Though we share this big, blue planet with thousands of species, human beings don’t always show the respect we should to the animal kingdom. Nowhere is that more apparent than in our waste-filled, polluted oceans and seas.
Our human waste has always found its way into our marine ecosystems, and now the situation is growing dire.
Something has to change.
We need to acknowledge our negative contributions and start solving our waste management issues before thousands of species are classified as endangered or extinct.
Here are some of the key dangers facing us now.
The Critical Importance of Ecosystems
The Earth’s oceans are massive, open environments swarming with a variety of animal and plant species. Healthy oceans are crucial for the planet’s health, but sadly, the health of ocean ecosystems is under constant threat.
Tiny krill and plankton feed many species in the ocean, including all species of fish, stingrays, cephalopods (squid and octopus), crustaceans (crabs), mollusks, and whales. Predators like sharks feed on other fish. Coral reefs provide cleaning, hiding places, and homes for various creatures.
Unfortunately, damaging fishing practices, increased ship traffic, energy exploration, coastal development, hunting, pollution, and capturing animals for use in zoos are just some of the threats facing ocean ecosystems and their populations.
The various marine ecosystems can be classified and grouped, with the various ecosystems being home to distinct organisms and having specific characteristics born from unique combinations of physical factors.
Marine ecosystems are classified as the abyssal plain (deep-sea coral, whale falls, and brine pools), polar regions like the Arctic and Antarctic, coral reefs, the deep sea, kelp forests, hydrothermal vents, mangroves, rocky shores, the open ocean, sandy shores, and salt marshes and mudflats.
There are further physical features that create marine ecosystems: tides, temperature, geology, light availability, and geography.
Ecosystems are host to a variety of organisms, and the inhabitants must adapt to the physical conditions of their ecosystem. Organisms that live in the deep sea have evolved by creating their own light source, for example. And there remain many parts of the ocean unexplored where there is much to learn.
But, even those deepest, unknown parts of the ocean are under threat from man.
Specific Threats to Marine Animals
There have been recent attempts to curb the incidents of human garbage reaching the ocean. But, it’s not just our garbage that poses an immediate threat to marine animals. Man-made accidents release toxins into the ocean that can kill thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of marine animals.
In January of 2018, an Iranian tanker sank in the East China Sea, causing a rapidly spreading oil spill. This was an immediate threat to sea life and bird life. The oil slicks reached more than 52 square miles in size, threatening the marine ecosystems between China and Japan.
This water pathway is not only heavily trafficked, but it is a spawning ground for several species of edible sea life. The underwater poisons being leaked from the tanker will significantly damage the area and marine life. And yet, there are still other examples of ecosystem damage from oil disasters.
Naomi Kline, of The Guardian, visited the ravaged waters of the Southeast after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. “Earlier that day, I travelled through nearby marshes in a shallow water boat. Fish were jumping in waters encircled by white boom, the strips of thick cotton and mesh BP is using to soak up the oil. The circle of fouled material seemed to be tightening around the fish like a noose. Nearby, a red-winged blackbird perched atop a 7ft blade of oil-contaminated marsh grass. Death was creeping up the cane; the small bird may as well have been standing on a lit stick of dynamite.”
The question becomes, “How long will it take for an ecosystem this ravaged to be restored and made whole?" The answer is simply that no one knows. Alaskan fisheries have still not fully recovered from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Sadly, some species of fish never returned to that area.
Beyond the direct damage to species of animal and plant life, the marine ecosystems are also being damaged.
Threats to Marine Ecosystems
Most recently, the United States’ gulf coast was affected by red tide. Red tide is caused by an overgrowth of microscopic algae. While this is normally a natural occurrence, once the red tide reaches the shores, the algae grows rapidly using man-made nutrients, like fertilizer.
Runoff of products like fertilizer only feed the dangerous algae. The resulting red tide creates toxins that sicken or kill fish, turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals. This most recent red tide resulted in the deaths of hundreds of grouper, eel, trout, tarpon, snook, baitfish, and hardhead catfish. The Florida Wildlife Commission also confirmed the deaths of 92 manatees and 9 bottlenose dolphins.
Besides events like the recent red tide, damage to the marine ecosystem can be a result of global climate change. The oceans absorb more than 90% of the excess CO2 pumped into the atmosphere. This causes changes in the base temperature of the ocean, known as thermal expansion.
The thermal expansion of the oceans led to the highest global sea level on record in 2015. The Western Pacific and Indian Oceans are expanding most quickly. Overall, the seas are rising approximately 3.3mm a year.
The NOAA reported the Arctic’s lowest sea ice extent in 2015. The Greenland ice sheet also experienced unprecedented melting across more than 50% of the sheet.
These changes are causing large walrus herds to bring themselves out of the ice and on to land. Common Arctic marine species like snailfish and polar cod, are being bombarded by species coming from the south.
Closely connected to the global climate change is how the CO2 in the water creates high acidity in our oceans. After absorbing nearly 25% of the CO2 created by burning fossil fuels, our oceans’ basic chemistry is being altered. This is dangerous for sea life with shells or skeletons made of calcium carbonate, like mollusks, corals, and crabs, as it affects their ability to grow.
Ocean acidification can also limit survival prospects for some species in their early lives. Scientists have discovered that within the next 80 years, the size of Atlantic cod in the Baltic and Barents Sea might be reduced to only a quarter of the size they are today, because of acidification.
Acidification is progressing rapidly throughout all of our oceans, according to recent research, and it is proving to be deadly. Marine organisms that could once withstand some acidification could lose this adaptive ability.
While these threats can all be linked directly to the actions of humans, we are also making efforts to conserve our ocean ecosystems.
Marine Conservation Efforts
Many countries have taken the initiative to conserve natural habitats and protect marine wildlife.
The Mexican government has designated a large marine reserve around the Revillagigedo Archipelago (a group of islands off the southwest coast of Mexico), home to hundreds of species including whales, rays, and sea turtles. At 57,000 square miles (150,000km), it is now the largest ocean reserve in North America.
The area has been dubbed “the Galapagos of North America” due to its unique ecology. It sits in the convergence of two ocean currents that host open water and migratory species. The area hosts hundreds of species of ocean wildlife, including humpback whales that breed in the coastal areas around the islands.
In 2014, then President Obama made efforts to conserve a great swath of the Central Pacific Ocean, protecting it from the influences of man, energy exploration, and the fishing industry. President Obama also directed federal agencies to develop a program allowing the public to nominate new marine sanctuaries off U.S. coasts and in the Great Lakes.
The expansion of the area would quintuple the number of underwater mountains under protection. It could also stop tuna fishing and offer shelter to almost 24 species of marine mammals, 5 kinds of threatened sea turtles, and a variety of sharks.
The governments of North America are not alone in their efforts. The British government, in 2014, considered creating a marine sanctuary around the Pitcairn Islands. Anote Tong, president of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, closed an area approximately the size of California to commercial fishing.
The continuing efforts of nations around the world are critical in not only maintaining current ecosystems but in allowing marine life to flourish and repopulate in its natural environment.
Mankind’s contribution to the horrors currently adrift in our oceans is undeniable. But we have the power in our very hands to curb the dangerous tides that threaten our marine ecosystems and wildlife.
More care and control of our human waste is the first step. And while we cannot always predict accidents, like oil spills, it is our duty to have solutions at the ready when such things occur.