Protecting our final frontiers; Preserve the world’s oceans

Edward Frankonis, Crier Staff

Imagine after doing the laundry that you dumped out your clothes and poured several gallons of bleach upon them. Now imagine doing this for every load of laundry in your dorm; wouldn’t your dorm-mates feel angered if you did so? You’d surely penalized, and those citing damages would likely be compensated.

Something similar to this has happened in the ocean: recently 900 miles of the Great Barrier Reef suffered what is known as a “bleaching” event where the algae giving reefs color are driven out due to hot waters. This turned two-thirds of the massive reef into a bleached white, just like if you, dear reader, poured bleach all over a pile of clothes.

But no one was punished nor compensated over this. In fact, the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef (which is linked to climate change) is just a symptom of the problem that is slowly killing our last unexplored frontier. The depths of the oceans are more alien to us than the surfaces of Mars, and our ruthless exploitation of this “final frontier” is having a seriously damaging effect upon our mindsets and upon the ocean.

If we are to evolve responsibly, we must learn to cease pillaging unexplored regions of our globe, lest we end up understanding what we have lost only when it is gone.

These symptoms I discussed come in two forms: overfishing and damaging reefs. Overfishing is the deadliest threat to ocean life today, and given modern fishing techniques it is easy to see why.

Centuries ago fishermen largely sought fish in waters close to home; today they board titanic factory ships that catch, process, and store 124 million metric tons (or 378 Empire state buildings worth) of fish per year. These ships use GPS to locate large schools of fish and deploy everything from long fishing lines with thousands of fishing hooks (which reach up to 74 miles in depth) to gigantic nets (capable of holding a medium-sized aircraft) that drag on the bottom of the ocean to catch fish. Due to the imprecision of this fishing method, around 25% of all fish caught are eventually tossed overboard due to either being undesirable or the wrong kind of fish, or “bycatch”.

One of the critters of the deep affected by being “bycatch” are sharks; across the globe, shark populations have declined by 90% (and in the American East Coast, 99%). This disappearance of the top predator in the ocean disrupts the balance between predator and prey, leading to serious ecosystem malfunctions. And that is simply the disappearance of one bycatch fish. Sea turtles, dolphins, and even whales are also included in this group.

The Great Barrier Reef has suffered 4 bleaching episodes since 1998, with the most recent event only a year after the last one–and is not the only reef in peril. 50% of all reefs in the Caribbean are gone, and an estimated 19% of all coral reefs on the planet are already dead. Because of this rampant decline of coral reefs, scientists have been furiously searching them for natural medicines; from the Caribbean to the coasts of Scotland, scientists are participating in a medical “gold rush”, finding medicines that could possibly cure everything from arthritis to inflammatory disease in ocean life. Since half of all medicines in humanity’s pharmacy have natural origins (most of which are from land creatures) scientists are racing to find what they can before the reefs disappear forever.

The disappearance of reefs will have disastrous environmental and economic impacts; 25% of all ocean species will be homeless, while $375 billion in economic benefits will lost. The disappearance of fish species will be even more disastrous; half of the protein eaten by many Africans and South Asians comes from fish, while the economic equivalent of Colorado ($258 billion) for America will be lost.

In fact, reefs are considered to be so valuable that they receive their own spotlight in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, in which he laments the destruction of these natural ocean “forests”.

Despite these consequences (and comments from the Pope), we continue our ruthless harvest: The UN estimates that 70% of all the world’s fisheries are “fully exploited” or “significantly depleted”. In two decades 15% of the world’s reefs are expected to die, and within the century climate change could kill every reef left in the ocean. This might leave up to a billion people unemployed and at risk for food security.

We have more accurate topographical maps of Mars than we do of our own ocean floor; in fact, less than 5% of the entire ocean has been personally explored by humanity. Discoveries of the ocean deep are regularly displaced by the latest achievement by Space X or latest picture of Saturn. While this focus on space is certainly not a terrible thing, even in our neglect of our oceans in favor of space exploration we pollute; 500,000 pieces of “trash” orbit us every day, 20,000 of which are so large they are tracked by the military to prevent collisions between “trash” and satellites. The larger consequences for space pollution are currently unforeseen.

Most of the problems described above are seemingly far beyond our control; in fact it appears as though the oceans will become barren wastes within our lifetimes regardless of what we do to save ocean life. But I know this is not the case, as we–the young and educated–are the fires to the flames of change in most revolutions and reforms across the history of our world. If we agreed to give up all forms of meat for Lent, not just steak or beef, and advocated through SGA for the school to purchase seafood only from responsible (and renewable, or non-overexploited) vendors, that’s a great step in the right direction.

For life to thrive in the ocean again, we must discard our apathy to the pillaging of the seas and dramatically reduce our voracious appetite for seafood. Otherwise, we will lose the many unseen and unknown wonders (visual and medical) the ocean possesses.