Image source: Getty Images
A very interesting Los Angeles Times article on the state of the oceans sounds like something out of a horror movie - fishermen come in contact with a spongy weed, only to break out into a painful rash that won't go away and literally peels your skin off. Get a drop in your mouth and your tongue swells so much you can't eat for a week. Scientists in labs can't be in the same room with it, the smell is so pungent. Only the problem is that this is for real and happening more and more often in coastal areas around the world. We are putting too much food into the oceans, scientists say, and now the oceans are reverting back to primeval seas of millions and even billions of years ago.
Previous assumptions that the ocean would eventually break down anything we threw at it (oil spills, dumping garbage, not to mention stormwater runoff) are no longer holding true. Its the primitive life-forms - the algae, bacteria and jellyfish that are better able to handle our garbage and in fact thrive in this toxic soup. The article is a fascinating, no-holds-punch look at the current state of the oceans and also what it means for us.What is Causing the Loss of Sea Life?
The overabundance of fertilizers (nitrogen) and fossil fuels that are dumped into the ocean every day, compounded with the overfishing and complete wipe out of all marine life predators to the bacteria have made conditions prime for bacteria and algae. Not only are algal blooms harmful to marine life, they are also toxic to humans in direct contact, as many cause rashes, burning eyes and stinging throats, not to mention make water bodies off limits to tourists and residents.
Scientists are now saying that "we are pushing the oceans back to the dawn of evolution, a half-billion years ago when the oceans were ruled by jellyfish and bacteria" and "the depletion of fish allows the lowest forms of life to run rampant." Of note, the time period when these jellyfish and algae were dominant, didn't have conditions that could sustain human life.
No Predators for Jellyfish
The jellyfish are also gumming up the works outside of the ocean, such as fishing nets, intake valves on boats as well as conveyor belts in factories. There are so many jellyfish in fact that many fisheries have given up their normal staples and are just harvesting jellyfish. Predators of jellyfish, like sea-turtles, are all but gone and 90% of the big fish have disappeared over the last 50 years as well due to overfishing. Coral reefs, the rainforests of the seas, are almost completely wiped out globally thanks to algal blooms from farm and sewage runoff and excess nitrogen.
A bacteria found in human intestines is even partially to blame for the coral loss, as every time we flush our toilets, it heads straight for the oceans. Scientists in Florida discovered this by literally knocking on residents doors, flushing a dye down the toilet, and within 3 hours they saw it popping up off the coast.
Wonder Weeds of the Ocean
The warming waters due to climate change also speed microbial growth. Some of the Lyngbya "weed" growing off the coast of Australia has been reported to grow at 100 square meters per minute - literally a football-field sized area in an hour. Scientists in Australia are trying to figure out how to keep the runoff from getting into the water, but note that once the bacteria dies it can regenerate itself by releasing phosphorous and nitrogen. Sounds straight out of a horror movie, and also makes you wonder if we will soon be up against something that we might not be able to handle.
We forgot the basic rule of thumb, says scientist Jeremy Jackson, "Be careful what you dump in the swimming pool, and make sure the filter is working." This article is a look at just what exactly we are putting in our water and how it is affecting us. To read the full report and really do this issue justice, check out the Los Angeles Times.
And by the way, yes that is a fish in the belly of that jellyfish.
Update to Article:
A recently published article by Jeremy B.C. Jackson, researcher at UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography reports that unfortunately there have been no signs of recovery. 90% of large predators are all but wiped out. At least 1/2 of sea grass beds and wetlands are gone.
"Fishing, habitat destruction, introduced species, and eutrophication reinforce each other through positive feedbacks" making it harder to fix the problem because each negative just makes it that harder to get ahead. In the early 1900's it was the overfishing that was the problem. Today the runoff and heavy chemicals/fertilizers are actually a larger problem and keep the marine life from recovering. The rise in global CO2 is also to blame for the decline in marine life. As the oceans take in more CO2, they become more acidic creating conditions that some wildlife can't tolerate.
Coral reefs, which were categorized as pristine as recently as 15 years ago, are nearly wiped out, including the most protected coral reef system the Great Barrier Reef, which only has 23% living coral left.
So what can be done? Well, reign in overfishing by enforcing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, remove subsidies & tax fertilizers to decrease their overabundance, and reduce greenhouse gases which are contributing to climate change for a start.
More on Oceans in Trouble
Ocean "Dead Zones" Now Increasing: 400 Oxygen-Deprived Areas Now Exist
Pacific Trash Vortex Could Signify Future of Our Oceans
Two on Tuna: Japan Suspends Fishing, Indian Ocean Catch Drops
Al Gore Warns of Crises Facing World's Oceans