The Plight of Our Oceans
Oceans cover two thirds of the Earth’s surface. Without them, the great diversity of plants and animals, including humans, could not survive on this planet. They consume carbon dioxide and produce a significant amount of the world’s oxygen. They impact the weather and the global climate. They are an essential ecosystem with a large, complex food chain, providing food on which humans depend. Oceans are a vital part of life on Earth, and it is crucially important that we preserve and protect them. Although people are becoming more aware of humankind’s impact on the earth and its ecosystems, human activity is still rapidly causing severe damage to the world’s oceans because of unsustainable fishing, bycatch, and pollution.
First, unsustainable fishing is a huge problem these days, with marine populations being harvested much faster than they can naturally replenish themselves. There are many nations that depend on wild fish stocks, each with many competitive fisheries, and all of them are constantly taking up as many fish as they possibly can. As a result of this rampant fishing, these wild stocks are being depleted at astonishing rates. In fact, according to the FAO in 2010, 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from a collapse. Additionally, as many as 90% of the ocean’s large fish have been totally fished out (Myers, 2003). One of the reasons this is happening is due to industrial fishing, which is the largest factor contributing to population depletion in the oceans (Ainley, 2009). The goal of industrial fishing is to supply fish and seafood to meet the demand for human consumption, and to make a profit in doing so, so of course they all want to harvest as much fish and seafood as possible. In order to achieve this goal, industries send out large fleets of huge fishing vessels, all built with state-of-the-art equipment designed to catch huge amounts of fish. There is a limited number of fish in the ocean, and meeting the global demand for fish is a herculean task in and of itself, but trying to do so at a profit when there are so many fishermen after the same small stock breeds fierce competition among industries as well as between nations. Due to the unsustainable fishing practices of these competitive industries, there are constantly more and more people competing for less and less fish. To make matters worse, pirate fishing vessels are a chronic problem in global fisheries, and law enforcement is a complex and difficult thing to achieve on international waters. Pirate vessels fish illegally all over the world, effectively stealing from what is already a dwindling stock. This is known as illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, or IUU, and accounts for up to 30% of total catches globally (OECD, 2004). In other words, one-third of the fish being harvested worldwide is illegal and unaccounted for, while the two-thirds that is legal and acceptable is already far too much. Unless there is drastic improvement on a global scale in the sustainability of current fishing practices, stocks of all species currently harvested are expected to collapse by 2048 (Worm, 2006). If that happens, not only will the health of the oceans greatly suffer, but all the people and countries that depend on these wild fish for food and economic stability will be facing a terrible crisis.
Another major crisis with the current global fishing industry is bycatch. Bycatch refers to unwanted marine species that are caught in fishing equipment while fishing for another species. Not only are industrial fishing practices grossly unsustainable, they are also very wasteful and destructive. Enormous fishing nets, traps, and other equipment are designed to catch massive amounts of fish and seafood, but often they also catch and kill whales, dolphins, porpoises, and other marine life all over the world (Willison, 2009). In addition, some of these fishing practices destroy habitats as well as inhabitants. For example, the “rockhopper” trawl, introduced in the 1980s, is designed to allow large fishing nets to pass easily over any rough surface. Thanks to this new technology, fishermen are now able to drag their nets and trawls cavalierly, destroying many habitats and leaving scars on the ocean floor. This has had devastating effects on habitats and ecosystems all over the world, such as in Australia, where 90% of surfaces where coral used to grow are now bare rock (WWF, 2011). To make matters worse, some bycatch is caught via “ghost fishing,” which is when fishing equipment has been lost or abandoned at sea, but continues to catch and entangle marine life long after the fishermen no longer operate or control it (Erzini, 2008). One of the worst problems with industrial scale fishing is entanglement, which is what happens when dolphins, whales, turtles and other marine life is unintentionally killed by becoming entangled in fishing nets, traps, and other equipment. Entanglement is one of the main threats to many marine species. Over 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die from entanglement every year, making it the single largest cause of mortality and pushing many marine species to the edge of extinction (WPF, 2010). Imagine all of those competing industries and all those pirates mentioned before. All of them are out extracting as many fish out of the ocean as they possibly can, and all of them are destroying habitats and killing huge amounts of other marine life in the process. That all adds up to an overwhelming amount of death and destruction, and it is increasing every day.
Finally, probably the worst effect that humankind has on land or sea is pollution. There are many different types of pollution, and the ocean is a victim of virtually all of them. One of the most visible and well known forms of ocean pollution is oil pollution. Oil spills get a heavy amount of media attention, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 or the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Images of sickly, blackened ducks and other wildlife rile up the general public and incite rage and disgust toward oil companies and the governments that support them. These tragic events are extremely devastating; water is blackened deep below the surface, wildlife is killed in huge quantities, ecosystems are destroyed. Even worse, it takes decades or even longer to clean up and restore vital ecosystems after tragedies like these. The damage is incredibly severe and persistent, and more spills are occurring every day. Because of these catastrophic effects, oil spills are becoming a political fuel as another major reason to reduce dependence on oil and commit to alternative, sustainable energy sources. For example, Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States. With over 6,800 oil spills, the Niger Delta experiences roughly 300 spills a year, which amounts to almost one a day. This delta is the third largest wetland on the entire planet, and its rivers and wildlife are being perpetually devastated by oil spills (Fenig, 2010). That is a heinous tragedy all by itself, and that is just a fraction of the damage being caused by oil spills all over the world. In addition to all the damage caused by oil spills alone, the ocean is further polluted by a countless other sources: domestic sewage, industrial discharges, urban and industrial run-off, explosions, sea dumping practices, mining, radioactive waste, and infinite others. The ocean has become the largest garbage dump on Earth, being constantly filled with trash, chemicals, and all kinds of waste. Research in the North Pacific is revealing just how exponentially this problem is growing. In 1991, research conducted in the North Pacific Gyre found that there was 6 times more plastic than plankton by weight in the water. Only a decade later, in the same area, it found 46 times more plastic than plankton (Greenberg, 2009). That means that in just ten short years, there was more than seven times as much garbage in the North Pacific as before. The sand of the world’s beaches, once made solely of coral, seashells, and natural, pristine rock, is now littered all throughout with little bits of plastic. Additionally, global warming is having adverse effects on both marine habitats and wildlife. The ocean is absorbing heat as the global temperature rises, and the water temperatures are increasing. Among other effects, this temperature rise is causing low-oxygen areas that cannot sustain marine life, known as “dead zones.” These dead zones last for thousands of years, and can become permanent fixtures in the oceans. As of now, they make up only about 2% of the world’s oceans, but scientific models predict that by the year 2100, these dead zones could grow by a factor of ten or more. This means that by 2100, one-fifth or more of the oceans could be empty, lifeless dead zones (Than, 2009). Ocean life cannot adapt as quickly as the temperature is rising, and is dying as a result. Also, large areas of coral reefs are turning white and dying, an occurrence known as “bleaching” (Edwards, 2011). Overall, human presence on the earth and the carelessness with which we pollute it is having unfathomable consequences on our oceans.
The first step in combatting this disaster is education: until people know what the problem is and what is causing it, they cannot do anything about it. Fortunately, public awareness about the environment is already increasing, and more and more people are learning about the global environmental crisis, making it a hot social and political issue. People all over the world are changing their lifestyles, unplugging computers, flipping off light switches, riding bikes to work, recycling, and much more in their efforts to “go green.” There has also been a rise in the popularity of nature documentaries on television and even in movie theatres, and these programs are not only fascinating and emotionally riveting, but they also raise awareness about the environment and persuade audiences to care about and protect our shared physical world (Hughes, 2011). Federal organizations and offices are being established to create a national vision and strategy for increasing ocean education and awareness for both school children and the general public (Trotter, 2004). There are efforts being made to educate the public and increase awareness, and the people are responding. As long as this trend continues to grow, there is a ray of hope amidst this bleak situation. The bad news is that we are going to need significantly more than a ray of hope to beat this crisis, and there is not nearly the amount of awareness there needs to be on a global scale to fight it (Boyle, 2008). Furthermore, not enough of this awareness is turning into action. We can learn all the facts and know all there is to know about the oceans and their current predicament, but until we act on that knowledge, the oceans will remain doomed. Thousands of activists and campaigns are under way all over the world to raise awareness about the oceans and to incite people to take action to save them (Helvarg, 2001). At this point, the deciding factor will be whether those of us who know about the oceans can spread the word in time, and whether those who hear it will care enough to act.
Even with increasing environmental awareness, our oceans are clearly in a much more severe plight than we have yet realized. The downward spiral has begun: marine life is being depleted and habitat destroyed. Without these vital ecosystems, the oceans will not be able to withstand the severe pollution and rising temperatures that we are causing. In other words, not only are we the single largest cause of everything destroying the oceans, but we are also taking away and ruining all the vital parts it needs to fight and protect itself. The crisis is already at a critical point, and it is getting worse and worse by the minute. If drastic changes are not made very soon, it will be too late; we will not be able to save our oceans, and the consequences to all life on Earth will be devastating.
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