Our war on the ocean
The World Ocean. She’s comprised of our four major oceans. She is so enormous we have only explored 5% of her with two thirds of marine species still undiscovered. The ocean holds 97% of our water, controls the world’s weather and temperatures, absorbs carbon and releases oxygen. Ultimately, all living creatures depend on her good health for our survival. Yet for centuries we’ve used her as both a dump and a primary food source. We pour our chemicals and throw our trash into her, then depend on her to sustain Earth and all who live upon it.
Half of the world lives on the coast, and until recently we thought we were so infinitesimal in comparison to our oceans that we could never overexploit them. This turned out to be an incorrect assumption, and all four oceans are dying. The intensity of which we use and abuse our oceans has created a near catastrophic environmental situation where scientists are now predicting the death of sealife and ultimately the death of the ocean itself.
We’ve overharvested species, interrupted fragile ecosystems, dumped toxins, destroyed habitats, melted polar regions and raised the global temperature. As a result, the world is in trouble. This blog is a quick summary of how we’ve done this and what we can do to prevent further devastation.
Ice caps are melting, oceans are warming and beaches are receding. As we keep breeding livestock and burning fossil fuels, the atmosphere continues to heat and the ocean continues to absorb that heat. Unfortunately, ocean creatures are far more sensitive to temperature changes than land dwellers. Even the slightest temperature increase causes vast coral bleaching, killing off food sources for other creatures. Also easily affected by rising temperatures are krill, a primary food source for animals such as penguins and seals who are also a primary food source for the apex predators of the ocean. An increase in temperatures affects all along the food chain. NASA findings show that the polar ice cap shrinks by almost 1% per year and thins at the same rate. That number is actually enormous because it means that the polar ice cap could completely disappear in one person’s lifetime. As solid water turns liquid this leads to the loss of low lying islands, coastal areas and wetlands. For 30 years Kiribati residents have been sandbagging their homes against rising sea levels, and their country has gone as far as to purchase a plot of land in Fiji for them to flee to once their homes are underwater. Warmer oceans also means fiercer tropical storms (if you missed primary school science cyclones form over warm water). As seas get warmer and higher, storms get fiercer and more deadly. Just ask Sydney.
2048. That’s our predicted date for total ocean extinction, only 33 years away. And it is not a lightly made prediction, this is very solid science built off decades of data. I was born on the coast and grew up in the ocean, but the oceans will be dead before I’m 60 and seafood will be a childhood memory. Due to our high levels of overfishing we’ve severely depleted 29% of seafood species. We are eating endangered species, and soon they won’t exist. All species have a role to play in the rich biodiversity of the oceans, and the undue extinction of one species can lead to the slow collapse of the food chain and imbalances in water quality and oxygen levels. Interfering with the biodiversity in such a way causes algal blooms, dead zones, fish extinctions and coastal flooding. WWF estimates that we’re fishing at 250% the rate at which the ocean can sustain itself. Unfortunately increases in technology that allows more efficient fishing was not met with increases in intelligence or wisdom and the biodiversity of the ocean is reaching the tipping point it cannot pull back from.
We know about the cruelty of shark finning, whaling and turtle hunting. Since Westerners don’t traditionally eat these animals, we understand these acts of violence are immoral. However we’re not so compassionate to the species we are culturally used to eating, and rarely deign interest in the suffering of our fish friends. Fish communicate with each other verbally and physically, fish take solace in the company of others, fish enjoy physical contact with their companions, fish play games, fish build nests for their young, and fish learn to complete puzzles and use tools. Like us, fish feel pain and strive to avoid suffering. When they’re scared, they flee. When they’re in pain, they try to move away from what is causing them pain. Because of their central nervous system, pain feels the same to them as it does to us. And do you know what hurts? Drowning. Fish take water in their mouth and push it over their gills to filter the water from the dissolved oxygen. When they are pulled out of the water by a hook through the mouth (ouchie) they can no longer breathe through their gills, which is why they appear to be gasping for breath. Because they are gasping for breath, just like we would be in a room filled with smoke. They’re gasping for air that does not come until they slowly suffocate to death, or you slit their throat to put them out of their painful misery. Every day we murder millions of fish in a very horrifying way, but nobody ever wants to talk about it.
Bycatch is an inherent aspect of both overfishing and animal cruelty, but given the size of the problem I deemed it worth of its own subheading. A carry-on from the inherent cruelty in fishing mentioned above is the problem of animals caught incidentally. (An ethical dilemma most choose to pretend isn’t happening.) “Bycatch” is any animal caught that is the wrong species or the wrong age or gender of the intended species. This includes dolphins, birds and turtles. Fishing nets are not selective in who they catch and drown, targeting any creature that is unfortunate to swim into them. 3 million sharks and over 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die in fishing nets every year as incidental byproducts of the industry. This is the largest killer of cetaceans and two species of dolphin currently face extinction if the fishing method continues. Six out of seven species of turtles are also endangered. So many critically endangered species are on the brink as they’re being slaughtered for no purpose, only to be discarded back into the ocean as if they never mattered at all. And we accept this as normal, routine even. Just so we can have that piece of fish next to our chips.
Dolphins killed in bycatch as mentioned above is always a problem, but there is more that directly threatens the dolphin. There is both the horror of Taiji Bay and the deliberate choice to kill dolphins in the tuna industry. Traditionally fisheries follow dolphins to the schools of tuna and net the dolphins along with the tuna, killing the dolphins in the process. The effect of this fishing technique is so dire that the bottlenose dolphin population of the Black Sea dropped from one million in 1950 to 10,000 in 1995. In just 45 years the fishing industry almost wiped out bottlenose dolphins. We have since developed opt-in “dolphin safe” labels that allow well-behaved fisheries to earn the title, yet unethical tuna companies remain common household names, killing thousands of dolphins a year. Brands to avoid are Greenseas, Sole Mare, IGA, Woolworths and John West. Even those that call themselves “dolphin safe” come under fire due to the self-reporting nature of their kill rates. What’s a little white lie to get that nice-looking label on your tin? However, even more dolphins are killed each year in the crime against Mother Nature that is Taiji Bay. Taiji Bay in Japan is the scene of mass slaughter every year as they drive in herds of dolphins to the bay, net them in then slowly kill off each dolphin one by one. 20,000 dolphins die there every single year. The main purpose of the slaughter is for meat, but the second purpose is to harvest dolphins to place in prisons marine parks all over the world. This is one of the many reasons vegans boycott Seaworld. Learn more about that here.
Water pollution and plastic waste
Over 80% of water pollution comes from land-based activities. Run-off is killing our oceans. Oil, fertilisers, manure, sewage, garbage and toxic chemicals are poured directly into the lifeblood of the Earth, and we just cross our fingers and hope it doesn’t matter. But it definitely does matter. Large-scale agriculture, in particular the industrial feedlots for factory farmed animals, are a major contributor. Antibiotic-filled faeces, strong fertilisers and all sort of crap (literally) is washed off industrial plots into the waterways to find its way out to the ocean where it causes algal bloom dead zones that deplete the waters oxygen and kill anything unlucky enough to swim into one. The same goes for untreated human sewage, just at a lower volume. We also use the ocean as a trash can which has formed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is now 19 million square kilometers. 19 million. Sea animals constantly confuse plastic with food and die slow, painful deaths when plastic doesn’t digest but their stomachs are full so they starve to death. They can choke on plastic bags or get plastic rings stuck around their neck, which is why they drum into your head to always cut the milk-top rings in primary school. Then there are all the world’s variety of toxic chemicals that infiltrate water, soil, and air during their manufacture, use or disposal. Once out there, people assume they dissipate but that’s not entirely true. These chemicals can travel the planet on the ocean currents and are absorbed by the bodies of the smallest animals then continue to concentrate as the chemicals move up the food chain. Animals higher up the food chain can have chemical contamination levels millions of times higher than the water they live in. Polar bears have been found to have 3 billion times the contamination level of their environment. Humans then go on to eat the contaminated sea animals along this food chain which is increasingly becoming known to science as a cause of cancer, behavioural problems and fertility issues. Why do you think there’re rules about how much fish pregnant women can eat?
What we can do
The above issues come down to two things we all do: eating meat and buying unsustainable products. What we eat and what we buy matters. Where we spend our money matters. And it matters dearly to the fate of the Earth and all who live on it. But there are a few easy changes you can make to protect our oceans and slow climate change.
- Stop eating seafood, the oceans can’t sustain us killing its inhabitants and it’s unethical to brutalise animals for no purpose.
- Stop eating red meat and dairy completely, the livestock industry worsens climate change and pollutes the ocean too much to be sustainable. Limiting red meat just isn’t enough to fix this catastrophic problem.
- Buy organic fruit and veg whenever you can afford it.
- Avoid plastic wherever possible.
- Produce less waste in general.
- Don’t litter and always recycle or compost.
- Avoid unnecessary chemicals (e.g. use homemade cleaning products).
- Dispose of chemicals properly, don’t wash them down drains.
- Use less energy in the home.
- Switch to alternative means of transport and energy wherever possible.
- Don’t support dirty industry, vote with your dollar.