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Oceans, the Lifeblood of the Planet

Another lovely, provocative day at the SLOWLIFE Symposium in the Maldives, as reported by its team:

Surrounded by the deep blue of the Indian Ocean, the fate of the world’s seas has been a central topic for speakers here at the SLOWLIFE Symposium in the Maldives. Friday morning’s panel session ‘The lifeblood of the planet – preserving ocean biodiversity’ brought together four people who are passionate about this theme: chairing was Chris Gorrell Barnes, of Blue Marine Foundation; joining him was Fabien Cousteau; Jon Bowermaster, the writer and explorer; and the actress and environmentalist Daryl Hannah.

Jon Bowermaster, Daryl Hannah, Fabien Cousteau, Chris Gorell-Barnes

Chris opened by setting the scene, reminding us that as 70% of the Earth is ocean, we are an ocean planet more than a terrestrial one – and yet the oceans are in crisis. It is true also that a majority of the world’s population lives near the coastline: 17 megacities are located on the coast, so what happens to the sea directly impacts two thirds of the people on Earth, and ultimately all of us.

Jon reported that having travelled by sea kayak to a number of continents – on one trip paddling from, for example, the Aleutian Islands to Vietnam – several issues kept coming up over and over again. The first was climate change, with the associated impacts of more frequent and stronger storms, sea level rise, and a rising of sea surface temperature. The second was plastic pollution, which is now evident in remote places and faraway islands, and the third is overfishing, which is dramatically impacting the whole global ocean.

Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of the great oceans exploration pioneer Jacques Cousteau (who would have been a hundred last year) spoke about how the seas have changed in just three generations of his own family, with 60% of the world’s total fish stocks destroyed since the 1950s. But Fabien is far from despondent, citing an example of a successful project in El Salvador which recruited local people – who had previously made a living by taking and selling the eggs of endangered turtles – to protect the hatchlings instead, transforming a 0% survival rate to 1.6 million turtle hatchlings in the space of a year.

Daryl Hannah praised the Maldives government for banning shark fishing, an unsustainable practice which is destroying these great ocean predators, with shark finning still responsible for the destruction of 200,000 sharks per year. She also pointed out how just one year after the ban, sharks were already seeming to become more numerous – a point noted by many in the audience, who have been entranced by the sight of as many as a dozen juvenile black-tip reef sharks circling in the shallow waters under the main Soneva Fushi jetty.

One of the issues being tackled at the moment is how to protect the newly-created Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the region in which Soneva Fushi – the host for the SLOWLIFE Symposium – is located. Blue Marine Foundation has already made a donation, whilst resorts are now cooperating to raise further funds to recruit rangers from the local fishing population. Maldives Vice-President Dr Waheed, who was also in the audience, spoke about how most Maldivian schoolchildren had never seen a coral reef, simply because they did not have access to snorkelling equipment – and how simply providing masks and snorkels to schools could do much to promote awareness of marine biodiversity amongst the next generation of Maldivians.

The broad consensus was that for the depletion of marine biodiversity to be reversed, both the fishing and tourist industries have to be engaged in driving forward innovative solutions – in the Maldives and further afield. Both these economic sectors in the Maldives depend entirely on the bounty of the sea – whether hooking and canning tuna for the overseas export trade, or reef fish for tourists to see on a dive or a snorkelling trip – and both must surely work together to protect the seas for today and for future generations.
This entry was posted in Blog Highlight, Highlight and tagged blue marine foundation, chris gorell barnes, climate change, Fabien Cousteau, Jon Bowermaster, Maldives, marine conservation, oceans, Six Senses Laamu, SLOW LIFE Symposium by slowlife. Bookmark the permalink.

Deaf Fish? An Ocean Acidification Update

Of all the threats to the planet’s ocean (climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing) none may be more insidious or have longer-term impact than acidification. It is also the least understood of all the potential harms.

Photo: BrianMay/Creative Commons

Admittedly, it is far easier to visualize plastic afloat on the surface of the Pacific or vast tracts of the Atlantic nearly devoid of fish than a chemical imbalance. But it is the change of acidity which may already be the ocean’s worst enemy.

Try this for a visualization, maybe it will help: Twenty four million tons of carbon dioxide created by the burning of fossil fuels—or the equivalent of 24 million Volkswagens—are dumped into the world’s ocean every single day.

During the 20 million years before man began burning coal and oil, the acidity of the ocean was relatively stable. Over the last 250 years, the ocean has absorbed 530 billion tons of CO2, triggering a 30 percent increase in ocean acidity. Researchers predict that if carbon emissions continue at their current rate, ocean acidity will more than double by 2100.

On top of destroying coral reefs (the equivalent of wiping out rainforests on land) and killing off shellfish beds, including mussels and oysters, a new report out of the U.K. suggests that the so-called “evil twin” of global warming is responsible for some fish losing their sense of smell.

Specifically, baby clownfish, which use hearing to both detect and avoid predator-rich coral reefs during the day are proving to be impaired by the change in ocean acidity.

A pair of scientists, Dr. Steve Simpson of the University of Bristol and Professor Philip Munday of James Cook University, studied juvenile clownfish that had been exposed to salt water with CO2 added, bringing it to levels equivalent to predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. After 17 to 20 days of exposure, they monitored the juveniles as they swam near to coral, crustaceans, and other fish; those reared in today’s conditions swam away from the noise, but fish reared in future conditions showed no response.

On a slightly hopeful note, researchers suggest that the fish that survive the increase in acidity may adapt to new levels. That’s if they survive, of course.

The cynical out there might suggest that a few deaf clownfish may not be the worst tradeoff for cheap energy, nor something demanding immediate attention.

But another change thanks to more acid in the ocean—a boom in jellyfish populations around the globe—should be more alarming. The rapid growth of jellyfish herds, which thrive in warmer waters, is being attributed to a combination of warming sea temperatures and ocean acidification, both driven by climate change.

As well as making summer beach-going tricky when masses of jellyfish wash up on shores from the Mediterranean to Florida, the jellyfish have also caused the recent shutdowns of three nuclear power plants, in Israel, Scotland, and Japan. The plants suck water out of the ocean for cooling, and though fitted with filtration devices, the “jellies” are overwhelming the systems, causing the plants to shutdown. Desalination plants around the world are suffering similarly.

What makes acidification trickier to deal with than other ocean threats is simply its invisibility, prompting researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to construct the first “ocean acidification buoys”; these are anticipated to be the best tools yet to measure just how pH levels are changing.

The seas most impacted by acidification are in the Polar Regions, especially the north, due to unique circulation patterns and cold-water temps. This spring, scientists launched the first such measuring buoy in Resurrection Bay near Seward, Alaska; a second will be deployed in the Bering Sea this month, and a third in the Chukshi Sea in October.

Floating on the ocean surface and anchored to the seafloor, real-time monitoring via satellite will feed info back to Fairbanks. One big question the scientists have is whether the acidity levels of the ocean change from season to season.

But prioritizing environmental threats is always difficult and acidification is not always at the top of the list. Just south of Alaska, in the waters off Washington state, there is concern that not enough science is being devoted to the problem despite that the state’s wild oyster beds have failed to reproduce for the past six years—which most scientists agree is directly linked to increases in pH levels. Last week the state’s Department of Ecology failed to include acidification on its priority list of water-quality problems.

“No one can afford to have their head in the sand when it comes to ocean acidification,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Ocean acidification is the biggest threat facing our oceans and is already killing off Pacific shellfish. To ignore the problem of acid seas is a risk to wildlife and communities that depend on healthy oceans.”

As with so many environmental ills, perhaps only when the problem truly impacts man—an exploding nuclear plant, perhaps?—will acidification earn its proper place at the table.

(For the rest of my dispatches, go to