The sea

An ocean of troubles

Overfishing, global warming and pollution threaten to transform the ocean—and perhaps life as we know it

May 12th 2012 | from the print edition

The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea. By Callum Roberts. Viking; 390 pages; $30. Allen Lane; £25. Buy from,

IN 1998 a rise in sea temperatures caused by El Niño, a periodic eastward surge of warm Pacific water, caused a mass bleaching of the world’s coral reefs, the permanent or temporary home of perhaps a quarter of all marine species. Up to 90% of the Indian Ocean’s technicoloured reefs turned to skeletal wastes, largely devoid of life. Had this happened to rainforests—coral’s terrestrial equivalent—a sea-change in attitudes to the environment could have been expected. But because this change occurred in the sea, the calamity drew remarkably little comment.

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Traditional attitudes towards the sea, as something immutable and distant to humanity, are hugely out of date. The temperature change that harmed the corals was not caused by human activity; yet it was a foretaste of what man is now doing to the sea. The effects of overfishing, agricultural pollution and anthropogenic climate change, acting in concert, are devastating marine ecosystems. Though corals are returning to many reefs, there is a fair chance that in just a few decades they will all be destroyed, as ocean temperatures rise owing to global warming. The industrial pollution that is cooking the climate could also cause another problem: carbon dioxide, absorbed by the sea from the atmosphere, turns to carbonic acid, which is a threat to coral, mussels, oysters and any creature with a shell of calcium carbonate.

The enormity of the sea’s troubles, and their implications for mankind, are mind-boggling. Yet it is equally remarkable how little this is recognised by policymakers—let alone the general public. Killer sharks are a more appealing subject than algal blooms; though they are much less deadly. There is also a dearth of good and comprehensive books on a subject that can seem too complicated and depressing for any single tome. Callum Roberts, a conservation biologist, has now provided one.

He starts with a bold claim: that anthropogenic stresses are changing the oceans faster than at almost any time in the planet’s history. That may be putting it too strongly. Yet there is no quibbling with the evidence of marine horrors that Mr Roberts presents.

Take overfishing. The industrialisation of fishing fleets has massively increased man’s capability to scoop protein from the deep. An estimated area equivalent to half the world’s continental shelves is trawled every year, including by vast factory ships able to put to sea for weeks on end. Yet what they are scraping is the bottom of the barrel: most commercial species have been reduced by over 75% and some, like whitetip sharks and common skate, by 99%. For all the marvellous improvements in technology, British fishermen, mostly using sail-power, caught more than twice as much cod, haddock and place in the 1880s as they do today. By one estimate, for every hour of fishing, with electronic sonar fish finders and industrial winches, dredges and nets, they catch 6% of what their forebears caught 120 year ago.

Overfishing is eradicating the primary protein source of one in five people, many of them poor. It also weakens marine ecosystems, making them even more vulnerable to big changes coming downstream.

For example, there is the matter of chemical pollution, mostly from agricultural run-off. This has created over 400 dead-zones, where algal tides turn the sea anoxic for all or part of the year. One of the biggest, at the mouth of the Mississippi Delta in the Gulf of Mexico, covers 20,000 square km (7,700 square miles) of ocean. An annual event, mainly caused by the run-off of agricultural fertilisers from 40% of America’s lower 48 states, it makes the one-off Deepwater Horizon oil-spill look modest by comparison.

Global warming is another problem. Hitherto, the sea has been a buffer against it: because the heat capacity of water is several times that of air, the oceans have sucked up most of the additional heat, sparing the continents further warming. Yet this is now starting to change—faster than almost anyone had dared imagine.

One effect of the warming ocean, for example, is to increase the density difference between the surface and the chilly deep, which in turn decreases mixing of them. That means less oxygen is making it down to the depths, reducing the liveability of the oceans. Off America’s west coast, the upper limit of low-oxygen water is thought to have risen by 100 metres. Where strong winds bring this water nearer to the surface, there are mass die-offs of marine life. Such events will proliferate as the climate warms.

This is a poor lookout for already put-upon fish. “Fish under temperature and oxygen stress will reach smaller sizes, live less long and will have to devote a bigger fraction of their energy to survival at the cost of growth and reproduction,” writes Mr Roberts. And that is before he gets to the effects of ocean acidification, which could be very bad indeed. Without dramatic action to reverse these processes, he predicts a catastrophe comparable to the mass extinctions of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when carbon-dioxide levels, temperature and ocean acidity all rocketed. He writes: “Not for 55m years has there been oceanic disruption of comparable severity to the calamity that lies just a hundred years ahead.” That would be hard to prove; it would be better not to try.

So what is to be done? Mr Roberts provides a hundred pages of answers, occupying roughly a third of the book. They range from the obvious—curbing carbon emissions—to technical fixes, like genetic improvements to aquaculture stocks. None is impossible; and Mr Roberts, almost incredibly, describes himself as an optimist. He writes, “We can change. We can turn around our impacts on the biosphere.” We had better do so.

from the print edition | Books and arts