Can Our Oceans Survive?
Published: July 27, 2008
As director of The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., Frances Gulland sees firsthand the effects of the oceans’ deteriorating state. Her patients have included cancer-stricken sea lions whose tumors are thought to be associated with PCBs, sea otters infected by a parasite linked to run-off, and fur seals sickened by toxic algae. These animals act as “an early warning system,” says Gulland. “All these things could happen to us.”
A recent study led by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, Calif., found that close to half of the oceans are “fairly degraded,” and only 3.7% show little or no impact from human activity. Oceans help keep the environment healthy by absorbing carbon dioxide. But now the results of that intake are evident. The seas have risen, warmed, and acidified worldwide. Those changes, combined with overfishing, have caused 90% of our big fish to disappear, according to Leon Panetta, co-chair of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative. “Pollution has led to almost 26,000 U.S. beaches being temporarily closed or put under advisories,” he adds, “ and nearly 90% of our wetlands, the nurseries for fish, have vanished due to development. The oceans are in crisis.”
The U.S. government spends relatively little on the sea. Around $18,700 per square mile goes to the National Park System, while $400 per square mile goes to its ocean counterpart, the National Marine Sanctuary System. Private charities show a similar trend. “Close to 99% of conservation dollars donated go to land causes, and 1% to oceans,” says Debra Erickson, executive director of the nonprofit Kerzner Marine Foundation (KMF). “But over 70% of the Earth is covered by oceans.”
Lack of public attention may be due to the sea’s placid appearance. “You look at the surface, and it looks fine,” says Prof. Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University in Corvallis. “Yet below the surface is a whole different story.” The Blue Project—a collaboration among KMF, other nonprofits, and Kerzner’s Atlantis resort in the Bahamas—is trying to educate people about what’s happening underwater, specifically with coral reefs. Atlantis visitors can go scuba diving or snorkeling and see the stark difference between a healthy reef filled with colorful creatures and a degraded one that contains bleached coral and not much else. “When you see a reef that has the proper number of fish in it vs. one that doesn’t, it takes your breath away,” says Erickson. —Daryl Chen