As every one who has ever strapped on a snorkeling mask or flipped the channel to an undersea nature program knows, the oceans are a wondrous and diverse place, filled with colorful creatures in sometimes otherworldly shapes, all involved in life-and-death darting dances, strange mating displays and awe-inspiring long-distance migrations.
But the future of the oceans is the past, with that vast and beautiful diversity reduced to a stew of jellyfish, bacteria and toxic algal blooms.
That's the awful vision of Jeremy Jackson, a professor of oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego. His new assessment of the state of the oceans, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is about as depressing as it gets, and that's impressive, considering that most of the news coming from oceanographers for the last few years has been an incredible downer.
We already knew that overfishing would drive half the world's species of big fish to commercial extinction by mid-Century.
Jackson's analysis adds to overfishing four other factors habitat destruction, ocean warming, acidification (from absorbing carbon dioxide emissions) and nutrient runoff from farming.
The quintuple threat amounts to a death knell for many of the world's marines species, and entire swathes of ecosystems. Similar to endangered species listings, Jackson identifies endangered habitats, listing coral reefs, estuaries and coastal seas as "critically endangered," and open oceans as "threatened."
"Just as we say that leatherback turtles are critically endangered, I looked at entire ecosystems as if they were a species," said Jackson. "The reality is that if we want to have coral reefs in the future, we're going to have to behave that way and recognize the magnitude of the response that's necessary to achieve it."
Saving the oceans amounts to solving three massively huge problems: greenhouse gas emissions, which are not only warming the ocean but causing it to become acidic; overfishing, which is increasingly difficult to rein in as the world's population grows and communities seek out good sources of protein; and pollution from agriculture, which is increasing as that same growing population looks to its farmland not only for food, but for fuel.
While the world is untangling that mess, Jackson said it should focus on establishing marine reserves where fishing is off-limits, enforcing existing fishing regulations, increase fish farming and eliminate government subsidies for fertilizers.
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