The oceans are in a worse state than previously suspected, according to an expert panel of scientists. In a new report, they warn that ocean life is "at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history". They conclude that issues such as over-fishing, pollution and climate change are acting together in ways that have not previously been recognised. The impacts, they say, are already affecting humanity. "The rate of change is vastly exceeding what we were expecting even a couple of years ago," said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral specialist from the University of Queensland in Australia. Some species are already fished way beyond their limits - and may also be affected by other threats"
But more worrying than this, the team noted, are the ways in which different issues act synergistically to increase threats to marine life. Some pollutants, for example, stick to the surfaces of tiny plastic particles that are now found in the ocean bed. This increases the amounts of these pollutants that are consumed by bottom-feeding fish. Plastic particles also assist the transport of algae from place to place, increasing the occurrence of toxic algal blooms - which are also cause d by the influx of nutrient-rich pollution from agricultural land.
"What we're seeing at the moment is unprecedented in the fossil record - the environmental changes are much more rapid," Professor Rogers told BBC News. "We've still got most of the world's biodiversity, but the actual rate of extinction is much higher [than in past events] - and what we face is certainly a globally significant extinction event." (1)
There is an assumption which seems to come from James Lovelock that the Earth has various homoeostatic mechanisms which will cause any imbalance to rectify itself over time. Lovelock seems to have devoted considerable amount of time to his Gaia hypothesis in which he attempted to explain the strange circumstances in which the Earth of all the solar planets seemed admirably suited for life. I founded noteworthy that his book had little or no mention of Darwin or natural selection. He seems to have taken the longevity of life on Earth as indicating some kind of balancing mechanism which insures that life continues on our planet.
Twenty-six years ago when I first started writing this book, I had no clear idea of what Gaia was although I had thought deeply about her. What I did know was that the Earth was different from Mars and Venus. It was a planet with apparently the strange property of keeping itself always a fit and comfortable place for living things to inhabit. I had the idea that somehow this property was not an accident of its position in the Solar System but was a consequence of life on its surface.
Now twenty-six years on, I know her better and see that in this first book I made mistakes. Some were serious, such as the idea that the Earth was kept comfortable by and for its inhabitants, the living organisms. I failed to make clear that it was not the biosphere alone that did the regulating but the whole thing, life, the air, the oceans, and the rocks. The entire surface of the Earth including life is a self-regulating entity and this is what I mean by Gaia. (2)
This is presented in a very anthropomorphic terminology and while Lovelock has said that these statements are poetic ways of expressing scientific truth, I think that it is more the case that he is creating a kind of scientific pantheism which eschews the notion of deity that brings it in by the back door.
Gaia would have to learn by trial and error the art of controlling its environment, at first within broad bounds and later, as control was refined, by maintaining it near the optimum state for life.(2)
What has this to do with this news story? The answer is that there seems to be a certain body of opinion which draws upon Lovelock's thesis or even takes an explicitly religious rationale for purpose in creation (and with similar homeostatic mechanism, but as part of God's purpose). For Lovelock's Earth has a purpose -- to maintain life upon its surface. The danger with this kind of thinking is the assumption that while the oceans are in a bad way, if we keep them alone, or can reduce our activity, they will automatically restore themselves to a kind of steady state. But the history of extinctions and the destruction of even small habitats such as a forest by fire demonstrate that this is not the case.
What happens in these cases is that an ecological niche has been vacated by extinct species and that other species or near relatives take advantage of the niche after the destructive effect has ended. For example, after a fire, seeds will blow across the burnt soil and take root, and fauna will follow -- but the situation will not be identical to that which took place before, although it may superficially resemble it. What was found was that where natural forces had destroyed or damaged complex ecosystems, such as flood, fire, hurricane etc, that far from "the balance of nature" reasserting itself, that a completely different ecosystem would come into being, with different outcomes from that observed before in terms of fauna and flora and their interactions.
But with the oceans, and the destructive effects of pollution, acidification, and overfishing, the time period for the destructive effects to have ended will be considerably greater than that of a mere forest fire. We may be talking about geological timescales. The cod stocks after all, still show no sign of recovery in the West Atlantic, and the collapse of cod stocks after overfishing is a small-scale disaster compared to the catastrophe that our confronts us.
The fate of the western cod stocks is well known. Increased fishing and decreasing spawning stock sizes resulted in overfishing and a biological collapse. The fishery for the major cod stocks in the western Atlantic was closed in 1992. (3)
The homoeostatic scenario is a kind of pseudoscientific wishful thinking which may prevent us from taking adequate steps to prevent a global ecological disaster within the oceans. If Lovelock had read Darwin more carefully, he might have realised that there is no reason why most forms of life, apart from perhaps bacteria, might not become extinct. The Earth is not sentient, and we project human desires upon the planet at our peril. In the end, of course, all life on Earth will become extinct. But in the meantime, we can make a difference and postpone, if we are lucky and take sufficient action, that final day.
Inevitabilities should never be depressing. An old philosophical tradition, dating at least to Spinoza, proclaims that freedom is the recognition of necessity. If we respect intellect, true freedom must come from learning the ways of the world-what can be changed and what cannot-and by shaping a gutsy life accordingly. (Stephen Jay Gould) (4)
Part of this can be done with fishing quotas, as long as these are implemented fairly. But the history of quota fishing is not a good one -- there are a number of dodges which have been used by the fishermen of some countries where the governments cheerfully turn a blind eye to the practice. It is the spirit of the quota which matters and keeping technically within the limits while finding ways of overfishing in other jurisdictions requires international rather than national agreements. Moreover, it is this kind of shady practice which led to the rise of piracy in Somalia and elsewhere, and while that is now fueled more by greed for easy pickings, it might never have begun and spread so rapidly if it had not been for the resentment of native fishermen in seeing European trawlers coming in and consuming fish stocks in bulk, leaving little for the subsistence fishing of the native population.
One thing is sure, and that is that the era of cheap fish will be drawing to a close one way or the other. Either we will have to regulate our consumer driven overfishing and pollution of the oceans, or evolutionary mechanisms will do it for us as we wipe out the bulk of the planet's fish, and create an ocean too polluted and acidified to sustain any restoration of marine species.
(2) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, James Lovelock, Preface to 2000 edition
(4) Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes., Stephen Jay Gould
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