We can' t continue to ignore the failing health of our oceans
- June 23, 2011 9:43 AM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks
By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks
An international report released this week, called State of the Ocean, suggests time is running out on the colourful coral reefs and pristine waters pictured in holiday travel brochures.
According to the multidisciplinary team of scientists, marine species are being lost at a rate rivaling that of the extinction 65 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs. Except this time, we are the dinosaurs at the top of the food chain with the most to lose.
While the report did not really tell us anything we haven't heard before - collapsing cod stocks on the East Coast and salmon stocks on the West Coast, toxic algae blooms, melting ice caps, etc. - it did say that the oceans are changing faster than anyone imagined. It's a rather scary scenario, as our demands on the ocean for food continue to grow.
So can we turn it around?
In fact, a model for effective global change already exists: the Clean Air Act. Like the oceans today, the air was used for decades as a dumping ground for our waste. There was no regard for whatever came out of smokestacks or exhaust pipes, because the air would always just blow it away. Out of sight and out of mind. But in the 1970s, the pollution came back to us in the form of brown smog hanging over cities. You could see it, taste it and feel the pain in your lungs.
Clearly, something had to be done.
While scientists waved red flags about the effects of air pollution on human health, politicians responded with legislation demanding a wide variety of changes, including catalytic converters on automotive exhaust systems, scrubbers in industrial smoke stacks, as well as a host of serious fines for polluting the air. And while there is still a long way to go, the air over North American and European cities today is vastly more breathable than it was decades ago - thanks to effective political action.
Now the scientists are raising a red flag about the health of the oceans, so it's time for the political process to respond again with effective legislation.
The problem, however, is far more complicated this time because it's not simply a matter of stopping our pollution of the oceans, as we did with the air. There's the complex matter of the fish.
With so many countries around the world depending on the ocean for their food, it will be tricky enforcing fishing quotas, especially in areas where the population is growing and agricultural land is being taken over by city sprawl.
The United Nations agreement on the Law of the Sea states that outside of offshore boundaries, no one owns the ocean. That leaves it wide open to abuse, with no ability to enforce penalties. The ocean is simply too large to patrol effectively.
But fish know no boundaries.
Losing the vitality of the oceans means more than facing a shortage of food for the future. There is only one interconnected ocean on planet Earth and it affects everything above and around it. The oceans are the lungs of the planet. Most of the oxygen we breathe comes from phytoplankton, microscopic plants floating in seawater. There's more phytoplankton than there are trees.
Tropical storms and hurricanes are fuelled by warm seawater. The warmer it gets, the more violent the storms become. El Nino and La Nina ocean currents affect the climate of continents, while the entire ocean moderates the climate of the planet as a whole.
And then there is the fact that all life came from the sea, so we owe our very existence to it.
If human activity does cause an extinction event in the oceans on the scale of the dinosaur demise, which these scientists say is very likely, the oceans will not actually die. Mass extinctions have happened many times in the past and, each time, new forms of life replace those that were lost. So, instead of finding colourful fish, stingrays and sea turtles, snorkelers in the future might be swimming through a murky green ooze, covering what was once a vital sea floor.
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