How we (almost) killed the oceans!

How rapacious and unthinking a creature are we humans?

When it comes to the world’s oceans, on this watery planet, our actions have been unconscionable indeed, driven apparently by two sad dimensions of our blinkered perspective. Out of sight, out of mind is a big reason why even many conservationists and environmentalists failed to realize (and some continue to underestimate) the sheer magnitude of our crimes against the marine realms. The other problem, historically, has been the perception that the ocean is so vast — and it certainly seems so to the eyes of tiny bipedal primates wading into the shallows from a beach — that it must surely be able to absorb everything we throw at it and pour into it! How can the actions of puny terrestrial humans affect such vast unfathomable realms of mystery? Our comprehension of scale — the true scale of our impact in relation to the scale of the oceans — has lagged far behind our newfound abilities to lay waste to vast stretches of land and sea. And our senses aren’t catching up fast enough to arrest, let alone reverse, the damage.

Last week, NPR’s Talk of the Nation hosted Sylvia Earle and Enric Sala, both National Geographic Explorers in Residence, in a wide-ranging (and often eye-opening for this landlubber) discussion of the incredible beauty of the ocean realm, as well as our impacts thereupon and how we have pushed marine ecosystems to the brink all over the world. They both tried to end with messages of hope, but its damned difficult to maintain optimism when you realize just how badly we have damaged the oceans, and how we aren’t even slowing down our unbridled consumption of the sea’s resources. Listen to the conversation, and tell me where you glimpse any rays of hope:

Also last week came some fresh evidence of our crimes against the oceans: an estimate of our visible impacts on that invisible realm, the deep seafloor. According to this press release from the UK’s National Oceanography Center, our collective hunger for seafood, and the horrendous trawling we do to capture our prey and all else in our path by dragging massive nets across the seabed, leaves by far the biggest visible footprint on the deep seafloor. And its not a pretty picture:

This is a damaged cold-water coral reef off Troms county, Norway: coral debris and trawl marks.

Click here for more information.

They looked exclusively at the physical footprint rather than the consequential ecological effects of disturbance, contamination and pollution, which are harder to ascertain. One difficulty that they faced was that of accessing data on human activities that was accurate, up to date and comprehensive, and in a suitable format for analysis.

“Some governments, public organisations and private companies were far more forthcoming with information than others,” explained Benn. “Significant improvements are needed in data collection and availability, and this requirement needs to be built into international conventions and treaties with a legal framework in place to ensure informed environmental management.”

Despite difficulties and various uncertainties, the researchers’ assessment suggests that, although now banned, previously dumped radioactive waste, munitions and chemical weapons together have the lowest physical footprint of the human activities considered, although they do not consider potential dispersal after leakage.

Non-fisheries marine scientific research also has a relatively small footprint, whereas those of fisheries marine scientific research, telecommunication cables and the oil and gas industry are moderate. However, even on the lowest estimates, the spatial extent of bottom trawling is at least ten times that for the other activities assessed, with a physical footprint greater than that of all the others combined.

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