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If Our Oceans Die, So Do We

Photo by Byran Scott @ Flickr

By Hannah Hughes, Legends Report Writer

Imagine this. You are a shark – a declining species essential for overall marine health – on the hunt for your first meal in 45 days. You rely on your sense of smell and the water vibrations to reveal the location of your food, but the vibrations do not come. Prey has shrunk once again, this time – like every time – a record amount, and you can’t find any food; the ocean once abundant with colourful fish and pods of seals is now an eerie underwater ghost town of coral carcasses and empty blue. You could dive down deeper in your search, but the lower oxygen-deprived waters mean that it would be too much of a struggle for your gills. As global warming causes ocean deoxygenation to spread, suitable habitats become off limits and you are forced to crowd in areas near the ocean surface where more oxygen is found. But being able to breathe comes with the consequence of making yourself more vulnerable to fishing, or worse, getting caught as bycatch (unwanted species accidentally caught in fishing nets) along with the other annual tens of millions of sharks, then having your expensive fins hacked off and your dead body tossed back overboard.

Dismally, sharks are just one of the 2,270 species endangered from the declining health of our oceans. Global warming, illegal fishing, and bycatch have disastrous consequences for marine life, but the ramifications are not limited to those underwater. Problems flood over onto land when the thermal expansion of water causes sea levels to rise and overfishing threatens food security. Such issues have been expertly brought to light in the documentary Seaspiracy, as well as drawing attention to actions more vital than simply terminating plastic straws. 

We need to acknowledge the consequences of our activities and refrain from damaging our oceans for the convenience of our lifestyles. By living with more awareness and compassion for our world, we can restore marine health and allow underwater species to live in harmony. It is possible for our oceans to recover, but only if our collective conscience as humanity increases.  

How Are Human Activities Damaging Our Oceans?

Deoxygenation And Carbon Increase

Our oceans are on track to lose 3-4% of their oxygen levels by 2100. Global warming is the most salient cause of oxygen loss, as warmer waters are less able to hold the gas. Oceans need oxygen to support organism growth and sustain populations, otherwise the fragile balance of marine life will topple into uncontrollable turmoil as species inevitably decline. Not only this, but oxygen deprived waters produce nitrous oxide – a lethal greenhouse gas – hence furthering the hastening of global warming. 

“95% of all carbon is stored in the ocean.”

- Seaspiracy

As well as losing oxygen, our oceans are gaining carbon. Dissolved carbon makes oceans more acidic, changing the balance of minerals in the water. This means that marine organisms – such as phytoplankton and coral – cannot produce their protective plates or shells as acidification makes calcium carbonate less available. The change in pH level decreases coral growth and warming water triggers the vast infestation of coral bleaching: the process of expelling symbiotic algae, causing stressed coral to turn white. Coral bleaching has affected more than half of the Great Barrier Reef – the biggest coral reef system in the world – with scientists fearing the damage is too severe to recover.

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Overfishing, Illegal Fishing, And Bycatch

“5 million fish are killed every single minute. No other industry on Earth has killed as many animals.”

Seaspiracy

Overfishing is a prevalent strain on our oceans. It is estimated that 90% of tuna, swordfish, large cod, and sharks have been hauled out of our oceans for profit. Overfishing happens when stocks are caught faster than they can replenish; this can lead to extinction and completely unravel the integrated food chain, forcing predators to eat prey they wouldn’t ordinarily, or causing other species to reign as their predators decline. 

For example, the decline of large sharks has led to the increase of rays (shark prey) which in turn has lead to the decrease of smaller fish that rays feast on – everything is interconnected. 

Overfishing also increases food scarcity for the human population, which is particularly acute for poor communities that rely on seafood.

Illegal fishing occurs worldwide and is extremely hard to regulate. It often occurs at night and in poor conditions, meaning fishermen are more likely to lose their plastic nets in stormy weather or be forced to chuck them into the sea when they become entwined; some illegal vessels voluntarily toss their fishing equipment overboard to avoid being caught. Abandoned equipment devastates wildlife, murdering an annual 136,000 whales, seals, turtles, and other species when they become entangled in nets. Not to mention that illegal fishing can come with a disturbing chunk of human rights abuses.

“46% of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is plastic fishing nets.”

– Seaspiracy

Large fishing nets mean that bycatch is almost impossible to avoid. An annual 38 million tonnes of marine species are accidentally caught, many of which are endangered, including 300,000 whales and dolphins. A lot of the bycatch is tossed back overboard – injured, dying, or dead – or ditched on land, unnecessarily disrupting the food chain and pushing many species into extinction.

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Dying Biodiversity

Diversity makes ecosystems more resilient to change, but ocean diversity is in drastic decline. More than 33% of all marine mammals are at risk of extinction, as well as nearly 1/3 of sharks and shark relatives. 

One cause for this is water currents, which transfer heat, oxygen, and nutrients around the ocean; but global warming alters the path of these currents, enforcing unreliability on marine species who desperately need reliability. Many species with limited mobility are dependent on ocean currents to bring food and nutrients, so when the currents change course, the creatures are forced to find solutions, otherwise starve and die.

Rising ocean temperatures are causing different animal behaviour patterns; over 80% are changing their breeding patterns, migration routes and schedule, and feeding practices. This causes less reproductive success and different predator-prey relationships. 

Increased temperatures in Antarctic waters are killing krill – the main food source for humpback whales – meaning that whales are slowly starving. This causes their birth rate to drop when whales migrate to the equator, and the mortality rate of calves to rocket.

Humpback whales are also migrating earlier and further due to warmer temperatures, which can cause problems for the abundance of prey found in their feeding grounds. 

Such trends are not only causing issues for underwater species, but also land animals. Warmer waters mean that sockeye salmon – Alaskan bears’ food source – are migrating earlier, leaving less food for the bears when they come out of hibernation. 

Global warming is not the only way humans are destroying biodiversity: underwater noise pollution from shipping, drilling, and military sonar is disrupting important animal sound waves. 

This racket blocks vital means of communication for wildlife, disabling them to find prey, avoid predators, navigate the oceans, and find mates. Studies have found that noise pollution puts stress on whales and dolphins, which can result in organ vascular damage and decompression sickness (the panic causes them to surface too quickly), leading to their death. Their lifeless bodies are often found washed up on lonely shores.

What Can Be Done?

A single person is not going to stop the downfall of our ocean’s health, however a lot of a little can make a big impact. This is a job for as many of us as possible: we can all make choices that reduce our carbon footprint and live with more awareness of the interconnectedness of life around us. Below I have listed two key ways we can help clean up the devastation we have subjected our oceans to.

Lifestyle changes are hard to make, and even harder to stick to because it can be uncomfortable to give up certain behaviours. What I would encourage you to do more than anything is to surround yourself with people who feel the same way, talk with friends about these issues, watch Seaspiracy together, make a commitment with your family or friends to eat less fish.

The key to changing our habits and lifestyles isn't just about us, but who we spend our time with and what attitudes they have. If you'd like to connect with others who are also making these changes, then reply at the bottom of this article or contact us on the live chat below. It's through connecting with others that we can make the changes and have the accountability we need.

Do Not Eat Fish

“The single best thing I can do everyday to protect the ocean and marine life is simply not to eat them.”

– Seaspiracy

Toxins, heavy metals, and microplastics are often found inside fish meat. Eating contaminated fish can cause poisons to build up internally and lead to serious health issues. It can take over 5 years for the body to rid itself of PCBs (a man-made toxin) found in fish, and pregnant women can pass any of the toxins - including mercury - onto their growing fetus. The healthiest option for humans and the planet is to not eat fish. 

Don’t be tricked by sustainable fish products – this includes those claiming to be dolphin-safe – because as explained in Seaspiracy, it is impossible to ensure that fishing methods employed in the middle of the ocean – where there is surprisingly no CCTV – are safe and sustainable. Likewise, it is impossible to prevent dolphin bycatch when using such large commercial fishing nets. If you want to help restore the oceans, then fish is off the menu. 

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Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Global warming is a huge culprit of declining ocean health. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will cool down our boiling planet, allowing our oceans to regain their balance. Some of the ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions include walking, cycling, using public transport, or hybrid vehicles as your form of transport; powering homes and businesses with renewable energy such as solar, wind, or hydro; changing diets with the seasons to avoid consuming food that has travelled across the country – or world – to get to you; and avoid single-use plastic as this conjures up mass amounts of carbon.

We Are Dependent On Ocean Health

Our oceans are in crisis. Soon, the whole planet will be. It is essential that we cut our carbon emissions and stop – or at least reduce – our seafood intake to reverse the destruction that we are responsible for. We need to spread awareness of the damage and put pressure on governments to implement serious fishing policies. If we improve our lifestyles for the benefit of our planet’s health, what will follow will make a huge impact.

We can give marine species back their quality of life; we can rebalance the food chain and allow endangered creatures to excel once more; we can stop the noise and plastic pollution that distresses wildlife, often subjecting them to slow, painful deaths. It is clear that ocean health is essential for our health, because as stated in Seaspiracy, if the oceans die, so do we.

Here's the trailer for the documentary Seaspiracy...

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