz, 2009). On the pH scale, acids are low numbers and bases are higher numbers so acidification simply means that the pH is reducing and the water is becoming more acidic. The oceans are now 30% more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution (Allianz, 2009). In areas where most life congregates, the seawater contains a relative abundance of calcium carbonate minerals. These minerals act as building blocks for organisms that need to build that need to build their skeletons and shells such as coral and the aptly named “shellfish” (US Department of Commerce, 2017). Many parts of the ocean are becoming undersaturated with these minerals because of ocean acidification, which is likely to affect the ability of some organisms to produce or maintain their shells (US Department of Commerce, 2017). The food chain could be extremely affected, especially when habitats for many sea creatures like coral reefs are expected to be nearly destroyed by 2050 (Deutsche Welle, 2017; The Economist, 2017).
Deoxygenation is exactly as it sounds – a loss of oxygen in the water. This is primarily caused by pollution from sewage and fertilizers that have washed into the sea and are rich in nitrogen. This nitrogen acts as a “Miracle Gro” for algae and they bloom out of control. These algae suck up all the oxygen in the area and create what are referred to as dead zones (Allianz, 2009). Most living plants and animals cannot survive in these areas. With dead zones doubling in number from decade to decade, it has incited massive habitat and biodiversity losses (Allianz, 2009). Oxygen concentrations in the ocean continue to decline, and the most recent International Panel on Climate Change Report predicts that they will decrease by 3-6% during the 21st century (OSIP, 2017). The ocean warming also plays a major role in deoxygenation as warmer water by nature cannot hold as much oxygen.
The body parts of the ocean
Phytoplankton are tiny, microscopic organisms present in oceans and freshwater. They sit at the bottom of the food chain and therefore provide nourishment to almost all creatures. More remarkably, they can conduct photosynthesis, meaning that when there is light from the sun, they soak up carbon dioxide and create oxygen (OSIP, 2017). Oxygen makes up about 21% of the air we breathe and at least half of this oxygen is produced by phytoplankton in the ocean (OSIP, 2017; Sea Change, 2017). Needless to say, these little floating plants are essential for all animals but their numbers are reducing. Zooplankton are slightly larger than phytoplankton and feed off them. Because of rising temperature in the ocean, zooplankton grow faster than phytoplankton. In warmer water, studies show that zooplankton will eat all phytoplankton (Doyle, 2013). This has tremendous consequences: the water becomes less oxygenated, less carbon dioxide is being sucked up, and there is less food for other grazers (Biello, 2009). We cannot afford to lose phytoplankton in the ocean.
Warming oceans have led to a substantial decline in the amount of plant life in the sea over the last century, which has led to a sharp loss of marine biodiversity (McNally, 2017). As habitats are lost due to damages and destruction to the ocean floor or acidification causing coral bleaching, many sea creatures have seen their habitats altered or destroyed (Biello, 2009). If this is not enough, the amount of by-catch in the United States is between 17 – 22% of total catch, or 2 billion pounds every year. By-catch is the name given to the unintended catch of sea creatures when fishing for a specific species. For example, a fishing boat could be fishing for cod and when they bring up their nets, they have trapped some turtles, dolphins, and crabs. This contributes to the deaths of endangered species and affects the food chain by eliminating predatory species (Mazzio, 2016). Sharks are a poignant example because they are rapidly becoming extinct. While some may think this is a good thing, sharks control the food web and if they disappear, smaller predatory fish can populate faster and eat more herbivores. This negatively affects the health of coral reefs and the ecosystem as a whole (Oceana, 2017).
Overfishing is another factor that is a major threat to our planet. It is estimated that nearly 80% of the world’s fish stocks have been exploited or are in decline and 90% of the ocean’s large predatory fish have been wiped out (Harrabin, 2013; Mazzio, 2016). If current trends continue, the Earth’s food fisheries are likely to collapse entirely by the year 2050 (Mazzio, 2016). Current conditions in the oceans are similar to what they were during mass extinctions yet the rate of extinction is much faster now than anything ever recorded or estimated (Doyle, 2013).
Plastic also plays a role as humans toss approximately eight million tons into the ocean each year (Jambeck et al., 2015). Plastic does not discriminate; it affects birds, fish, mammals and other marine life. It eventually breaks down into smaller bits, which can look like fish eggs and get eaten by marine animals, but it never biodegrades (Suzuki, 2015). Plastic contains toxic chemicals that poison the animals that consume them. It affects large animals most because as they eat many smaller animals that have been poisoned, the toxicity grows stronger (Suzuki, 2015). This phenomenon is known as bioaccumulation, which is a major reason why the population of many of our beloved larger sea creatures such as dolphins and orcas are in sharp decline (Suzuki, 2015).
The ocean floor
This article contains two graphics of world maps and a striking similarity between the two is that impacts are seen primarily, if not entirely, close to land. Most sea creatures live close to land because they require oxygen and levels are significantly reduced as the ocean deepens because phytoplankton need light to conduct photosynthesis (Doyle, 2013). The ocean floor close to land is bustling with activity, providing habitats and food for many creatures. Selig et al. (2015) explain in their criteria for measuring the ocean health around the island of Fiji that poor fishing practices, tourism, coastline construction, and fertilizer and pollution runoff are the major causes of the degradation of the ocean floor. Permanent damage to the ocean floor from a fishing technique called bottom trawling is leaving many species without habitats and shelter, thus forcing them towards extinction. Bottom trawling involves dragging a net along the ocean floor using weights, annihilating anything and everything in its path. Tourism and coastline construction, both billion-dollar industries, slowly eat away at the ocean floor by adding unsustainable amounts of traffic or simply destroying it for development. Coral reefs are a perfect example: northern parts of Great Barrier Reef, a wonder of the world, have seen coral mortality rates of 50 percent) due to acidification and temperature rises (Deutsche Welle, 2017).
Water quality and algae
As explained in the acidification section, oceans are slowly becoming more acidic; this puts many shellfish species at risk. By the end of this century, it is expected that the surface waters of the ocean could be nearly 150% more acidic, resulting in a pH that the oceans haven’t experienced for more than 20 million years (Allianz, 2009). We can see the effects of this most prevalently in the drastic loss of coral; if no changes are made, we will lose all our shellfish as well. Another important factor in determining water quality is through the number of algae present. Algae is created by fertilizer runoff, pollution, and sewage that contain nitrogen. The algae begin to grow at alarmingly fast rate because of the nitrogen and they soak up all available oxygen in the area. The result of this is referred to as a dead spot because nothing can grow or survive in these areas (Allianz, 2009).
Ocean pollution is also a detriment to the quality of ocean water. Oil spills have been brought into the public eye thanks in large part to the BP oil spill in 2010 but still they are poorly managed. They cause devastation to ocean coastlines such as beaches, estuaries and wetlands while also contaminating the ocean water. Some sea creatures experience deformities while others, such as dolphins, are pushed towards death (Allianz, 2009). A lesser known fact is that many vessels dump waste overboard that can transfer pollution, disease, and invasive species into the ocean. Plastic is another contributor to water quality as it is capable of concentrating toxic chemicals and poisoning the animals that consume them. Approximately 44% of all seabird species have plastic in and around their bodies, and fish, birds, turtles and whales often become fatally entangled in plastic waste (Suzuki, 2015).
The issues that we raised in this article are not independent. They are compounding on top of each other, causing extrapolative degradation to our oceans. If these problems are not mitigated, our oceans will not be able to feed us, provide us with oxygen, or protect us by soaking up carbon dioxide. Because our oceans are so vast, some might be led to think that we cannot damage them. We hope that in this article you have learned something about the health of our oceans and recognize the stark reality that we humans are responsible for propagating irreversible effects onto our oceans. If actions are not taken, the ocean will call in sick to work and we will be screwed.
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