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2008-08-20 17:52:35
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 Oceanic Degradation

This essay was written by [Byne] for her Environmental Sciences and Resource Management course. It barely skims the surface of the issues plaguing our world's oceans today. Please, read this with an open mind and feel free to comment or give your opinion in the comment section.

Oceanic Degradation

Over 70% of our planet is submerged in the salty swells of the ocean. Billions of years ago life first began to evolve under the waves, and today the ocean continues to be the support system for life on earth. The ocean allocates us with commodities that affect all aspects of our lives; it has control over our climate, the geography of the continents, and its rich diversity of life provides us with sustenance, material goods, jobs and entertainment. For centuries it has invoked feelings of awe and amazement, impacting cultures and providing society with a world to explore and discover. Despite the fact that the oceans provide us with economic stability, livelihoods and food, modern society is well on the way to destroying them. Overfishing, damaging practices such as blast fishing and drift nets, pollution, habitat destruction, global climate change…these issues only touch the surface of what humans are doing to push the ocean’s state towards a critical collapse. This report focuses on what human society is doing to the ocean, and what is being done to help our seas recuperate. Hopefully, it will give insight into what people as individuals can do in order to help make a difference.

Major Threats

Overdone and damaging fishing practices, pollution, habitat destruction and global climate change are four of the largest and most urgent issues plaguing our oceans. They affect several different aspects of our lives, although some have a more direct affect than others. Certain areas of the world are feeling the detrimental effects of our actions on the ocean more than others. However, in the end the ocean’s health is a universal responsibility.

Overfishing & Detrimental Practices: Recent reports stipulate that the world’s fisheries will collapse by 2048, if not earlier. Why? Due to fishing practices that destroy ecosystems and international over fishing, the world’s oceans could soon be devoid of life. 
Practices like long lining, drift nets, blast fishing, bottom trawling and dredging are destroying not only populations of fish and other marine life, but important ecosystems as well. Trawling and dredging tears up the ocean floor, scattering debris and sediment into the water as well as dislodging marine life, or simply destroying it. Coastlines have been decimated by these techniques, which are ongoing, especially in areas where crustaceans, scallops and shrimp are abundant. Blast fishing can kill anything in the area where dynamite is set off to stun the intended catch, and is responsible for destroying acres of priceless coastlines and coral reefs. Not many people realize that when nets or long lines are cast, species other than the intended catch get tangled, snared and lured into their deaths. Dolphins, sharks, turtles, even seabirds get caught and tangled in these deathtraps. Depending on the intended catch and what else ends up being caught, fishermen will throw unwanted species back into the ocean, the majority of which are already dead or dieing. Every year, over 50 million tons of fish and other marine life are wasted for the simple reason that they weren’t what the fishermen wanted.
Species alienation is becoming more and more apparent as we “fish down the food chain” and is one of many factors that contributes to over fishing. Whenever a species of fish or marine product rises in demand, it is fished to the brink of the population’s capacity. The species is often given no reprieve in which to recover from the massive loss of numbers. A perfect example of species alienation is what is happening to sharks. Although illegal in some areas of the world, sharks are targeted for their fins, and on occasion, to replace the meaty flesh of swordfish or sailfish in the markets. The demand for shark fins rose as the economy exploded in China. Once too expensive for the majority of the populace, shark fin soup, a delicacy in Asia, grew in demand as the level of income rose. Over 100 million sharks are killed each year by having their fins cut off before they are tossed back into the water to die. In the past decade alone, the world shark population has decreased by over 90 percent. Over 75% of shark species are now endangered or threatened, and very few regulations protect them.
The main factor that contributes to over fishing and the depopulation of our oceans is the sheer mass of the catches. Millions of tons of fish, crustaceans and other marine life get harvested every year. Fish is ground into pellets and fed to livestock, and is used in fertilizers, amoung other things. The catch isn’t just for human consumption. Dwindling fish stocks are on the rise as species and populations are given little to no time in which to recover from their losses. Regulations may protect certain over fished species, but few are international, and often get over ridden by other countries interested in harvesting something that will bring them revenue.

Pollution: Another large contributing factor to the deterioration of our oceans’ health is pollution. Marine debris, toxic waste, oil spills, ghost nets… the amount of waste dumped into our seas is insane, and has a huge effect on oceanic environments and animals. People often think that once out of sight, it is out of mind, and occasionally even think that it will cease to exist.
Marine debris can be called jetsam, flotsam, or trash…. There are countless names for it. But it all amounts to the same thing: garbage that has been discarded, accidentally or purposefully into the ocean. The majority of marine debris is plastic, a substance that doesn’t biodegrade, meaning that it will continue to circulate through the ocean’s currents until it either washes ashore, or joins the tons of floating garbage in the open ocean between Alaska and Hawaii. Unsuspecting animals, like turtles and seabirds will often mistake pieces of plastic as a food source. Turtles have been found dead, with plastic bags they mistook for jellyfish lodged in their throats, or stuck in their digestive system. Baby albatross have been found starved to death due not to the parent’s incompetence but to the build up of plastics (lighters, lids, etc) in their stomachs. Certain materials leak toxic chemicals into the water, which can have detrimental affects on sensitive corals and marine plants. 
Ghost nets are a very hazardous form of marine debris that causes unimaginable amounts of damage. Ghost nets are nets that have been cut lose and left to sink to the bottom, or stay in place, tied to buoys until so much life builds up, tangled within the yards of line that it becomes too heavy for the buoys to keep afloat, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, collecting more victims as it goes. This can often be referred to as “ghost fishing” as mass amounts of marine life often gets caught within the discarded lines and nets from careless fishermen, or accidents. Even the largest animals in our ocean can’t escape them. Whales have been seen with nets and fishing lines caught and entangled around their bodies. The netting often works itself tighter, digging through the whales flesh and causing great damage, if not death.
Nutrient pollution is also a large, and harmful issue that is often overlooked. Caused by runoff containing fertilizers and sewage that is expelled into the oceans, it is an issue that could be fairly simple to solve. The nutrients and chemicals in the runoff cause algae blooms, which kills fish, can cause skin irritations and even sickness in humans and is responsible for creating “dead zones”, areas of ocean empty of life.
Although no major oil spills have occurred in recent years, and cleaning techniques have developed so that volunteers can quickly clean the site of a spill, oils continue to have a detrimental affect on the oceanic environment. Clean up can still take months, to years to fully clean the oil out of an environment. Recent articles and studies show that the “small” spills add up, and that damage is still occurring, even if it isn’t as blatantly obvious as a large spill. Every time that a ship starts its engine, sewage containing rinsed off soaps, shampoos and conditioners are expelled untreated into the ocean, unnatural oils are added into marine ecosystems. Oils get caught on the skin and feathers of larger marine life, which can hamper their abilities to survive. Most of the fats and oils that humans put into the water are ones that don’t easily biodegrade in marine environments.

Habitat Destruction: Precious coastlines, river estuaries, coral reefs, salt-water mangroves and other marine habitats are destroyed at an incredible rate every day by human activity. Development, fishing practices and tourism has had a large negative affect on several of the world’s most incredible, and important environments.

Salt-water mangroves are incredibly important for thousands of species of fish, sharks, and crustaceans that rely on them for a safe place to have their young. They provide a home to hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, and fish, and are even the home to large mammals in certain areas of the world. Saltwater mangroves are the fastest disappearing ecosystem on the planet, destroyed at a faster rate than even the rainforests around the world. The main cause for the destruction of this coastline ecosystem is the development of houses, hotels, resorts and other buildings along the shoreline. The mangroves get cleared away to create a beach for tourists, and no thought is given to the diversity of life that is destroyed along side the plants.
Coastline development is also responsible for destroying other shoreline ecosystems, disrupting breeding grounds of marine birds and altering the general geography of an area. As more and more development occurs along the coast, more and more people gather near the oceans, producing more waste and damage to the ecosystems.
Fishing practices, like bottom trawling and dredging rip up the ocean floor, sending sediment and nutrients into the water and disrupting, if not destroying the marine life in an area. Blast fishing, a practice were explosives are used to stun fish, or kill them, is responsible for the loss of coral reefs, and other important submerged eco systems.
Tourism surprisingly causes a great deal of damage to coastlines, coral reefs and other delicate marine systems. Even “eco tourism” can have a detrimental affect. People tend to ignore laws regarding how to treat and respect the wildlife and their homes. A perfect example of the affects of tourism is to look at the reefs around the Caribbean, Australia and even Hawaii. Coral reefs that are popular areas or “hotspots” are dying because of ignorance, and over use. The state of these reefs has become critical, and governments are considering shutting down diving, snorkeling and tourism into areas like the reefs because the extent of the damage.

Global Climate Change: Global climate change does affect our oceans, although many people think it is impossible. As temperatures climb, the ocean level is rising due to the melting of polar ice caps. Water temperatures are increasing, which poses a new threat to delicate marine ecosystems and life. Scientists believe that the carbon sink our oceans provide is reaching its capacity, and are unsure what could happen if it does plateau.
The rising sea level causes damage to important coastline environments, such as mangroves and estuary wetlands that are often homes to thousands of baby fish, sea birds and other animals. The rise in ocean temperatures will have a hue affect, something we’ve seen before when El Ninos have plagued the seas. Coral reefs and other temperature sensitive areas will suffer greatly, and the acidity of the water could increase. This would have a negative affect on life forms that form a shell in order to survive, and will further affect fish stocks.

Partial Solutions

Governments around the world and independent organizations are trying to do what they can to help the state of our oceans. However, there are few international regulations that are followed, and the mismanagement of our oceanic resources and ecosystems is a huge contributing factor to the declining health of our oceans. Little to no reinforcement of regulations occurs out in international waters, and conservation organizations who try to help by enforcing the rules are often penalized by governments who value the immediate revenue of catches more than a sustainable practice ensuring sources for the future.
One of the largest problems with protecting dwindling fish stocks is that the fish often migrate, or move from one country’s territorial waters to another. Only one of the two countries may protect certain species of fish. A perfect example can be seen between Canadian and American fishery regulations. Certain species of fish are protected in Canada due to their dwindling numbers. Canadian fishermen respect the regulations surrounding these fish, but the moment that they leave Canadian waters to spawn off the shore of Alaska, American fishermen haul in massive catches, as the same species protected in Canada isn’t protected in the USA. Canada has also been in conflict with Spain in the past, who ventured into the Canadian waters to fish the reserves of fish, which had been protected under new regulations. Until countries are able to come up with international agreements that will be followed and reinforced, we will continue to see fish stocks dwindle to the point of extinction.
There are a few bright lights on the horizon, as governments and individuals begin to understand what needs to be done to save the ocean from dying. New research is surfacing everyday, and agreements are beginning to be put into place. “A bill named OCEANS 21 -- The Oceans Conservation, Education, and National Strategy for the 21st Century Act -- introduced in January 2007, would vastly improve how we as a nation care for and manage our oceans, and the spectacular wildlife that call them home.” (NRDC: Reviving our Oceans) This bill would improve the American treatment of the oceans, and vastly improve condition of the marine environment surrounding the USA.
A difference is already being seen as governments are placing huge penalties on the mistreatment of corals, and marine life. In Hawaii, fines up to 25 000 dollars can be charged to individuals who are recorded destroying a single head of coral or harassing turtles and other marine life. Governments are even considering shutting down the tourism in areas that have suffered greatly under the hands of humans.
Conservation efforts are also stronger than ever, but with so many problems plaguing our society, the health of the oceans gets pushed to the wayside. 

Make a Difference

There is a large list of actions that an individual can easily undertake to help preserve the ocean and marine environments. Actions can be taken to reduce the amount of pollution, habitat destruction and over fishing. Many people will say that they live nowhere near the ocean, so why would anything they did have a positive affect? But as they say “everything is connected to something” and even people living hundreds of miles from the shoreline can help.

• Buy fish that were caught using sustainable, environmentally friendly methods.
• Reduce your seafood consumption
• Be aware of the packaging of products: avoid plastics as much as possible
• Recycle whenever possible
• Don’t pour insoluble oils and chemicals down the drain
• Pick up wayward pieces of garbage
• Volunteer for beach clean ups
• Respect regulations and laws regarding oceanic environments and life
• Donate to conservation programs dedicated to protecting and preserving our oceans
• Pressure your government to take more awareness of the issues


Further information on issues:

Organizations/Conservation Efforts:

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2008-08-20 [Byne]: Its kinda hard to believe that this was seven pages single spaced in a word document. O:

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