Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Ocean crisis



One of the long-established ecological principles is that large animals are less abundant than smaller ones. There are fewer elephants than antelope which are less numerous than rabbits. Because larger animals need more resources an ecosystem can support fewer of them.

The one glaring exception to this principle is us, homo sapiens. There are 6.8 billion humans on earth and no other large animal gets close to us as a species. For example, our nearest relatives the great apes (gorillas, orang's and chimp's) number fewer than 350,000. Part of our success as a species can be attributed to our ability to domesticate animals and plants.

Farming as we now call it has enabled us to feed a population that would be impossible to sustain from wild resources alone. Crops and livestock, genetically modified over millennia for food, have led to a situation where the global population of humans can now double every 40 years or so. The domestication of land animals may have also inadvertently saved the remaining wild populations from being hunted to extinction.

However, the exploitation of wild marine animals continues unabated, mostly without the safety-valve of large scale farming to reduce pressure on the populations. Perhaps because of the vast and hostile environment in which they inhabit marine animals have, until recently, shown remarkable resilience to over 100 years of industrial scale exploitation.

But there are now numerous unmistakeable indicators that this is no longer the case. Ninety percent of all commercial fish species are in dire trouble. Fished well beyond sustainable limits for decades some experts predict that 'wild seafood' will cease to exist by 2050. Fish and jellyfish essentially compete for similar nutrient resources and with the fish gone the jellyfish thrive. Jellyfish populations have exploded all across the world, overtaking fish in terms of total biomass in many areas.

There have been an increasing number of reports where whales, porpoises, seals and seabirds have been found starving to death through lack of enough fish to eat and Namibia are culling 86,000 Cape fur seals this year to protect their overexploited and dwindling fish stocks.

In the Mediterranean sharks have been declared 'functionally extinct' and the bluefin tuna is expected to join them any day now. Sharks across the globe are being cruelly slaughtered in their millions to satisfy the fin soup market, hardly an essential ingredient to human survival.

Longlining is decimating the billfish and pelagic bird populations. The iconic marlin, sailfish and swordfish are now in grave danger of disappearing off the face of the earth forever and the accidental bycatch of pelagic seabirds and turtles, such as the albatross and hawksbill, is reducing populations so quickly that there is virtually no hope of their breeding quickly enough to maintain healthy populations.

Not satisfied with taking all the fish pelagic fishing boats are now converting to krill fishing to satisfy the increasing demand for fish-oil and fish-meal. Venturing deep into Antarctic waters to harvest what has recently been described as 'pink gold'. Krill are a 'keystone' species whose exploitation we may later refer to as 'the straw that broke the camel's back'.

The evidence of destruction is there for all but the blindest to see and yet the exploitation goes on unabated and largely unregulated. The world's ocean is in crisis, and if these tell-tale signs are continually ignored the damage may soon become irreparable.