Our Unprecedented Impact on the Oceans

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Our Unprecedented
Impact on the Oceans

Is marine life close to extinction?

Aamina Arooj

“Mankind is unable to live on this earth with the dead sea. We are at war with the oceans and if we win this war, we are going to lose it all.” — Cyrill Gutsch, Founder of Parley for the Oceans

Covering more than 72% of the Earth’s surface, the ocean not only makes our globe stunning with its deep blue colour and mesmerizing species it harbors, but also supports life on land by maintaining environmental and ecological balance. It is home to 99% of all habitable space on our planet, absorbs up to 50% of all fossil fuel-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and generates up to 85% of the oxygen we breathe – Scientists estimate that tiny ocean plant phytoplankton contributes to 50 to 85% of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. Along with that, it is the largest carbon sink and holds the biggest ecosystem on the planet. It also plays an important role in regulating the climate on a global scale by absorbing excessive heat.
However, this precious, natural treasure trove has been disturbed greatly by excessive human intervention. The use of highly unsustainable methods to extract wealth from the ocean has not only endangered marine life and its complex ecosystem but also poses an existential threat to other species living on the land as well as human beings.
Our impact
Plastic pollution is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the damage caused by practices like establishing marine parks, whaling, commercial fishing and bycatch – the animals caught by fishermen but discarded because they do not want, cannot sell or are not allowed to keep those. Fishing is a multi-billion-dollar industry that includes, inter alia, the tuna industry and shark-finning industry which has proven to be lethal for marine life and is responsible for an unprecedented, drastic decline of the marine population.
Plastic Pollution: A tip of the iceberg
The world’s oceans are highly polluted with ever-increasing plastic debris entering the waters every day. Currently, around 150 million tons of garbage are sitting in the ocean, threatening the whole ecosystem and the lives of marine species. Over time, this plastic debris breaks down into microplastic particles that are estimated to be 500 times more in number than the stars in the universe. Fish and birds mistake them for food and feed on them in enormous quantities. They have been seeping into every creature living in the ocean and turning it into a toxic plastic soup that threatens every life that breathes over there and the ones who feed on them outside the ocean.
Commercial whaling
Whales are facing the danger of extinction as their overhunt in the 1960s has drastically impacted their population. Despite an international ban on whaling, countries like Japan, Iceland and Norway still continue killing whales. As many as 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are killed as bycatch every year and the countries concerned specifically target whales for their meat and body. An international ban on commercial whaling was imposed in 1986 but Japan, Iceland and Norway have killed around 40,000 large whales since then. Large whales play an important part in maintaining marine life as they are at the top of the food chain. Their significant role in capturing carbon from the environment is crucial to assuaging the impact of climate change. Each whale sequesters 33 tons of carbon in a year, compared to a tree that only absorbs 48 pounds of CO2 per year.
Shark-finning industry
Sharks are caught for their meat and fins. Shark finning is a multi-billion-dollar industry and its sole agenda is profit-making, not saving life. Sharks sit at the top of the food chain and once they disappear, the entire ecosystem collapses. They keep the ecosystem alive and coral reefs too depend on them but with a rapid decrease in their numbers, the threat to other ocean life becomes imminent. Shark population has decreased by alarming numbers such as thresher (-80%), bull (-86%), smooth hammerhead (-86%), and scalloped hammerhead (-99%). The huge amount of shark hunting can be estimated from the fact that sharks kill ten people per year whereas we kill 11,000-30,000 sharks every hour.
Studies show that over 40% of all marine life caught is thrown back overboard as bycatch and most of them die during the process. On the Atlantic French coast alone, more than 10,000 dolphins are killed every year by bycatch besides more than 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises that are killed this way.
Commercial fishing: Taking a toll on global marine population
The impact of commercial fishing on the ocean is far more and worse than oil spills or plastic pollution. Let’s compare it with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which pumped more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the deep water, threatening marine life for three months. This appalling event was criticized in every form. Compared to that, commercial fishing does a lot more damage to the marine ecosystem and kills more fish in a day than it was killed in the Gulf of Mexico in those three months. Huge fishing vessels roam around in the oceans as death machines for marine life but they don’t receive a word of condemnation because of their influence. As the main focus of commercial fishing is maximizing profit, the harmful activities are adopted to catch as much fish as possible regardless of the harm to unwanted species. These activities involve longline fishing, drift netting, gillnets, trawling, and purse-seine nets among others that have taken a toll on the global marine population. The fish population has declined to near extinction (halibut -99%), cod (-86%), (bluefin tuna -97%), (haddock -99%). With this trend continuing, we’ll see an empty ocean by 2048.
Fishing nets
A 2018 study by Scientific Reports tells that 46% of the Great Pacific garbage patch is made up of discarded fishing nets that pose a direct threat to marine life generally, and turtles particularly. According to a report by Science Daily, around 1000 marine turtles die every year after getting tangled in plastic rubbish while in the US alone 250,000 turtles are captured, injured or killed by fishing vessels every year. These abandoned fishing nets never disappear and turn into small pieces which are mistaken by these species as food. It not only harms their internal organs but even causes death in many cases. Ingrid Giskes writes in her article in the Guardian: “A single abandoned net is estimated to kill 500,000 marine invertebrates, 1700 fish and four seabirds,” and these ghost nets are the single most harmful form of marine debris.
Dying coral reefs
Elena Becatoros wrote in the Independent that more than 90% of the world’s coral reefs will die by 2050. Our unnatural footprints on the environment have inflicted irreversible damage on these species. Coral reefs are a crucial part of the marine ecosystem. They produce a fraction of the oxygen we breathe, provide habitat to one in four marine species, bring billions of dollars in revenue and other commerce and are used in medical research to help cure killer diseases like cancer and bacterial or viral infections. Climate change proves to be the catalyst for the extinction of the reefs but commercial fishing is adding fuel to the fire as they catch fish whose waste is food for the coral reefs. From the coral reefs of the Middle East to the Caribbean Corals, 90% of the large fish that prospered there for millennia have now disappeared.
Trawling: One of the most destructive commercial activities
Of all commercial fishing activities, trawling is the most destructive and detrimental to marine life. It expedites the death of the ocean on an accelerated level. “It simply sweeps up everything at the bottom, destroying a diversity of life that has existed for as long as the earth has,” says Dr Les Watling, professor of Oceanography at the University of Maine. Most of the bycatch happens in trawling as, by its nature, it’s unselective and any species bigger than mesh size would be caught regardless of their target. To put into perspective, deforestation causes the loss of 25 million acres of land every year — that’s equivalent to losing 27 soccer fields per minute. Trawling wipes put 3.9 billion acres every year which is losing 4,316 soccer fields every minute.
Although a number of environmental agencies are working on the ground to eliminate the unsustainable methods used by profit-making companies that pose an existential threat to the marine population, the influence of these giant killer houses is greater than their efforts. Researchers suggest that 30% of the ocean must be protected to maximize fisheries yield, keep intact biodiversity and safeguard biodiversity but in reality, only 5% of the ocean is now protected, that is misleading because 95% of that allows fishing which means that only 1% of the ocean in “highly protected.” We are on the brink of losing the marine population and likewise the population on land because if the ocean dies so do the humans.
“If you want to address climate change, the first thing you do is to protect the ocean and the solution to that is very simple; leave it alone.”
— Captain Paul Watson, Founder of the Sea Shepherd Conversation Society

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