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Ocean wildlife may collapse soon, study warns

Jan. 15, 2015
Courtesy of UC Santa Barbara
and World Science staff

The same pat­tern of events that led to the col­lapse of many wild­life popula­t­ions on land is now at work in the oceans, a study warns.

Over the past five cen­turies, about 500 land-based an­i­mal spe­cies have gone the way of the do­do, dy­ing out as a re­sult of hu­man ac­ti­vity, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers. In the ocean, where sci­en­tists count only 15 or so such losses, the num­bers are much less dire. But that does­n’t mean things aren’t headed that way.

“We are set­ting our­selves up in the oceans to re­play the pro­cess of wild­life Ar­ma­ged­don that we en­gi­neered on land,” said Doug­las Mc­Cauley of the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia San­ta Bar­bara’s De­part­ment of Ecol­o­gy, Ev­o­lu­tion and Ma­rine Bi­ol­o­gy, lead au­thor of a re­port on the find­ings.

The rea­son, he said, is that with ac­ti­vi­ties such as in­dus­t­ri­al­ized fish­ing, “all signs in­di­cate that we may be in­i­ti­at­ing a ma­rine in­dus­t­ri­al rev­o­lu­tion” like the one that oc­curred one land. Cli­mate change makes mat­ters worse, he added.

Mc­Cauley and col­leagues found that to­day, wild­life popula­t­ions in the oceans are as healthy as those on land were hun­dreds or thou­sands of years ago. How­ev­er, they warn, that may change in the cen­tu­ry ahead. Their find­ings are pub­lished Jan. 15 in the jour­nal Sci­ence.

The new pa­per com­pares the march of the In­dus­t­ri­al Rev­o­lu­tion on land to cur­rent pat­terns of hu­man use of the world’s oceans. Dur­ing the 1800s vast tracts of farm­land and fac­to­ries beat back for­ests and sucked up re­sources that were mined and drilled out of the ground. As a re­sult, many land spe­cies were killed off. But in the ocean, fish­ing con­tin­ued to rely on sail­ing ships clus­tered in small sliv­ers of near-shore wa­ter.

That has now changed—“our tack­le box has in­dus­t­ri­al­ized,” Mc­Cauley said. We now fish with he­li­copters, satellite-guided su­per trawlers and long lines that can stretch from New York to Phil­a­del­phia.

Co-au­thor Steve Palumbi of Stan­ford Uni­vers­ity in Cal­i­for­nia lists sev­er­al emerg­ing threats to the oceans. “There are fac­to­ry farms in the sea and cattle-ranch-style feed lots for tu­na,” he not­ed. “Shrimp farms are eat­ing up man­groves with an ap­pe­tite akin to that of terrestri­al farm­ing, which con­sumed na­tive prairies and for­est. Stakes for seafloor min­ing claims are be­ing pur­sued with gold-rush-like fer­vor, and 300-ton ocean min­ing machines and 750-foot fish­ing boats are now roll­ing off the as­sembly line to do this work.”

One so­lu­tion the pa­per high­light­ed in­volves set­ting aside more and larg­er ar­eas of the ocean that are safe from in­dus­t­ri­al de­vel­op­ment and fish­ing. How­ev­er, co-au­thor Rob­ert Warn­er, al­so of San­ta Bar­ba­ra, cau­tioned that re­serves alone are not enough. “We need cre­a­tive and ef­fec­tive pol­i­cy to man­age dam­age in­flicted up­on ocean wild­life in the vast spaces be­tween ma­rine pro­tected ar­eas,” he said.

Among the most se­ri­ous threats cit­ed to ocean life is cli­mate change, which ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists is de­grad­ing ma­rine wild­life habi­tats and has a great­er im­pact on these an­i­mals than it does on land animals. “Any­one that has ev­er kept a fish tank knows that if you crank up your aquar­i­um heat­er and dump ac­id in­to the wa­ter, your fish are in trou­ble,” said co-au­thor Ma­lin Pin­sky, an ecol­o­gist at Rut­gers Uni­vers­ity in New Jer­sey. “This is what cli­mate change is do­ing now to the oceans.”

Still, the re­search­ers stressed, the oceans’ rel­a­tive health pre­s­ents an op­por­tun­ity for sav­ing them. “Be­cause there have been so many few­er ex­tinc­tions in the oceans, we still have the raw in­gre­di­ents needed for re­cov­ery,” said Mc­Cauley. “There is hope for ma­rine spe­cies that simply does not ex­ist for the hun­dreds of terrestri­al wild­life spe­cies that have al­ready crossed the ex­tinc­tion thresh­old.”

The ocean’s fu­ture is yet to be de­ter­mined, the re­search­ers said. “We can blun­der for­ward and make the same mis­takes in the sea that we made on land, or we can col­lec­tively chart a dif­fer­ent and bet­ter fu­ture for our oceans,” Warn­er con­clud­ed.


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The same pattern of events that led to the collapse of wildlife populations on land are now happening in the sea, a study concludes. Over the past five centuries, about 500 land-based animal species have gone the way of the dodo, dying out as a result of human activity, according to the researchers. In the ocean, where scientists count only 15 or so such losses, the numbers are much less dire. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t heading that way. “We are setting ourselves up in the oceans to replay the process of wildlife Armageddon that we engineered on land,” said Douglas McCauley of the University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, lead author of a report on the findings. The reason, he said, is that with activities such as industrialized fishing, “all signs indicate that we may be initiating a marine industrial revolution” like the one that occurred one land. Climate change makes matters worse, he added. McCauley and colleagues found that today, wildlife populations in the oceans are as healthy as those on land were hundreds or thousands of years ago. However, they warn, that may change in the century ahead. Their findings are published Jan. 15 in the journal Science. The new paper compares the march of the Industrial Revolution on land to current patterns of human use of the world’s oceans. During the 1800s vast tracts of farmland and factories beat back forests and sucked up resources that were mined and drilled out of the ground. As a result, many land species were killed off. But in the ocean, fishing continued to rely on sailing ships clustered in small slivers of near-shore water. That has changed—”our tackle box has industrialized,” McCauley said. Co-author Steve Palumbi of Stanford University in California lists several emerging threats to the oceans. “There are factory farms in the sea and cattle-ranch-style feed lots for tuna,” he noted. “Shrimp farms are eating up mangroves with an appetite akin to that of terrestrial farming, which consumed native prairies and forest. Stakes for seafloor mining claims are being pursued with gold-rush-like fervor, and 300-ton ocean mining machines and 750-foot fishing boats are now rolling off the assembly line to do this work.” According to the authors, increasing industrial use of the oceans and the globalization of ocean exploitation threaten to damage the health of marine wildlife populations, making the situation in the oceans as grim as that on land. As McCauley pointed out, we now fish with helicopters, satellite-guided super trawlers and long lines that can stretch from New York to Philadelphia. One solution the paper highlighted involves setting aside more and larger areas of the ocean that are safe from industrial development and fishing. However, co-author Robert Warner, also of Santa Barbara, cautioned that reserves alone are not enough. “We need creative and effective policy to manage damage inflicted upon ocean wildlife in the vast spaces between marine protected areas,” he said. Among the most serious threats cited to ocean life is climate change, which according to the scientists is degrading marine wildlife habitats and has a greater impact on these animals than it does on terrestrial fauna. “Anyone that has ever kept a fish tank knows that if you crank up your aquarium heater and dump acid into the water, your fish are in trouble,” said co-author Malin Pinsky, an ecologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “This is what climate change is doing now to the oceans.” Still, the researchers stressed, the oceans’ relative health presents an opportunity for saving them. “Because there have been so many fewer extinctions in the oceans, we still have the raw ingredients needed for recovery,” said McCauley. “There is hope for marine species that simply does not exist for the hundreds of terrestrial wildlife species that have already crossed the extinction threshold.” The ocean’s future is yet to be determined, the researchers said. “We can blunder forward and make the same mistakes in the sea that we made on land, or we can collectively chart a different and better future for our oceans,” Warner concluded.