Every Sunday in the warm months, from May to October, we clean the beach. It’s about 40 feet of shoreline, sandy at low tide and all pebbles in high water, next to a pier in New York City (technically, that makes it part of the estuary that is Upper New York Bay). It curves from that pier to a pile of rocks and boulders, where crabs scuttle and kids clamber. Just a stretch of once-industrial shoreline, whose waters are now free of the sewage and industrial wastes that poisoned them in the 20th century.
Unfortunately, that comeback story, which has made old urban waterfronts so attractive in this century, is not all there is to say about the shoreline. These urban waters, though safe for boats and even swimmers, are also packed with trash. And so every Sunday the group comes down with garbage bags and work gloves and picks up: crumpled bags that once held potato chips or candy bars, plastic cups, bits of Styrofoam, “Coney Island whitefish” (as New Yorkers call floating condoms), liquor bottles, soda cans, tampon applicators and syringes. Once, we found a dead white rat with a huge tumor. Once, we found a grocery-store plastic bag wrapped tight around some clothes, an inhaler and release papers from a Long Island jail. However much we haul away, there’s always more the next week.
Almost everything we beach cleaners pick up was thrown away on land, well out of sight of the sea. Then the trash was carried by wind or rainwater into the sea. It wasn’t malice that put the garbage in the water — it was an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude that can’t see how even the smallest actions we take on land will have an effect on the oceans.
In fact, when something human beings produce or use “disappears,” it often ends up in the world’s oceans. “People in Iowa are affecting the coastline hundreds of miles away, whether they know it or not,” says David Samuel Johnson, a marine ecologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Ecosystems Center in Woods Hole, Mass.
As is often the case, the garbage we can see isn’t nearly as harmful as the stuff that is invisible. For example, the world’s officially named oceanic trash heaps — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch, the North Atlantic Garbage Patch and others — are not dramatic collections of junk on the surface but rather vast clouds of tiny bits of plastic and other materials, much of it below the surface. Krill, the small creatures that feed many fish and whales, choke on tiny plastic “nurdles” floating in the sea; seabirds swallow plastic fragments and bits of fishing line; loggerhead turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, swallow the bags, and die of intestinal obstruction.
In fact, the product with which we do the ocean most harm is odorless, tasteless and invisible. It is carbon dioxide, added to the atmosphere by industrial civilization and agriculture.
Increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are changing the climate and the biogeochemical exchanges among land, sea and air that determine the weather. For decades, the ocean has been absorbing a lot of the heat that excess carbon dioxide traps, moderating its effects on land. And the ocean is also absorbing a great deal of carbon dioxide directly, keeping it out of the atmosphere and, again, protecting us. (Oceanographers estimate that the global ocean has absorbed some 525 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the past two centuries, including about a quarter of all the CO2 generated by humans.) This protective effect helps perpetuate our “out of sight, out of mind” mentality about both our cast-off products and the effects of global warming.
But recently, signs have been accumulating that this era of ignorance cannot continue — the things we are doing to the ocean are now having such severe consequences that it appears bound to change for the worse. And among those changes is the possibility that the ocean’s capacity to serve as a great mantle of soft armor — an absorber of excess heat and excess CO2 — has reached its limit. It is in trouble. And that means we — not just the billion people around the world who depend on seafood for their protein, but all of us — are in trouble.
The most severe effects of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have combined into a three-part assault on the global ocean, according to the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO), a collection of scientists who study the global sea. First, there is global warming itself, which is causing average temperatures of seawater to rise. Second, there is an ongoing reduction in the amount of oxygen in seawater worldwide. Third, the pH of seawater worldwide is changing, making the oceans less alkaline and more acidic. Each of these effects, in isolation, could have horrendous consequences for world weather and for life in the oceans — and thus for the billion people who depend on seafood for their protein. But they are all occurring simultaneously, and each one is made worse by its interaction with the other two.
Ocean warming is well documented — over the past century, the average temperature of ocean water at or near the surface rose by more than half a degree centigrade. The reason it matters is also well known: The acceleration of this trend is likely to play havoc with fisheries, as many species head north, or go deeper, to find temperatures in their comfort zone. Competition for livable environments will be severe. Moreover, the changes will open up new opportunities for pathogens, so that diseases are expected to spread to new ocean regions and new species. Many species will not survive the disruption (some estimates say more than half will die out).
Coral reefs around the world — which, in addition to their natural beauty, are essential to the life cycles of about a quarter of all marine species — are especially ill equipped to withstand changes in ocean temperature. The reefs are created by small, soft-bodied animals called polyps, which use calcium carbonate from seawater to build themselves an external skeleton. (The hard forms of a coral reef are actually the exoskeletons of countless polyps.) To eat, many of these polyps depend on sugar made by algae that live within their bodies. The algae get protection, thanks to the hard exoskeleton made by the coral; the coral get nutrition from the algae (which are also the source of the reef’s gorgeous hues — polyps by themselves are nearly colorless).
Rising temperatures disrupt this relationship: When waters warm, polyps expel their algae. This is known as “coral bleaching,” because it leaves the normally colorful reef looking chalky white. With their main source of nutrition gone, the polyps go on to die. Bleaching is thus a major reason why some 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs are already dead, why another 15 percent are likely to be gone by 2030, and why coral could be extinct by the beginning of the next century.
Warmer oceans are also altering the chemistry of oxygen in water: The warmer water is, the less dissolved oxygen it can contain. A typical million molecules of water will harbor a few molecules of oxygen, like the carbon dioxide in a bottle of soda (the gas in the soda escapes into bubbles when you lessen the pressure on the liquid by flipping the cap, but the air and water pressure that hold oxygen in water can’t be altered). This dissolved oxygen supports billions of creatures (which absorb it through their gills or, if very small, through their skin).
The trouble is not simply that warmer oceans will harbor fewer oxygen molecules per gallon. It’s also that warmer water tends to stay at the surface, because it is lighter than cold water and because it is fed by fresh water from rain and melting ice. (Fresh water is lighter than saltwater.) Unfortunately, the oxygen supply for deep-dwelling fish and other creatures depends on the sinking of oxygen-rich surface water. If less surface water sinks, less oxygen gets to animals at depth. “Deoxygenation” is thus another serious threat to the well-being of many individual species and a menace to the food chain as a whole.
As if this weren’t bad enough, human activity is compounding the problem on the coastlines. There, over the past 60 years, we’ve been pouring vast amounts of fertilizer into the ocean. This leads to gigantic algae blooms. When all those algae die, the bacteria that consume them also consume all the available oxygen in the water. If you can imagine a stagnant pond on a hot summer day, covered with green algae and completely divested of fish, you can see the problem. Except the “dead zones” we cause extend for thousands of miles. The Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone in 2013 was 5,800 square miles (about the size of Connecticut), Johnson told me.
No one intended to kill or drive millions of fish off the coasts. It’s “out of sight, out of mind” thinking that unintentionally promotes algae blooms. First, we fertilize our crops inefficiently. Of the 200 million metric tons of nitrogen applied to farmland each year, 140 million are washed away into streams and rivers, and then into nearby seas, according to Johnson.
Second, we grow animals for food, and those animals produce what we can politely term manure. Those wastes are also rich in nitrogen (which is why they were used as fertilizer, before the discovery of chemical means to get nitrogen from air). Despite our efforts to contain and use animal waste, a lot of it also washes down to the sea. “A cow standing in a stream in Tennessee is affecting the coastline in Louisiana,” Johnson told me. Third, after they’ve eaten, humans themselves produce nitrogen-rich waste. When we flush it down to the local sewage treatment plant, that waste is cleared of smelly solids and disease-bearing pathogens. But until recently sewage systems did not concern themselves with removing nitrogen before emptying treated sewage into the nearest river or harbor.
The “dead zones” near coasts are dismaying enough but over time the “deoxygenation” of the oceans far from coastlines may prove the larger problem. Fish and animals can, after all, move out of a “dead zone,” even one that is bigger than Lebanon. But if the entire world ocean harbors less oxygen, they may find no place to go.
Finally, there is another way in which excess carbon in the atmosphere is changing ocean chemistry. Absorbed from the atmosphere, excess carbon dioxide reacts with seawater to create carbonic acid, which makes the water less alkaline and more acidic. Already, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the pH of ocean surface waters has declined from an average of about 8.21 to 8.10 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. On current trends, that pH could drop to 7.8 by 2100. One effect of higher acidity is that carbonate ions become scarcer in seawater. Unfortunately, those ions, when they bind with calcium to form calcium carbonate, are the building material of seashells, coral reefs and plankton. The more acidic the ocean, in other words, the harder it is for all these creatures to maintain the structures they need to live.
Pondering this triple threat — warming, deoxygenation and acidification — can make the ocean seem beyond repair. Yet geology offers some good news: The last time the ocean acidified in response to excess carbon in the air (after volcanic eruptions 120 million years ago), it eventually returned to the pH levels we are used to. On the other hand, geology also offers some bad news: That recovery took 160,000 years. That fact clarifies that humanity’s ocean problem is one of time. We don’t just need a recovery; we need a recovery that is, in the context of millions of years of geology, practically instantaneous.
Can humanity turn this around? The only honest answer is: Nobody knows. Nonetheless, people can take steps, as individuals and as organizations, which could slow the current damage and in some cases reverse it.
Consider those “dead zones” caused by the runoff of fertilizer into the sea. One major cause is the fact that 70 percent of the nitrogen used in agriculture is not absorbed by crops. So, Johnson notes, finding ways to make agriculture more efficient — for example, by giving farmers detailed analyses of their fields, so they can apply fertilizer differently to different parts of their terrain — would help both farmers and the global ocean. So would better management of wastes, both animal and human. Sewage treatment plants that remove nitrogen from treated water, for example, would benefit nearby coastlines.
So would a change in diet: Meat-eaters’ excretions have a lot more nitrogen in them than do vegetarians’, Johnson notes. One way to help the ocean, then, is to eat less meat.
Johnson, who is not a vegetarian, isn’t holding his breath on that one. But the point underscores a fact about the ocean crisis that is worth remembering as we struggle to find solutions. The damage that humanity is wreaking on the global ocean doesn’t result from big policy decisions or leadership directives. It is, rather, the consequence of billions of small, daily, personal choices made by millions of people. One step you can take toward helping the ocean come back, then, is to align your personal choices with that goal.
Consider the problem of overfishing, which increases stress on the species that people harvest for food. Fisheries now are managed according to national jurisdictions. Management by region or species would remove incentives to put national needs ahead of global ones, and thus improve protection of overfished species. It would then be easier to take important steps to conserve marine species. According to the IPSO report, these could include eliminating subsidies for national fishing industries, which encourage overfishing; banning harmful techniques like bottom-trawling and long-line fishing; and declaring certain areas off-limits to all fishing.
Meanwhile, on a personal level, you could take steps immediately. Apps like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, for example, can supply real-time information about which species are being sustainably fished (or farmed) and which ones are not. (It will, for example, tell you that Chilean sea bass is a good choice because the fish is abundant and is being harvested in a way that protects its long-term population while minimizing harm to other species.)
Such actions can serve as a personal contribution to the ocean’s comeback. They also can act as reminders that everything in our planetary ecosystem is connected — they can help cure us of the mentality of “out of sight, out of mind,” which created the current crisis. That brings us, of course, to the ultimate cause of the problem. Bringing the ocean back from the brink will require that humanity reduce its output of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And if, for the moment, there seems to be no will or method to drastically lower global emissions, that could change, and change fast. In 1791, when William Wilberforce first introduced his bill to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, it was easily defeated. Sixteen years later — an eyeblink in the timespan of human history — Parliament voted to abolish the trade. Political will can develop quickly, and the means to act appear once the will is manifest. It may well be that the ocean’s current crisis will help produce that kind of change — that the will to do something about global warming could come in the aftermath of collapsed fisheries or the death of all coral reefs.
It’s still not too late to look out over the ocean waves and see what people have always seen there, for as long as there have been people: hope.
Is That Tuna Fish You’re Eating? Probably Not.
Up to 75% Is Fake (Mislabeled fish makes it from the ocean to your table more often than not.)
With existential threats to ocean species mounting and overfishing a worldwide problem, fish stocks face enormous pressure. One sign of that pressure is the mislabeling of fish by food retailers.
From 2010 to 2012, the nonprofit advocacy group Oceana genetically tested fish bought from 674 retail outlets (stores and restaurants) around the United States and found that one-third of the samples were mislabeled. In sushi restaurants, the study found, nearly 75 percent of samples were not what they were supposed to be.
At other restaurants, the mislabeling rate was close to 40 percent. (Grocery stores came out better, with only 18 percent of samples bearing false labels.)
Often this involved misrepresenting an unfamiliar or unpopular fish as a better-known species that consumers prefer. For instance, 59 percent of the tuna samples nationwide were actually some other fish; in New York City, almost all the fish samples called “tuna” (94 percent) were not. Some of these substitutions raise questions about health impacts. For instance, tilefish is so high in mercury that the government advises pregnant women and other sensitive groups not to eat it. Yet the Oceana study found tilefish frequently being passed off as red snapper, for which no such warning has been issued. And in Chicago, the study found, one sample of supposed “red snapper” was a slender pinjalo — a Southeast Asian fish that is not even on the Food and Drug Administration’s list of seafood sold in the United States.
A Dose of Geritol?
The play of data and uncertainty about the ocean crisis doesn’t suit everyone — certainly not anyone with an executive temperament — who wants to identify problems and solve them.
Consider Russ George, a businessman who is convinced that one way to help the ocean and the planet cope with global carbon dioxide increases is by seeding the ocean with iron. The idea is simple: Algae, the simple plant-like organisms that abound in water, gulp down carbon dioxide as they engage in photosynthesis. But the growth of algae is limited by the availability of the nutrients they need, one of which is iron (which comes to the ocean from dust storms and the occasional volcanic eruption). In the 1980’s, the oceanographer John Martin suggested that algae failed to grow in some parts of the ocean because those areas lacked iron. Hence the “Geritol hypothesis”: Give the ocean a shot of iron, and algae will bloom and swallow up CO2. (Geritol is a vitamin and iron tonic for human consumption, sold in drugstores as a cure for “iron-poor tired blood.”) Then, the theory goes, those organisms will die and sink deep into the sea, taking excess carbon with them. “Give me a half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age,” Martin boldly announced in 1991.
So goes the theory. But biogeochemistry — the study of chemical substances moving through both living organisms and through land, sea and air — is not a simple discipline. Some studies have suggested that the Geritol hypothesis might be correct. On the other hand, a careful look at how some algae use iron suggests that it might not. In that work, published last year (2013) in the journal Nature Communications, researchers Ellery D. Ingall, Julia M. Diaz and their colleagues found that the one-celled algae called diatoms were iron gluttons. Diatoms with access to iron took up more than they needed — like someone in a cafeteria line taking two pieces of cake and eating only one, Ingall said.
This suggests that massive amounts of iron would not generate the expected payoff in algal blooms.
None of this mattered to Russ George, who in 2012 persuaded a local Native American organization, the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, to join him in dumping 100 metric tons of powdery green iron sulfate from a fishing boat some 200 miles west of the islands of Haida Gwaii off of British Columbia. A few weeks later, there was indeed a sudden and massive bloom of algae in the area, covering some 3,800 square miles. George had been advocating this Geritol strategy for years, but with this act he became, as the writer Michael Specter put it, the world’s first “geo-vigilante.” The Canadian government quickly announced that the dump violated Canadian law, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the London Convention, which governs dumping at sea. Plans for a second fertilization scheduled for June 2013 were canceled, and the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation announced that George had been “terminated.”