Oceans keep us alive. They provide food, oxygen, water, medicines, and recreation. They help protect us from climate change by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide. If we care about ourselves and our children and grandchildren, we must look beyond our immediate surroundings and do all we can to care for the oceans. But instead of respecting oceans as a life-giving miracle, we often use them as vast garbage dumps and as stores with shelves that never go empty.
The shelves are going empty, though. Humans are changing the chemistry and ecology of the ocean at a scale and rate not previously believed possible. According to a study from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, the combined effects of overfishing, fertilizer run-off, pollution, and ocean acidification from carbon dioxide emissions are putting much marine life at immediate risk of extinction.
The 27 scientists from 18 organizations in six countries who participated in the review of scientific research from around the world concluded that the looming extinctions are "unprecedented in human history" and have called for "urgent and unequivocal action to halt further declines in ocean health." The main factors are what they term the "deadly trio": climate change, ocean acidification, and lack of oxygen. Overfishing and pollution add to the problem.
The researchers also found that "existing scientific projections of how coral reefs will respond to global warming have been highly conservative and must now be modified." And they found that chemicals such as "brominated flame retardants, fluorinated compounds, pharmaceuticals and synthetic musks used in detergents and personal care products" — which can cause cancer and disrupt human endocrine and immune systems — have been found in aquatic animals everywhere, even in the Canadian Arctic. Marine litter and plastics are also found throughout the oceans, sometimes in massive swirling gyres.
Alex Rogers, the scientific director of IPSO, is quoted in the Guardian as saying he was shocked by the findings: "This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level. We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime, and worse, our children's and generations beyond that."
Action at every level means just that — actions that we can all take as individuals as well as actions that governments and industry must take. Reducing our own wastes, being careful about what we put down the drain, cutting down the amount of animal-based protein we eat and feed to our pets, and joining efforts to protect the oceans are a start, but the most important role we can all play is to tell governments and industry that we will no longer stand for this.
We can already anticipate that industry-funded deniers and the dupes who help spread their misinformation will be out in force, painting this as yet another conspiracy on the part of the world's scientists, and that some governments will put industrial interests ahead of everything else. We must put a stop to this nonsense. Every year that we stall on the solutions to climate change means we are less likely to be able to resolve the problems. Other scientists and I have been warning about the consequences of climate change for more than 20 years, and yet governments are still dithering while the world's natural systems continue to erode.
What this study also shows is that we cannot look at ecosystems, species, and environmental problems in isolation. This research points out that the combined impacts of all the stressors are far more severe than what scientists might conclude by looking at individual problems.
The report exemplifies the old adage about death by a thousand cuts. There is no single place to concentrate blame except in the mirror. The study's authors note that, "traditional economic and consumer values that formerly served society well, when coupled with current rates of population increase, are not sustainable." In other words, we need to account for the impact we have on the planet each time we flush a toilet, drink a pop, hop in a car, or eat a radish. There is no shortage of solutions, just a shortage of political will. Further delay in resolving these serious problems will only increase costs and lead to even greater losses of the natural benefits oceans give to us.