We're killing the oceans

Is it too late to save the seas that sustain us?
By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 18, 2009

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I meet world-renowned undersea photojournalist Brian Skerry at Legal Seafoods, across from the New England Aquarium, where he's the explorer in residence.

He orders a chicken Caesar salad.

"I refrain from eating much seafood due to environmental concerns," he explains, before launching into a depressing litany of problems facing the world's marine ecosystems.

"I have to remain optimistic, because I do believe there's always hope," says Skerry, who spends more than half of every year underwater, diving with harp seals in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and green sea turtles in Kiribati. "That said, it's very discouraging what I'm seeing."

What he's seeing are oceans in crisis, their health potentially at a tipping point: gratuitously destructive overfishing, endangered underwater "big game" (100 million sharks killed each year), dying coral reefs, and subtle but potentially catastrophic shifts that are almost certainly due to climate change.

Once upon a time, North Atlantic right whales were so plentiful that, as one Pilgrim wrote in his log book, "a man could almost walk across Cape Cod Bay upon their backs." It wasn't too long ago, either, that Atlantic cod teemed so thick in Boston Harbor one could simply toss a net into the water and pull up a writhing, silvery haul.

Today, there are barely 400 North Atlantic right whales left on the planet. Ocean scientists say that Atlantic cod has been fished down to the last 10 percent of its population, and that those stocks may never be restored. Much of that degradation has taken place in only 50 years or so, since the advent of mechanized fishing.

But it's not just ruthless whaling and foolhardy fishing practices that are plaguing the world's oceans. Underwater, things are bad all over — from the acidifying Atlantic to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A perfect storm of climate change, pollution, and rapacious global fishing practices has the potential to gravely imperil Earth's oceans and their intricate, highly sensitive ecosystems.

In Daniel Pauly's September New Republic cover story — title: "Aquacalypse Now"— the author, leader of the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia, reports that, in just the past half century, humans have "reduced the populations of large commercial fish . . . by a staggering 90 percent." He contends, consequently, that "eating a tuna roll at a sushi restaurant should be considered no more environmentally benign than driving a Hummer or harpooning a manatee."

The recent documentary End of the Line, meanwhile, delivers an alarming ultimatum: change the way we fish or the seas will be barren of seafood by 2048 — their empty waters patrolled only by the ghostly forms of ectoplasmic jellyfish.

That dire vision has been vehemently disputed. But there's little doubt that the seas have seen better days. What to do about it, however — especially in New England, the economy and culture of which have for centuries been inextricably tied to the water — is a complex and contentious issue. Different fisheries have different needs, prognoses, and environmental and economic prerogatives that must be balanced — a process made more difficult by extremists and pragmatists on both sides.

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  Topics: News Features , Barack Obama, Science and Technology, Oceans,  More more >
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