Oceans on the Brink: Dying Plankton, Dead Zones, Acidification

A number of marine diatom cells

By Stephen Leahy

[Originally published Jul 31, 2010 for the Inter Press Service (IPS)]

The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet and plankton its red blood cells. Those vital “red blood cells” have declined more than 40 percent since 1950 and the rate of decline is increasing due to climate change, scientists reported this week. (Update Dec 2016: New analysis show this is an overestimate. See my comment below.)

Phytoplankton are a critical part of our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2, and ultimately support all of our fisheries,” said

Boris Worm of Canadas Dalhousie University and one of the worlds leading experts on the global oceans.

“An ocean with less phytoplankton will function differently,” said Worm, the co-author of a new study on plankton published this week in Nature. Plankton are the equivalent of grass, trees and other plants that make land green, says study co-author Marlon Lewis, an oceanographer at Dalhousie.

“It is frightening to realise we have lost nearly half of the oceans’ green plants,” Lewis told IPS.

“It looks like the rate of decline is increasing,” he said.

A large phytoplankton bloom in the Northeast Atlantic -NASA Earth Observatory Collection.

[See also my series of articles on ocean acidification]

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Climate change is warming the oceans about 0.2C per decade on average. This warmer water tends to stay on top because it is lighter and essentially sits on top of a layer of colder water. This layering, or stratification, is a problem for light-loving plankton because they can only live in the top 100 to 200 meters.

Eventually they run out of nutrients to feed on unless the cold, deeper waters mix with those near the surface. Ocean stratification has been widely observed in the past decade and is occurring in more and larger areas of the world’s oceans. Continue reading

High Seas Represent $148 Billion Carbon Sink But Overfishing is Destroying It

Tuna from the Spanish Purse Seiner
Tuna from the Spanish Purse Seiner

By STEPHEN LEAHY

Stephen Leahy's picture

 

Scientists estimate that phytoplankton absorb and bury more than 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 in the seabed every year.

This would be news to readers of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper’s detailed two-page spread on the Global Ocean Commission report, which failed to mention this vitally important carbon reduction service (or that it is worth an estimated $148 billion a year).

Additionally, if governments ended fishing in the unclaimed oceans beyond 200-mile economic zones, near-shore fish catches would soar, even more carbon would be safely removed from the atmosphere and the oceans would be healthier said co-author of the study Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre.

The high seas are like a failed state. Poor governance and the absence of policing and management mean valuable resources are unprotected or being squandered,” said David Miliband, co-chair of the commission and former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom.

The dollar value of all the fish caught in high seas is actually negative

Governments like Japan, Spain, the U.S. and China subsidize fishing fleets to destroy the high seas by overfishing and deep-sea bottom trawling to the tune of $152 million a year.

Here’s the kicker: The dollar value of all the fish caught way out there is actually negative when costs like fuel and subsidies are subtracted. Turns out high seas fishing fleets get 25 per cent of their income from subsidies according to a 2009 analysis by Sumaila.

Most would not be fishing the high seas without subsidies” Sumaila told DeSmog Canada.

Restoring ocean productivity

Fishing should be banned in the high seas, which represent 64 per cent of the world’s oceans just to protect and enhance its role as a carbon sponge, he said. But that is just one of 14 other valuable services the high seas provide humanity according their study, The High Seas And Us: Understanding The Value Of High Seas Ecosystems.

The study was commissioned by the Global Ocean Commission, an 18-month-old organization comprised of business leaders and former senior politicians including former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin.

The commission is calling for the negotiation of a new agreement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to prioritize ocean health and resilience and restore ocean productivity. It also called for an elimination of subsidies on high seas fishing within five years.

The commission’s proposals also call for mandatory tracking of all vessels fishing in the high seas, a ban on the transshipment of fish at sea, measures to end plastics pollution and binding standards for the regulation and control of offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation.

Carbon really does sink

Phytoplankton are the carbon-eating plants of the seas and pass on this carbon when they’re eaten. When organisms die in the deep seas, their organic matter ends up on the bottom of the ocean, which makes for an effective, natural carbon sequestration process.

Fishing is crippling this free carbon-removal system. This is especially true for bottom-trawlers that bulldoze the sea floor scooping up every living thing. Trawling is by far the most common fishing method and recent studies warn it’s destroying corals and the sea bottom leading to “long-term biological desertification.”

Last May, scientists writing in the journal Science called for an end to “the frontier mentality of exploitation” of the high seas and recommended a ban on trawling to protect the carbon-removal service and halt the decline in the productivity of the oceans. The amount of wild fish caught peaked 20 years ago.

About 70 per cent of fish caught inside the 200-mile limits spend some time in the high seas. If the high seas are protected those fish are likely to grow larger and become more numerous, benefitting near-shore fisheries, Sumaila said.

A number of studies of marine protected zones where fishing is banned or very limited show these areas act as baby-fish incubators increasing the overall population of fish.

If fishing was banned in the high seas, fisheries profits would more than double, the amount of fish would increase 30 per cent and the amount of ocean fish stock conservation would increase 150 per cent according to a study published in PLOS Biology last March.

Given the reality that fishing the high seas is a money loser, even a low carbon price could make a fishing ban valuable, not to mention the other potential benefits of regulating international fisheries. Sumaila said the $148 billion-a-year value of the high seas carbon sponge is a conservative estimate, and it could actually be as high as $222 billion.

Fishing and trawling bans have been proposed before. Last December the European parliament narrowly rejected a bottom-trawling ban on its vessels.

We need wide public understanding of the vital importance of the high seas to all of us,” concluded Sumaila.

Top 10 High Seas Fishing Nations (according to Sumaila’s study) in descending order:
Japan
South Korea
Taiwan
Spain
USA
Chile
China
Indonesia
Philippines
France

First published by DeSmog Canada Wed, 2014-06-25 10:01

Water is far more valuable and useful than oil

Average water footprint of bottle of cola
Average water footprint of bottle of cola

The water footprint of a half-litre bottle of water is 5.5 litres – yet well over a billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity

By Stephen Leahy

I have a confession: I knocked back 320 pints at the pub last night. I actually only had two shots of a decent single malt but it took 320 pints of water to grow and process the grain used to make the whisky. That’s a whole lot of water considering the average bathtub holds 60 to 80 litres.

Even after 20 years of covering environmental issues in two dozen countries I had no idea of the incredible amounts of water needed to grow food or make things. Now, after two years working on my book Your Water Footprint: the shocking facts about how much water we use to make everyday products, I’m still amazed that the t-shirt I’m wearing needed 3,000 litres to grow and process the cotton; or that 140 litres went into my morning cup of coffee. The rest of my breakfast swallowed 1,012 litres: small orange juice (200 litres); two slices of toast (112 litres); two strips of bacon (300 litres); and two eggs (400 litres).

Water more valuable and useful than oil

Researching all this I soon realised that we’re surrounded by a hidden world of water. Litres and litres of it are consumed by everything we eat, and everything we use and buy. Cars, furniture, books, dishes, TVs, highways, buildings, jewellery, toys and even electricity would not exist without water. It’s no exaggeration to say that water is far more valuable and useful than oil.

front cover resized1A water footprint adds up the amount of water consumed to make, grow or produce something. I use the term consumed to make it clear that this is water that can no longer be used for anything else. Often water can be cleaned or reused so those amounts of water are not included in the water footprints in the book. The water footprint of 500ml of bottled water is 5.5 litres: 0.5 for the water in the bottle and another five contaminated in the process of making the plastic bottle from oil. The five litres consumed in making the bottle are as real water as the 500ml you might drink but hardly anyone in business or government accounts for it.

The incredible amounts of water documented in Your Water Footprint are based primarily on research done at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, where Arjen Hoekstra originated the concept of water footprints. The amount consumed to make something varies enormously depending on where the raw materials come from and how they are processed. Wheat grown in dry desert air of Morocco needs a lot more water than wheat grown in soggy Britain. For simplicity, the amounts in the book are global averages.

One of the biggest surprises was learning how small direct use of water for drinking, cooking and showering is by comparison. Each day the average North American uses 300 to 400 litres. (Flushing toilets is the biggest water daily use, not showers.) 400 litres is not a trivial amount; however, the virtual water that’s in the things we eat, wear and use each day averages 7,500 litres in North America, resulting in a daily water footprint of almost 8,000 litres. That’s more than twice the size of the global average. Think of running shoes side by side: the global shoe is a size 8; the North American a size 18. By contrast, the average water footprint of an individual living in China or India is size 6.

Peak water is here

Water scarcity is a reality in much of the world. About 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity, while 2 billion are affected by shortages every year. And as the ongoing drought in California proves, water scarcity is an increasing reality for the US and Canada. Water experts estimate that by 2025 three in five people may be living with water shortages.

While low-flow shower heads and toilets are great water savers, the water footprint concept can lead to even bigger reductions in water consumption. For example green fuels may not be so green from a water consumption perspective. Biodiesel made from soybeans has an enormous water footprint, averaging more than 11,000 litres per litre of biodiesel. And this doesn’t include the large amounts of water needed for processing. Why so much water? Green plants aren’t “energy-dense,” so it takes a lot of soy to make the fuel.

Beef also has a big footprint, over 11,000 litres for a kilo. If a family of four served chicken instead of beef they’d reduce their water use by an astonishing 900,000 litres a year. That’s enough to fill an Olympic size pool to a depth of two feet. If this same family of opted for Meatless Mondays, they’d save another 400,000 litres. Now they could fill that pool halfway.

We can do nearly everything using less water. It’s all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial, but we can’t make the right choices unless we begin to see and understand the invisible ways in which we rely on water.

First published at The Guardian

No Safe Havens in Increasingly Acid Oceans

churning-ocean-smlOil, gas and coal are contaminating the world’s oceans from top to bottom, threatening the lives of more than 800 million people

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Oct 15 2013 (IPS) 

Oil, gas and coal are contaminating the world’s oceans from top to bottom, threatening the lives of more than 800 million people, a new study warns Tuesday.

“It took a year to analyse and synthesise all of the studies on the impacts of climate change on ocean species,” Camilo Mora, an ecologist at University of Hawai‘i in Honolulu and lead author, told IPS.

“We are seeing greater changes, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated.” — Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford

Mora is also lead author of ground-breaking climate study published in Nature last week.

“It was very sad to see all the responses were negative. We were hoping there might be some safe havens,” he said.

The study found that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are overheating the oceans, turning them acidic and reducing the amount of oxygen in seawater. This is happening too fast for most marine species to adapt and ocean ecosystems around the world will collapse.

By 2100, no corner of the oceans that cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface will be untouched.

“The impacts of climate change will be felt from the ocean surface to the seafloor. It is truly scary to consider how vast these impacts will be,” said Andrew Sweetman of the International Research Institute of Stavanger, Norway, co-author of the PLOS Biology study published Oct. 15.

This ambitious study examined all the available research on how current and future carbon emissions are fundamentally altering the oceans. It then looked at how this will impact fish, corals, marine animals, plants and other organisms. Finally the 29 authors from 10 countries analysed how this will affect the 1.4 to 2.0 billion people who live near the oceans or depend on them for their food and income.

“We are making a big mess of the oceans. Climate change is having a major impact illustrating the need for urgent action to reduce emissions,” said Mora. Continue reading

Help Wanted: 27 Planet Earths

This story was featured on the IPS wire and on the Al Jazeera network in 2011. It shows that national parks, conservation and protected areas do not and cannot halt the decline in biodiversity that is humanity’s life support system. It is hopeless without addressing the root causes: too many of us, taking too much and having too big of an impact. On our present course we’ll need 27 planet Earths by 2050 experts conclude. — Stephen 

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jul 29, 2011 (IPS)

Protecting bits of nature here and there will not prevent humanity from losing our life support system. Even if areas dedicated to conserving plants, animals, and other species that provide Earth’s life support system increased tenfold, it would not be enough without dealing with the big issues of the 21st century: population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use.

Without dealing with those big issues, humanity will need 27 planet Earths by 2050, a new study estimates.

The size and number of protected areas on land and sea has increased dramatically since the 1980s, now totaling over 100,000 in number and covering 17 million square kilometres of land and two million square kilometres of oceans, a new study reported Thursday.

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But impressive as those numbers look, all indicators reveal species going extinct faster than ever before, despite all the additions of new parks, reserves and other conservation measures, according to the studypublished in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

“It is amazing to me that we haven’t dealt with this failure of protected areas to slow biodiversity losses,” said lead author Camilo Mora of University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“We were surprised the evidence from the past 30 years was so clear,” Mora told IPS. Continue reading

At international wildlife meeting today Canada is fighting to continue to trophy hunt endangered polar bears: Russia says NYET! Here’s what’s going in the Arctic – Stephen

Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist

polar-bear-snout-wwwfirstpeopleus-smlIce-free summer in the Arctic is just a matter of time – mostly likely within the next 5 years. Here’s a “six-pack” of my recent articles on how global warming is transforming the Arctic:

The Arctic — The Earth’s Freezer — Is Defrosting With Dire Results

The rapidly warming Arctic region is destabilising Earth’s climate in ways science is just beginning to comprehend.

Arctic Leaking Methane a Super-Potent Global Warming Gas — Reaching Feared Tipping Point?“The way we’re going right now, I’m not optimistic that we will avoid some kind of tipping point.ceberg-in-glacier-strait-nunavut-canada-image-credit-sandy-briggs

Arctic Ice Gone in 5 Years – First Time in One Million Years– “We’re going to see huge changes in the Arctic ecosystem”

Things Happen Much Faster in the Arctic — “Things are happening much faster in the Arctic. I think it will be summer ice-free by 2015,” said David Barber, an…

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Oceans Filled with Plastic Trash – Changing Marine Ecology

Tiny bits of plastic now found throughout the world’s oceans

Ban single-use plastic: bags, bottles, cups etc, scientists say

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 10, 2012 (IPS)

Plastic trash is altering the very ecology of the world’s oceans. Insects called “sea skaters”, a relative of pond water striders, are now laying their eggs on the abundant fingernail-sized pieces of plastic floating in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean instead of relying on a passing seabird feather or bit of driftwood.

With an average of 10 bits of plastic per cubic metre of seawater, there are now plenty of places for sea skaters to lay eggs in a remote region known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, 1,500 kilometres west of North America. Not surprisingly, egg densities have soared, a new study has found.

“We’re seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly attributed to the plastic,” says Miriam Goldstein, study co-author and graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

This is the first proof that plastics in the open ocean are affecting marine invertebrates (animals without a backbone), which will have consequences for the entire marine food web.

“We simply don’t have the data to know what those consequences will be. It is a very remote region of the ocean, hard to get to and expensive to conduct research,” Goldstein told IPS.

The North Pacific Gyre is one of five large systems of rotating currents in the world’s oceans. It has become better known in recent years as theGreat Pacific Garbage Patch”. It has at least 100 times more plastic today than it did in 1972, according to the study published this week in the journal Biology Letters.

“There were no hard surfaces before in the North Pacific Gyre other than the occasional feather and piece of wood,” says Miriam Goldstein, study co-author and a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

“The ocean looks pretty normal out there in the gyre. There is no floating island of trash as some people imagine,” Goldstein told IPS. Continue reading