Dawn breathed a translucent light across the Bay of Fundy. It was the kind of light that had captured the imagination of America’s renowned mid-nineteenth-century marine painter Fitz Henry Lane whose depictions of ships, bays and harbours were set within a luminous serenity.
A taint of brine pinched the air as waters gurgled across the bay’s mudflats, heralding the opus of a new sea symphony. Fishing craft with hulls ranging from white and blue to muted red and black, securely tethered to the wharf and resting on metal boxes, began to stir.
A fisherman, watching his boat begin a gentle dance, sucked on his pipe like an ancient mariner plucked from a Conrad novel.
A pair of peregrine falcons circled overhead, their “kaak, kaak,” cries floating on the air.
One of North America’s great wonders, the Bay of Fundy flows between New Brunswick and the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. In some areas the tides crescendo to 50 feet. Over the centuries, ebbing and flowing twice daily, they have crafted fluidly written stories into escarpments, sea stacks and arkosic sandstone rocks along parts of the Fundy coast.
At Hopewell Rocks at Hopewell Cape, erosion and tides have sculpted a legacy of natural history into the rocks of the coastlands.
But the very ebb and flow of the bay’s waters are unwitting accomplices for industrial enterprises that daily pump toxins and petroleum slag into them.
And beyond the bay, ocean hydrospheres are assailed by debris from ships, chemical sludge, pharmaceuticals, agricultural runoff, discarded fishing nets, hooks, fishing lines and plastics.
“The sea is the universal sewer” – Jacques Cousteau
Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997), a marine conservation pioneer and co-developer of the Aqua-Lung, was blunt. “The sea is where all kinds of pollution wind up,” he stated in January 1971 to the US House Committee on Science and Astronautics. There were nods of agreement. But ocean degradation remained unabated.
Almost a half-century later in June 2017, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, opening the inaugural five-day UN conference on the oceans, warned that “the world’s seas were threatened as never before.”
General Assembly president Peter Thompson also voiced concern, stating that “it was time to address our wrongful ways.”
Sands in the hourglass are running down, and wrongful ways are evidenced in great oceanic garbage gyres typified by concentrations of plastics.
A study published October 17, 2017, by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Science estimated that rivers annually transport some four million metric tons of plastic out to sea.
(I can’t resist noting that in 1992 almost 30,000 plastic green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks tumbled from a cargo ship into the Pacific with many today still bobbing around the oceans providing a new twist on the rubber ducky in the bathtub.)
Gyres are found in the North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean, with the North Pacific generally considered the largest oceanic plastic dump. All pose hazards to sea birds and marine animals that nibble at the litter, often ingesting highly toxic pollutants.
Almost a decade before the Helmholtz study, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography revealed that some nine percent of North Pacific fish contained small pieces of plastic in their stomachs.
Scientists had previously thought many plastics degraded only at very high temperatures and over hundreds of years.
But research by a team led by Katsuhiko Saido, a chemist at the College of Pharmacy at Nihon University in Japan, discovered that some plastics degenerate at cooler temperatures than previously believed, and often within a year of entering the oceans.
Saido’s findings, disclosed in August 2009 at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), offered a more critical examination of decomposition rates of plastics that have entered the world’s aquatic systems.
Debris in the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, not only floats but in common with other gyres much is submerged with plastic detritus penetrating deep into its water columns.
Plastic production is big business with some 300 megatons produced annually across the world.
In 2014 US plastic exports were valued at almost $428 billion. Grand View Research, Inc., a market research consulting company based in California, has noted that by 2020 the dollar value will surpass US$654 billion.
Halting unbridled disposal of plastic into oceans and seas is problematic. Removing it constitutes a monumental challenge.
However, the non-profit Ocean Cleanup Foundation, founded in 2013 and based in Delft, plans to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch this summer. It will be a significant step forward if their cutting-edge technology succeeds, considering that recent research reveals that this patch has expanded, is denser, and now encompasses nearly 617,000 square miles. The “sewer” is flourishing.
Plastic is integral to our ways of living, so much so that even if one goes completely off the grid and hunkers down in a log cabin somewhere in the boonies, plastics may still be guests cloaked in one guise or another.
Derived mostly from petrochemicals, plastic has greatly evolved from its 1852 launch at the Great International Exhibition in London. Made from cellulose, it was the brainchild of Alexander Parkes who called it Parkesine.
Today several chemical categories of plastic enable the development of products with which we are familiar: food storage bags, wraps and containers, doors, windows, shower curtains, denture adhesives, cookware, bottles, bags, toys, film, DVDs and CDs (a mixture of plastic and metals), bank cards, cellphones and laptops.
Thousands of tons of plastic-derived products are discarded annually across the globe. Their environmental impact may be likened to a contemporary Gordian knot, the legendary metaphor for an intractable problem. Unlike the legend whereby the problem knot was put to the sword, plastics are not so easily severed.
The dilemma lies not in plastics but in how and where they are discarded.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British charity launched in September 2010, predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than there are fish.
Dame Ellen made a hefty personal donation to the charity to jump-start the pursuit of rethinking plastic design and use through a circular economic framework.
Such an economy emphasises minimising waste, favours long-lasting designs, product reuse, and commitment to recycling, the antithesis of a linear economy that embraces a make, use, and dispose paradigm.
In May 2017, the Foundation in partnership with the Prince of Wales International Sustainability Unit established a $2 million prize fund directed toward innovations in plastic waste management.
Initiatives are also being undertaken in what some have called “a war on plastic.” Taiwan, Greece and a few other European Union countries are engaged in efforts to curb various plastics, from straws and plastic bags to utensils and food containers.
But this “war” has yet to gain significant global traction.
Although plastics are generally at the forefront when ocean pollution is examined, other factors are actors on the aquatic stage.
From February 11–16, 2017, an Ocean Sciences meeting organised at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland by the American Geophysical Union discussed, among other marine science topics, the introduction of antibiotics, pharmaceuticals and anti-fungal agents into the oceans. Bisphenol A (BPA) which often leaches from degrading plastic, has emerged as an endocrine disruptor for not only marine and land animals, but also humans.
Individuals, organisations and governments generally recognise the urgent need for profound social and industrial change if oceanic blight is to be curtailed. However, pesticides, detergents, fertilizers and herbicides continue to be pumped and dumped into oceans, rivers, estuaries, bays and seas.
One sea under intense scrutiny is the Mediterranean, a 970,000-square-mile body of water bordered by 21 nations on three continents. It is habitat to more than 10,000 aquatic species, several of which are threatened, among them monk seals, loggerhead turtles and short-beaked common dolphins.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has estimated that more than 600 million tons of sewage, almost 130 tons of mineral oil, 60,000 tons of mercury, along with phosphates, lead and untreated wastewater are pumped into the Mediterranean annually.
Additionally, refuse from heavily populated coastal areas along with discharges from a third of the world’s maritime traffic navigating its waters have bestowed on the Mediterranean the distinction of being the world’s most polluted sea.
Spurred by an urgency to clean up and halt continuous abuse, National Environmental Action Plans (NAPs) have been initiated by northern Mediterranean countries. Jordan and Egypt are also on board.
But alarm bells clang elsewhere.
Once called the “world’s aquarium” by Cousteau, the Sea of Cortez, a 700-mile-long stretch between Mexico and the Baja California peninsula, is under assault. Its waters nourish hundreds of fish species and 2,000 species of marine invertebrates. Sadly, agricultural runoff is slowly taking a toll on this once pristine “aquarium.”
Our “wrongful ways” constitute an environmental pandemic. Overall health of oceans and seas and life therein is poised on the razor’s edge. Facts are not fake news.
“That sea beast Leviathan…” – John Milton [Paradise Lost]
Whaling emerged as a prominent industry in the nineteenth century with New England ports dominating the quest. Bermuda’s St. David’s Islanders were arguably among the first in the New World to engage in this lucrative enterprise.
Spermaceti and blubber taken from whales proved ideal for manufacturing oil for lamps, soaps, cosmetic creams and industrial lubricants.
Whalebone was a mainstay in the making of corsets by which ladies—and some men—reined in miscreant waistlines.
During return voyages to home ports, gifted sailors often used their spare time engraving and carving artworks using whalebone and teeth taken from sperm whales. Nineteenth-century scrollworks and sculptures highlighted with variously coloured pigments are known as “scrimshaw” and today are collector’s items.
Although whale hunting is now banned and estimates of whale populations before they were assiduously sought is impossible to ascertain, some species have been drastically reduced from the oceans.
The blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, has an estimated population of 2,000. These giants were once considered too difficult to hunt because of their speed and size.
But the ascendancy of “factory ships” and the harpoon gun in the 1920s wreaked havoc so widespread that by the 1960s the blue whale was a nudge or two from extinction.
Currently it is not the harpoon that decimates their population, but collisions with ships. And more significantly, fishing nets and related gear have emerged as constant threats.
The North Atlantic right whale, was so named, it is said, by the nineteenth-century whalers because it was the “right” whale to pursue as it was visible from the shore, slow moving, and floated when dead, making its harvesting easier.
Contemporary estimates place population numbers at 450 with only 105 fertile females remaining.
Although “endangered” and “threatened” are often used interchangeably, threatened species are those on the cusp of becoming endangered, which in turn refers to native species confronted with extinction within all or most of their natural ranges.
Causes in both cases are generally the result of habitat destruction, invasive species, climate change, and in regard to aquatic species, overfishing, pollution and ensnarement in fishing gear.
Becoming ensnared is terrifying for cetaceans (dolphins, seals and whales).
The whale thrashed furiously just beneath the surface of the water, the plastic fishing net wrapping ever tighter around its great body, and the more it twisted and rolled the net cut into its flesh. The magnificent creature plunged deeper but the constrictive gear couldn’t be shrugged off. Its bones began to crack. Panicking, it closed its blowhole. Suffocation came fairly quickly. The beast’s ocean wanderings had ended, the only evidence of its existence the blood stains on the rolling waves.
The 1974 US Marine Mammal Protection Act (amended in 1994), in concert with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, provides for the conservation of endangered species throughout all or a significant portion of their foraging habitats.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has notched successes in reducing whale hunts. Yet, despite laws and international agreements, many cetaceans remain threatened.
But there is more to the oceanic portrait.
Often overlooked when one examines ocean debasement and risk assessment of marine animals is the intersecting challenge of ocean acidification (OA) exacerbated by a warming planet. Despite naysayers of global warming, 13 of the 15 hottest years have occurred since 2000, with 2014 the hottest.
The impetus behind OA is anthropogenic (human-caused) carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. Its uptake in oceans causes an increase in seawater acidity and reduces natural concentrations of calcium carbonate, biologically critical to the shell formation of oysters, clams and sea snails. Calcareous phytoplankton, crucial in the oceanic carbon cycle, are equally sensitive to OA.
Bluntly, a burgeoning acidic ocean bodes ill for the survival of many marine species.
“Our future and the state of the oceans are one.” – Sylvia Earle
Renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle has noted that populations of many marine species—among them sharks, whales and marlins—had by the end of the twentieth century been drastically depleted.
Technological advances have spawned massive industrial fishing enterprises that are gradually eroding entire fish populations.
An estimated 90 percent of large species have undergone significant stock reductions, and their continued removal from the oceans will prove disastrous to the marine food chain.
Compounding this problem is the damage inflicted by bottom trawling. Through this method, weighted nets dragged along the seabed injure marine invertebrates and abuse seafloor habitats even while succeeding in capturing species that include flounder and rockfish.
As an aside, during the reign of Edward III, the British Parliament was presented in 1376 with a petition that sought the prohibition of trawling that used “a subtly contrived instrument called the wondyrchoum.” It was described as being “of so small a mesh, no manner of fish, however small, entering within it can pass out.” The petition was referred to another government department.
But twenty-first-century bottom trawling is a different kettle of fish-capture entirely.
It can be likened to scouring a forest with bulldozers in efforts to harvest mushrooms to suit the epicurean palate. One finds mushrooms, but the forest is destroyed and the myriad critters for whom it was home are decimated.
A salient example of how deleterious bottom trawling can be is witnessed in the destruction of many glass sponge reefs. Believed to have succumbed to extinction 40 million years ago, living reefs were discovered in 1987 some 656 feet below the surface of Hecate Strait off the northern British Columbia coast.
The strait is a wide body of water between the Haida Gwaii islands and the mainland. It is habitat for the largest and most pristine glass sponge reefs in the world. Estimated to be nine thousand years old, they cover 621 square miles and may loosely be considered high-rise gardens of the ocean, some growing as tall as 80 feet. Habitats for prawns, rockfish and sharks, they are incredibly fragile.
A legacy from the Jurassic period when reptiles strode the Earth with impunity and continents nudged closer to each other, they are ancient branches of living, breathing, reproducing multi-cell marine organisms with bodies formed of silica. Their shapes resemble goblets, lattice work, needles and geological formations.
Only after a 2002 fishing closure and ban on bottom trawling (responsible for destruction of some 50 percent of the sponge reefs) were enacted did the erosion of these reefs cease.
Against the backdrop of overfishing, and according to its 2015–2016 report, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international non-profit organisation set up in 1989 to promote solutions that rein in unsustainable fishing, had by March 2017 certified more than 300 fisheries in dozens of countries to MSC Fisheries sustainable fishing standards.
The MSC eco-label is on more than 20,000 products available in scores of countries. But the great majority of fisheries are not certified. And although almost 10 million tons of seafood are harvested annually by certified fisheries, these catches represent only 10 percent of total yearly catches of wild capture uncertified fisheries.
Last year during a UN Ocean Conference in New York, nine of the world’s largest fishing industries entered an agreement to protect the world’s oceans, pledging to bring a halt to overfishing. But it may be too late.
Amazingly, with most major fish stocks already overfished, the FAO forecasts a 17 percent production increase by 2025.
If this comes to fruition, it may constitute a zero-sum game.