Last Call for a Living Ocean

Edward Dorson, June 2012

The siege upon the ocean is now in its final convulsion. Nearly all marine species are enduring forces that are outpacing their ability to reproduce and adapt to a deteriorating environment. Overfishing, pollution, climate chaos, dissolving reefs and shellfish by spewing CO2...all besiege the ocean. The assault on terrestrial species and habitat, as bad as it is, pales in comparison.

There's no time for piecemeal solutions. The International Energy Agency issued a no-nonsense deadline in their annual World Energy Outlook in November of 2011 [1]. They revealed that Earth would lock-in runaway feedback loops by 2017 if fossil fuel use continued to increase. We have 5 crucial years to level out on fossil fuel extraction and emissions while halting the degradation of vital greenhouse gas sinks: soil, tundra, forest and ocean. While acquisitive lifestyles depend on more fossil fuel, life depends on less.

Recently, scientists at the International Program on the State of the Ocean assessed the ocean's condition regarding the impacts of global warming, acidification and overfishing [2]. They concluded that the ocean would soon approach irreversible, potentially catastrophic change. The result is unequivocal: "If the ocean continues to decline it will reach a point where it can no longer function effectively and Earth will be unable to sustain ecosystems that support humankind."

Without exaggeration, a ruined ocean rivals a massive asteroid strike in orders of magnitude. As the ocean is a key component in Earth's life-support, this looming disaster will severely impact life on land as well [3]. 65 million years ago, Earth's 5th mass extinction event destroyed 85% of life when an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan peninsula. This time around, we're the asteroid.

Tragically, despite dire warnings from peer-reviewed science, no meaningful action is underway. The perpetual growth myth and willful ignorance remain the status quo even though our own survival is at stake. People are a part of nature, its domination is an ingrained conceit we can no longer indulge. The answer lies in our capacity to foresee and forestall. Unlike an asteroid, we possess a precious gift: the ability to alter course.

While unsafe acid and greenhouse gas levels are already embedded in the biosphere, overfishing is a huge stressor that can be readily eliminated. We can rapidly reduce fishing pressure and expand marine protected areas. Government subsidies for fishing fleets must cease, while only science-based legislation should govern management of the seas. Navies and coastal patrols can enforce maritime law in a global campaign to seize all illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels.

Artisanal boats can achieve sustainability by monitoring catches through local consensus and using selective methods such as handline fishing. Conversely, roaming nomadic ships indiscriminately decimate the high seas with mechanized efficiency, such as netting entire schools that gather beneath fish aggregating devices (FADs). Using longlines, trawls, purse seines and driftnets, these vessels ultimately produce famine rather than nourishment. After an area is fished-out, they simply move on to ravage the next fishery. Such ships must be recognized as weapons of mass destruction in an ongoing attack and acted upon in terms of disarmament. Confiscated vessels can be refitted for benign use, cut up for scrap or sunk. After decontamination, sunken ships offer replenishment as new habitat.

All the rhetoric about marine preservation is about one single goal: to curtail economic ruthlessness to ensure the ocean's vitality for the sake of its inhabitants and, in return, a habitable world. Once the full consequence of greed-driven exploitation is realized, that unsustainable practices will devastate young and future generations, reason and integrity can spur individual lifestyle change [4] and collective systemic change. As for the latter, government can be made to act, but only with broad public involvement demanding an all-out offensive to end the ocean's ruin.

Saving the ocean is nothing less than our most immediate and profound planetary challenge. The seas can still possibly rebound, but only if the carnage is reversed with a surge of action based on precaution, protection and restoration. When those we love face imminent danger, we'll use all means necessary to defend them. By extension, we must be equally determined to defend the life of an ocean which sustains all we love.


4. Individual action is given in "Staring at the Edge of the Abyss" under "Commentary", above.