Humans and the Ocean

A troubled relationship

By Rex Weyler

Pulitzer nominated co-founder of Greenpeace International

The sea runs in our veins. Our ancestors in the great heaving seas grew circulatory systems to deliver the briny nutrient soup to hungry cells. Humans may have left the ocean, but the ocean never left us. The water still finds our hunger. We stand on shorelines and contemplate a dark mystery. We take the ocean’s bounty to feed ourselves. Now, however, in our forgetfulness, the magnificent human enterprise has changed the oceans in ways we hardly dreamed possible.

In June, 2011, the Australian Seabird Rescue Service recovered a dead sea turtle on a New South Wales beach with 317 pieces of plastic – fishing line, packing tape, lollipop sticks – in its digestive tract. A study by Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that over nine percent of sampled ocean fish had eaten plastic and were dying from blocked digestive tracts. This plastic comes from you and me, from bottles, bags, toys, and the gadgets of modern consumer life, tossed away without much thought.

If, however, we pay attention, we feel the conflict between human desire and natural bounty. We might ignore this conflict, carry on, and avoid the remorse of knowing, but deep down, we know. We might dream that humanity could devise new technological solutions and expand forever, but eventually the laws and limits of nature prevail. Nature is bountiful but not limitless; she is patient but not sentimental. A time of great reckoning approaches.

Plastic garbage is only one of the human impacts contributing to an historic decline in ocean health and marine species. Oceanographers, coral reef ecologists, toxicologists, and other marine scientists, convened by the International Programme on the State of the Oceans (IPSO) in 2011, warned that the “cumulative effect" of these impacts is causing an “extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.”

Humanity has disrupted marine life through overfishing, acidification from carbon emissions, ocean warming, coral bleaching, toxins dumped at sea, radioactive nuclear waste, agricultural run-off, oil spills, and oxygen depleted dead zones. We have not been treating our mother well.

Scientists know the solutions: Sustainable yield fishing, restricted vessel and net size, a ban on bottom dragging, effective regulation of pollutants, a sharp reduction of plastics, recycling of agricultural fertilizers and human waste, an end to crude oil spills, and a massive reduction in human carbon emissions approaching zero by 2030. However, like global warming, the solutions clash with dreams of economic triumph and industrial expansion.

No nations appear rushing to sign onto such a program. Our political systems appear too slow, bogged down in partisan favoritism and financial corruption. Meanwhile, ocean health progressively declines as fishing communities from Canada to Africa face the end to an historic coastal way of life.

Bigger Boats, Less Fish

The rise and fall of the world’s annual fish harvest demonstrates the simple fact that nature comes with limits. In five years, between 1992 and 1997 the world’s fishing fleet capacity increased by 22 percent, but the annual catch increased by only 3 percent. Human ingenuity and technology simply outpaced nature’s fecundity. A large factory supertrawler built in the 1990s had four times the fishing power of a typical 1970 trawler, greater range, better sonar, and bigger nets. However, bigger, faster boats cannot catch fish that aren’t there.

Like every other ecosystem, the world’s oceans have a limited capacity. The human harvest has now surpassed that capacity. The annual global ocean fish harvest grew from about 20 million tonnes in 1950 until it peaked at about 90 million tons in 1998. By 2008 the annual wild catch had declined to about 80 million tons, and continues to decline.

Fish remain among the last wild species that humans harvest from the global commons. Modest coastal communities around the world have survived for centuries from the sea’s bounty. Today, the decimation of the oceans threatens those communities.

Large, industrial fishing fleets harvest fish faster than the reproduction rate. An unwanted “by-catch” of dead sea life is discarded. Turtles and marine mammals die on fish hooks. Meanwhile the impact of fishing gear, bottom dragging, and lost nets contribute to the decline of marine species.

Most North Atlantic commercial fish populations – cod, hake, haddock, flounder – have been reduced to less than ten percent of their peak numbers. In 1992, the Grand Banks cod fishery collapsed. Tens of thousands of fishermen from Iceland to Canada lost their livelihoods. Coastal communities disintegrated. Similar fisheries collapses occur in South America, Africa, Europe, and in Asia.

Large-scale industrialized vessels, about 1 percent of the world’s fishing fleet, take almost 60 percent of the fish, leaving small, coastal fishing communities with the remnants. Fisheries scientists know that the solution to overfishing requires a limit on these large industrial fleets, and a limit on net size and indiscriminate long lines, but the industrial fishing nations – primarily China, Peru, Chile, Japan, the US and the European Union – resist these solutions. The lure of quick money appears to trump long-range planning and common sense.

Acid Seas

While we plunder the seas for their bounty of protein, we simultaneously degrade the very waters that provide that bounty. When humans burn coal and oil, we emit CO2 into the atmosphere, and the oceans absorb about one-third of this carbon dioxide, disrupting the ocean’s natural pH balance. Today’s oceans are about 30% more acidic than they were in 1800.

Historically, the oceans adjust to small changes in atmospheric carbon through calcium-carbonate formation that naturally balances the ocean pH level. However, the rate of human carbon emissions has outpaced the natural ocean self-regulation system. Today, ocean acidity is increasing about 100- times faster than any such change in the last 20 million years. This pace of change proves critically important.

As carbonic acid levels increase, marine animals such as tiny copepods, snails, and sea urchins must rebalance their own body pH, but the compensation can stunt growth and disrupt reproduction. Tiny animals can fail to form adequate shells. Those species unable to adapt quickly enough perish. Die offs begin low in the marine food chain, among small organisms, but eventually disrupt the larger marine ecosystem and threaten fish and marine mammals. This die off is already underway in the world’s oceans.

The species collapse now taking place in the oceans represents the greatest decline in ocean diversity since a meteorite struck Earth, 64-million years ago. This time, humanity is the source of the catastrophe.

Life is Relationship

In North America, the public equates the Exxon Valdez oil spill with the largest ecological disaster in recent memory, but over 30 oil spills are larger than the tragedy in Prince William Sound. The 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico spilled about 20-times more crude oil – 5 million barrels, 210 million gallons – than the Exxon Valdez spilled, changing the Gulf marine ecosystem for centuries to come.

Over the last several decades, the North Sea has endured about one significant oil spill each week from drilling rigs and wells. Meanwhile, more oil is spilled into the oceans each year from what the industry calls “normal spillage” – the operation of tankers, pipelines, and refineries – than from the large, dramatic oil spills. Regions of the ocean floor remain saturated with crude oil, killing off shellfish and burrowing or bottom-dwelling species.

The pollution, acidification, bottom-dragging fishnets, and increased ocean temperature combine to kill off coral reefs, especially small, branching varieties. Three-quarters of the word’s coral beds are in decline. The Caribbean Sea has lost about 80 percent of its coral. Marine biologists estimate that by 2050 most coral beds will be gone, with only remnants in the North Sea and Pacific. In that case, millions of marine species will go extinct.

Pollution and ocean acidification also impact algae production and other primary marine organisms. Typical of ecosystem feedback in nature, the decline of coccolithophore algae effects ocean cloud cover, thereby changing Earth’s reflective quality – or albedo – which in turn accelerates global warming. In nature, no organism or process exists in isolation. Strictly speaking, from the perspective of scientific observation, nature is not a collection of things at all, but rather a pattern of relationships.

Our relationship with the oceans has grown somewhat dysfunctional.

Our civilization, with its glorious monuments to human intellect and imagination, still struggles to find its appropriate relationship with the biosphere and the non-human creatures, with whom we share the world. A great transformation may yet bring us back toward paradise, but any such social transformation must start with a new vision of the world. History teaches us that such paradigm-shifting social revolutions are not led by politicians and elites, but by outcasts and artists.

Photographic artist David Ellingsen has chosen to embrace our conflict with nature rather than ignore it. His art accepts a nagging inconsistency between our love for nature’s gifts and the damage we inflict on those gifts. Ellingsen was raised on an island, off the west coast of Canada, on a farm, in forests, surrounded by the sea. His artistic life led him into the heart of great cities, hubs of speed, light, and culture. These images suggest a journey back to nature, a journey that ultimately awaits us all. These images, however, do not provide a taxonomist’s record of sea life, but rather appear to probe some forgotten mystery, reciprocity of beauty and death that lurks in every living creature. In this way, Ellingsen’s art may aid us in finding our lost place in nature’s grand, dynamic dance of living patterns.

The images in this series help us reflect on our relationship with these ocean creatures. The stunning photographs provide more than typically bright, colourful images of nature. Rather, these images awaken something deeper and more disturbing within the artist and the viewer. This disturbance may serve to awaken within us a new relationship with the sea and with the natural world around us.