An Ocean of Troubles

via Wikimedia Commone

via Wikimedia Commons

Last month I noted the dangers global warming poses to the world’s oceans. Not for 55 million years has there been oceanic disruption of comparable severity to the calamity that lies just a hundred years ahead as a result of the climatic stresses we are placing on the oceans. But there are more prosaic threats than rising temperatures and increasing acidity facing the ocean’s. Rampant over-fishing and a rising tide of garbage are taking their toll as well.

How can that be? The oceans are enormous – some 70 percent of the globe is covered with water. The Pacific Ocean has the volume of the moon. But as big as they are, we are plucking the Seven Seas bare and replacing the fish with trash.

Two decades ago, Charles Moore discovered what came to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Sailing across the the Pacific, Moore was stunned to look out over the ocean from the deck of his racing yacht to see, not the pristine waters he had come to know and love, but rather plastic debris stretching as far as the eye could see. “It seemed unbelievable,” he wrote, “ but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”

Garbage patches now occupy immense areas of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. More than merely an eyesore for sailors, the plastic garbage plays havoc with the entire marine food chain. Larger chunks are eaten by birds, seals, dolphins and fish, leading to fatal intestinal blockages. As the plastic degrades into smaller pieces (it never decays, it only breaks into ever smaller bits) it displaces food for animals which eat algae and plankton. Beside being toxic in their own right, the smallest pieces of plastic debris serve as vectors for viruses and bacteria to roam the ocean. And the debris isn’t just floating handily and visibly on the surface. The entire upper strata of the oceans can contain syringes, plastic bags, soft drink bottles, and disposable diapers moving like wraiths in the currents.

While sailors and fishermen who are intimately familiar with the oceans may be alarmed by the open leagues of rubbish, they haven’t made much impression on the public imagination: the Bounding Main is a bottomless pit capable of absorbing anything thrown into it.

Not only do we think we can throw anything into the oceans, we are doing our level best to take every living thing out of them. Indeed, we may be approaching “the end of fish.” We now have the technology to haul every fish in the seas to the surface. The fishing-industrial complex is hauling in so much seafood, that many of the world’s leading fisheries are on the verge of collapse. According to a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, all the current fish and seafood species on which we have historically depended may collapse by the middle of this century. Says the lead author of the study, “Species have been disappearing from ocean ecosystems and this trend has recently been accelerating. Now we begin to see some of the consequences. For example, if the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime — by 2048.”  The implications, he reminds us, extend far beyond the oceans themselves. “The oceans define our planet, and their fate may to a large extent determine our fate, now and in the future.”

Some twenty years after Moore’s shocking discovery of the Great Garbage Patch, another yachtsman made his way across the Pacific from Australia to San Francisco via Japan. On that voyage, over waters he had decades of familiarity with, Ivan Macfadyen saw firsthand the dire toll the combination of over-fishing and junk-filled waters had taken on the Pacific. In the whole of the voyage from Melbourne to Osaka he encountered not a single fish or bird. He found himself surrounded by silence and desolation. One thing he did encounter was an immense trawler, one of the countless ships which crisscross the seas hauling up fish on an industrial scale. It was no wonder Mcfadyen caught nothing. There was nothing left to catch. “After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,” Macfadyen said. “I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.” Instead of fish, there were endless miles of garbage. The oceans, he says, are broken.

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