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Demise of the Deep

September 3rd, 2005 · Written by · 2 Comments

For every three tons of fish caught, one ton of “bycatch” was thrown overboard dead and dying.

The destruction of essential coastal spawning areas is exacerbating the problem. Most aquatic species rely on salt marshes, sea-grass meadows, mangroves, or kelp forests for survival during some part of their life cycle. Unfortunately, most of these areas tend to occupy valuable coastal real estate, and are replaced by golf courses, shrimp farms, marinas, and resorts. Worldwide development and pollution has degraded half of all coastal wetlands since 1900. The World Resource Institute estimates that just the loss of mangrove forests has translated into the disappearance of 4.7 million tons of commercial fish. Without these “nurseries of the sea” large numbers of marine organisms will not survive.

The advent of “dead zones,” caused mainly by the nitrogen fertilizer run-off of large scale agricultural practices, isn’t helping the situation either. Phytoplankton activity is limited by the nutrients available in the water, and excessive nitrogen leads to explosions of these microscopic organisms called “algae blooms.” The aquatic grazers can’t keep up and large amounts of dead algae fall to the ocean floor to be decomposed by bacteria — a process that consumes large quantities of oxygen. Sometimes so much oxygen is used in this process that everything else in the area must flea or face suffocation. This condition is called hypoxia.

For generations the Mississippi has been treated as an open sewer, and in Louisiana a 90-mile stretch of America’s largest river has been dubbed “Cancer Alley.” Home to 136 petrochemical plants and seven oil refineries, Cancer Alley’s facilities produce close to a billion pounds of toxins a year. Louisiana leads the nation in toxic wastes released into surface waters, and it all flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The dead zone that appears annually in the Gulf can cover more than 7,000 square miles. The world’s largest dead zone is in the Baltic, where sewage and nitrogen fallout from burning fossil fuels combine with fertilizers to over-enrich the sea. Nearly a third of the world’s dead zones are around the United States, including an infamous one in Chesapeake Bay. They also surround the coasts of Europe and Japan, and have reached China, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.

Invasive species are another more subtle but just as devastating type of pollution. When light on cargo, oceangoing tankers and container ships pump water into their holds to maintain their seaworthiness. This ballast water can contain dozens of plants and animals, most in the form of eggs, larvae, or juveniles. When this water is discharged halfway around the world, huge numbers of alien species are introduced to the surrounding environment. Some three thousand species are picked up in ballast water every day. Exotic invasions decimate ecosystems that have already been pushed to collapse by other stresses. Mnemiopsis leidyi, a type of jelly fish that will eat everything in its path, has snuffed out almost all life in the Black Sea after massive algae blooms, over fishing and pollution had destroyed just about everything else.

Meanwhile, global warming is rising worldwide ocean temperatures creating a myriad of additional problems. Warmer temperature is a key factor influencing where marine organisms can live, feed and reproduce. The warming of ocean surface layers is stressing populations and wiping out others that already live at the extremes of their temperature tolerance range. John McGowan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that since 1977 warmer oceans have caused a 70 percent decline in zooplankton-tiny animals that directly or indirectly feed all higher life. Unusually warm ocean temperatures are melting glaciers that serve as vital habitat for artic life forms and are destroying coral reefs worldwide through a process called “coral bleaching.” A 2004 report published by Queensland’s Center for Marine Studies predicts that in 50 years 95 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef-one of the seven natural wonders of the world-will be without coral.

People are feeling the consequences as damaged marine systems are being prevented from providing their “free” services. Islands are washing away during tropical storms, formally stable shorelines erode and disappear, irregular weather endangers lives, and the quality and availability of seafood diminishes daily. Throughout history cultures around the globe have utilized the mysterious depths of the seas as a means of livelihood through fishing and transportation. The oceans were considered by many to be so magnificently large that they would provide an infinite supply of resources, as well as a receptacle for any amount of waste. An industrial revolution and several population explosions later, and it’s now painfully clear that the oceans have reached their limit. A fatal combination of manmade forces are suffocating the Earth’s womb before we can even figure out how it functions.

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Tags: Essays · Nonfiction · ·

2 Comments so far ↓

  • klondyker

    While agreeing with the basic issue of over-exploitation of the oceans, I must protest at the authors’ gross exaggeration and over-simplification of the problem. The article aslo contains factual errors.
    Fairtry (later Fairtry 1) was built in Aberdeen and launched in April 1954 – not 1951 as the writer claims.
    It could not have cost multi-millions, then, but less than a million pounds at boat construction prices of 1954.

    It could not catch fish with effortless ease. It used Granton trawl nets similar to what the UK trawler fleet employed off Iceland in the early 1950’s, only slightly larger. Its large size and crew were more for processing on board than handling “whole schools of fish” as claimed.
    The demise of the Newfoundland and Greenland cod came about later as a direct result of the Canadian government’s sell-out to corporate fishing companies with its introduction of ITQ’s – tradeable rights to catch fish.
    The cod fish also suffered from the effects of global warming, – moving north from their traditional grounds.

    But the fishery could have survived if the government had cancelled the whole quota system, and permitted only small scale low-impact boats using lines and traps to harvest the fish, – as they had done until 1960. The Fisheries and Oceans Minister accepted this when in 2006 he re-opened the cod fishery for the small open boats of Newfoundland and Labrador.

    PS this contributor worked in Newfoundland for several years, and interviewed some of the original Fairtry crew. That boat was never a fiancial success. Salvesons soon gave up on the concept, and the Soviets who copied it with their Pushkin boats were not thinking about balancing the books.

  • Jason Glover

    You are right, we did get that date wrong. We apologize and a correction has been made.

    We appreciate your input. Much of the information for this article came from the book “Ocean’s End” by Colin Woodward, which is where the rest of the information you dispute came from.

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