The World's Oceans Are Almost Totally Screwed

The World's Oceans Are Almost Totally Screwed
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

The world's oceans are bad and getting worse.

"A team of scientists, in a groundbreaking analysis of data from hundreds of sources, has concluded that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and the animals living in them," the New York Times reports.

"We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event," said Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the new research, which was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

So how bad is it, doc? "If you cranked up the aquarium heater and dumped some acid in the water, your fish would not be very happy," Dr. Malin L. Pinsky, a marine biologist at Rutgers University and another author of the new report, said. "In effect, that's what we're doing to the oceans."

Yikes! The New York Times' Carl Zimmer outlines the extent of the damage:

Fragile ecosystems like mangroves are being replaced by fish farms, which are projected to provide most of the fish we consume within 20 years. Bottom trawlers scraping large nets across the sea floor have already affected 20 million square miles of ocean, turning parts of the continental shelf to rubble. Whales may no longer be widely hunted, the analysis noted, but they are now colliding more often as the number of container ships rises.

Mining operations, too, are poised to transform the ocean. Contracts for seabed mining now cover 460,000 square miles underwater, the researchers found, up from zero in 2000. Seabed mining has the potential to tear up unique ecosystems and introduce pollution into the deep sea.

Yes, this sounds bad: That's because it is! Humans have "profoundly decreased" the abundance of marine life both large and small, from whales to anchovies, the study's authors explain — and that's having a dire effect on our ocean ecosystems around the planet.

"Such declines can generate waves of ecological change that travel both up and down ma­rine food webs and can alter ocean ecosystem functioning," the authors explain. "Human harvesters have also been a major force of evolutionary change in the oceans and have reshaped the genetic structure of marine animal populations. Climate change threatens to accelerate marine defaunation over the next century. The high mobility of many marine animals offers some increased, though limited, capacity for marine species to respond to climate stress, but it also exposes many species to increased risk from other stressors."

And no, this isn't just some "Save the Whales" crap: This will hurt us, too. "Humans are intensely reliant on ocean ecosystems for food and other ecosystem services. We are deeply affected by all of these forecasted changes," the authors note. 

Timeline (log scale) of marine and terrestrial defaunation.
Source: Science

Even worse news: Despite the grim conclusion of the scientists involved in the study, at least there's some good news: The oceans aren't nearly as fucked as terrestrial habitats!

"Wildlife populations in the oceans have been badly damaged by human activity. Nevertheless, marine fauna generally are in better condition than terrestrial fauna," the researchers write. "Fewer marine animal extinctions have occurred, many geographic ranges have shrunk less and numerous ocean ecosystems remain more wild than terrestrial ecosystems." 

They're not wrong: According to the journal Nature, which published a thorough look at the threats facing wildlife around the globe in December, somewhere between 10 and 690 animal species go extinct in a single week, adding up to between 500 and 36,000 species a year. 

Source: Nature

On the upside, this risk of mass extinction for ocean life could be "within the reach" of human institutions — assuming we start getting our act together right now.

"If, by the end of the century, we're not off the business-as-usual curve we are [on] now, I honestly feel there's not much hope for normal ecosystems in the ocean," Stephen R. Palumbi of Stanford University, an author of the new study, told the New York Times. "But in the meantime, we do have a chance to do what we can. We have a couple decades more than we thought we had, so let's please not waste it."

h/t New York Times

Editor's Note: Feb. 25, 2015

An earlier version of this article cited New York Times reporting, but did not include quotations around the cited passage. The story has been updated to fully attribute the New York Times' language.