How can we protect the Oceans?

How can we protect the Oceans?
Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC
Recently I wrote about the extraordinary rate of extinction which is currently taking place across the globe and the effort of conservationists to bring species back from the brink. I pointed out that each year it is estimated that 100,000 species become extinct which is 1000 more than before humans began to impact the planet in a destructive way with the rise the industrial era. The examples I gave last week were of land animals. But it is unfortunately true that we are also damaging our oceans at an extraordinary rate.
Early in 2015, a team of scientists examined data from hundreds of sources and concluded that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and the all the life living there. Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is one of the authors of the report which was published in the magazine Science. The data he has studied makes it clear that “we may be sitting on a precipice of major extinction event.”[1]   The report claims that humans are harming the oceans to a remarkable degree. Some ocean species are overharvested. But large-scale habitat loss is also occurring which is very serious. Coral reefs, for example, have declined by 40 percent worldwide. This has been caused by climate-change warming of the oceans and deforestation in the tropics. Even though they constitute only 1 per cent of the ocean seabed, coral reefs are home to 25 percent of the species of the ocean. [2]In ‘Laudato Si’ Pope Francis also laments the destruction of coral reefs. He points out that “many of the world’s coral reefs are already barren or in a state of constant decline.” He goes on to quote from a pastoral letter of the Bishops of the Philippines, published in 1998, entitled What is Happening to Our Beautiful Land which asks “who turned the wonderworld of the seas into cemeteries bereft of colour and life?” (No.41).
Fragile ecosystems like mangroves are being replaced by fish farms, and hotels. Huge trawlers drag enormous nets across the bottom of the oceans turning the continental shelf into rubble. Already 20 million square miles of the sea floor have been destroyed. Laudato Si bemoans the destruction of mangroves. (No 39).
Mining has the potential to do enormous damage to the oceans. In the year 2000 there were no contracts for mining in the oceans. Today contracts for seabed mining cover 460,000 square miles of oceans. Seabed mining has the potential to tear up unique ecosystems and introduce pollution into the deep sea.
Another impact from increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is that it is altering the chemistry of seawater, making it more acidic. Dr. Pinskey a marine biologist at Rutgers University, compares what is happening to the oceans, to someone turning up the heat in her/his aquarium and throwing in some acid as well. She is clear that the fish would not like it. “In effect, that’s what we’re doing to the oceans.”[3]
She is well aware that “the impacts are accelerating, but they’re not so bad we can’t reverse them.”[4] The oceans are still mostly intact and they are wild enough to bounce back to health if they are given a chance. Dr. McCauley insists that there is time for humans to halt the damage with effective programmes limiting the exploitation of the oceans. “The tiger may not be salvageable in the wild — but the tiger shark may well be”[5], he said.
One important tool is to limit the industrialization of the oceans to some regions, which would allow threatened species to move there and build up their population. In recent weeks Britain has increased the number of conservation zones to 50. Critics point out that this is very much below the 127 sites which were recommended in a government consultation. According to Professor Callum Roberts of the University of York, a leading marine conservation expert, “we need more because the network we have is far from complete.”[6]
There is also a major concern that conservation zones would be properly managed. Professor Roberts points out that six years after the Marine Act and Coastal Access was passed “they still have no management at all, so life within them remains unprotected.” Most of all we need to wake up the dangers facing oceans before it is too late.
[1] Carl Zimmer, Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction, Broad Study Says, New York Times, January 15, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/16/science/earth/study-raises-alarm-for-health-of-ocean-life.html?_r=0
[2] Erk van Sebille, “Coral reefs are not just pretty – they are vital to life”, The Observer, October 11th 2015, page 36/
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid
[6] Damian Carrington “Dolphins, spoonbills, coral … can marine parks save our sea life?” The Observer, January 17th 2016, page 12 and 13

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One Comment

  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Fukushima was a signal to everyone. The number one threat to oceans world-wide are coastal nuclear power plants. Our weather is becoming more extreme and with that, the possibility that sea water will again breach a nuclear site. This is unacceptable for right now and to avoid it in the future is paramount. It’s not effective to clean up the oceans and still have this technological abomination looming on the sidelines. The problems associated with industrial development are long term and controllable yet without an event of epic proportions that is going to call to question the very world we live in immediately, it seems like an uphill battle. Profitability is a dangerous thing and causes us to do reckless things.
    I’m happy to see more attention come from your corner regarding Laudato ‘si but I for one would like to see more work done by the ACP (Global and in Ireland) focusing on the thousands of people world-wide who have been affected by endocrine disrupting chemicals during their lifetime and more specifically at birth. Within them is the fight (and class-action lawsuit) that could bring the chemical companies to their knees. That is what we need right now to advance Pope Francis’s wishes and to better serve mankind’s future. Those who are environmentally “sick” have a voice that calls from the wilderness and a resolve to see these reforms push through unlike any other.

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