4. Ocean Stress
The saltwater on our planet is under as much pressure as our freshwater supplies. One major culprit is carbon dioxide emission — the same process that is driving global warming. The ocean is absorbing CO2 and creating carbonic acid. Ocean acidification weakens the ability of shell- and skeleton-building marine life to build their shells and grow and reproduce. The smallest shellfish, like krill and plankton, are important sources of nutrition for fish and other animals further up the food chain, so an entire ecosystem is being disrupted.
Some scientists worry that disruption of the food chain may lead to mass extinctions and thus a profoundly altered global ecosystem. The impact on the global fishing industry, which depends on coral reefs, could be catastrophic. (For more on ocean conservation and sustainably harvested seafood, see “Conscious Catch.”)
Fertilizer runoff at the mouths of rivers has also created coastal “dead zones” around the world. Nitrogen and phosphorus, major fertilizer components, are important “foods” for phytoplankton, one-celled marine plants. As phytoplankton thrive in these artificially enhanced environments, they steal oxygen from the water, and marine animals perish. The south and east coasts of the United States are liberally dotted with dead zones, and among the 400 or so zones globally, the most alarming is probably the Baltic Sea, whose lowest depths are completely oxygen depleted.
Whatever trouble acidification and fertilizer runoff may bring to fish stocks, right now they are overmatched by the gargantuan appetite of the fishing industry itself. As marine biologist Daniel Pauly, PhD, notes in a 2009 New Republic article, “In the past 50 years, we have reduced the populations of large commercial fish, such as bluefin tuna, cod and other favorites, by a staggering 90 percent.”
What Pauly calls the “fishing industrial complex” has taken no care to conserve aquatic stocks, but simply takes fish until depleting a given species, then goes deeper for stranger varieties, which have been renamed to sound more appetizing. The popular orange roughy, for example, was called the slimehead before it became a gourmet item — and it, too, has been heavily overfished and is now close to extinction.
The massive disruption of the ocean ecosystem means more than a loss of a favorite food for health-conscious consumers. It threatens to leave millions of people around the world without a livelihood and without a vital food source.
What to Do
Understand that ocean acidification is being driven by the same forces that are fouling the air with CO2, and that dead zones are mostly produced by agricultural pollution. There are good hints for reducing your own carbon footprint at www.cleanair-coolplanet.org, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (www.whoi.edu) is an excellent source of information on agricultural pollution. Overfishing, says Pauly, will be reduced or eliminated only by stringent government action to regulate fishing, reduce the subsidies that keep the industry artificially “afloat,” and continue large-scale research on ocean ecosystems. But we can help matters by buying only sustainably harvested fish; the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Web site (www.montereybayaquarium.org) has suggestions and recommendations for responsible seafood consumerism. (For more on how to eat fish responsibly, see “Good Fishing.”)
Glimmers of Hope
There are some hopeful signs on the H20 horizon. New conservation and irrigation techniques are helping reduce water waste. (Even with existing technologies, says Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Mass., farmers could cut their water consumption by as much as 25 percent; and industrial facilities, by recycling their water, could save as much as 90 percent.) Dam removals have been carried out in many regions of the country, restoring the free flow of rivers.
Thanks to concerted action by activists — and the ongoing process of de-industrialization — America’s rivers are actually cleaner than they were 30 or 40 years ago (although the cleanup trend has reversed somewhat since 1998). Massachusetts’s Nashua River, which ran bright red with sewage and industrial waste in the 1960s, has been rendered relatively pristine by the Nashua River Watershed Association. Groups like Adopt-a-Stream and Save Our Streams have been leaders in monitoring water quality and fighting pollution.
But great water-related challenges remain. That’s why it’s wise to deepen our own awareness of water issues. Web sites like www.foodandwaterwatch.org, www.mcbi.org (Marine Conservation Biology Institute) and www.alexandracousteau.org (the site for Philippe Cousteau’s sister Alexandra’s Blue Legacy project) are great places to start. The more we learn, the more we’ll be able to appreciate just how precious — and how vulnerable — that simple, life-bestowing combination of hydrogen and oxygen has become.
Jon Spayde is a writer, editor and performer based in St. Paul, Minn.