If the ocean were a patient in a hospital, hooked up to monitoring devices, this year the alarms would be going off loudly.
Already the experts have issued dire warnings. In June, a panel of ocean scientists based in the UK released a “State of the Ocean” report that said if effective action wasn’t taken to restrain global carbon emissions, reduce overfishing and curb pollution, the ocean would face an “environmental catastrophe” by the end of the century, or even sooner.
The International Programme on the State of the Ocean warned that “no region or country would be immune from the socioeconomic upheaval that will take place,” possibly within a generation, and added that “it is likely to be a disaster that challenges human civilization.”
The report made headlines around the world, but it’s only one of many alarming ocean assessments. In December, Ken Caldeira, an expert at Stanford in ocean acidification – which is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – warned that if the human species continues on its current schedule of emitting approximately 30 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually, coral reefs would be unsustainable by 2050.
The irony is that as one approaches the patient – in our case, the Pacific Ocean – in the here and now, he looks surprisingly healthy, with no need for panic. It’s as one views the patient from a distance, as he moves off into the future, that the alarms begin to sound.
In the headlines, big reports and studies depict the future of the ocean in great flux, with vast – and vastly damaging – effects to take their toll in years to come.
In contrast, local studies and scientific reports from here and now tend to show an ocean that is changing slowly, and in some ways for the better, with less pollution than 30 years ago, and the recovery of some important species, both in the water and in the air.
Last year, for example, a researcher at UC Berkeley named Jim Johnstone published a study speculating that climate change could bring ocean changes that would threaten the continued existence of the famous redwood trees of Northern California. The redwoods – and other coastal residents of California, human and wild — depend on the cool flow of the California Current, which moves down the coast as part of the vast North Pacific Gyre. Many climatologists believe that as global warming ever so steadily reduces the temperature gap between the warmth of the tropics and the cold of the north, which powers the gyre, trade winds and westerlies will weaken, and the California Current will slow, potentially allowing for warmer temperatures and a lessening of fog that nurtures the redwood forests along the coast.
Johnstone’s speculations did not go unchallenged. Bob Bornstein at San Jose State has shown increases in fog and cool breezes in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles in the last 50 years, and has a meteorological explanation for the increased on-shore flow as compelling as Johnstone’s climatological explanation for a slowing California Current.
But Johnstone’s alarming study made newspaper headlines around the country. Bornstein’s studies, although published in reputable scientific journals, have by contrast received little publicity.
This turns out to be a theme in stories and studies about our local environment and ocean in the media.
Our ocean: what you can see and what you can’t
“The thing about the ocean is that it always looks very nice, as you drive along Highway 101 and look out. No matter what is going on under the surface,” said Tom McCormick, a marine biologist who has been working in Ventura County for 20 years. “One of the biggest issues along our coast is bottom-dragging for shrimp, which is tremendously destructive, and levels the habitat structure on the bottom.”
This sort of habitat destruction is one of five stressors identified by the “State of the Oceans.” Others include climate change, invasive species, ocean acidification, pollution and overfishing. According to the “State of the Ocean” report, overall resilience – the ability of the ocean and its creatures to respond to these stressors — has declined about 40 percent.
Gary Davis, a retired federal fisheries manager who helped set up the national marine sanctuaries around the Channel Islands, agrees that the oceans are under stress, but argues that the marine sanctuaries established around the Channel Islands in 2003 help our local seas.
“Climate change is a global stressor with lots of consequences, but the areas best able to respond to the challenge are those which still have good ecological integrity, with a capacity for renewal,” he said. “In our area, those are the Channel Islands network of marine reserves.”
Davis believes that we understand ocean health close to the shore decently well, due to the increased monitoring of river and pipe “outfalls,” but we still have a poor grasp on what is happening farther out to sea.
“We can look out at the channel and see that whales and the dolphins are doing a lot better than they were 20 years ago. We’re seeing a lot of blue whales and humpback whales, and so we can presume that some good things are going on in the food chain. On the other hand, pilot whales used to be common in the channel, but they’re very rare now, and we don’t know why.”
David Kushner, who has been diving in kelp forests around the Channel Islands for more than 20 years as a part of a biological assessment program, agreed that the ocean around the islands is probably in better shape than in much of the rest of the world.
“But I wouldn’t paint too rosy a picture,” he said. “Since the last El Niño, the water has been colder and richer in nutrients and that has helped a lot of species. But still, about 80 percent of the kelp forests around the islands have declined in the last 20 years.”
Also encouraging is the dramatic reduction in toxic pollutants released into the ocean from water treatment plants since the passage of the Clean Water Act. That’s according to Stephen Weisberg, who runs a research unit specializing in toxin monitoring for government agencies, the Southern California Coast Water Research Project.
“Of the four classes of toxic contaminants, DDT is down about 99 percent since monitoring began in l972. Heavy metals and PCBs are down more than 90 percent. Bacteriological contaminants are down substantially, with many treatment plant outfalls using chlorination to get rid of them entirely,” he said. “Nutrients such as nitrogen are down, although not as much, because wastewater treatment plants weren’t built to handle those substances.”
This reduction in toxins has allowed iconic species in our region, such as the pelicans and the bald eagles, to recover from low numbers. “Historically, DDT discharges have had a big effect, and that was true all the way out to the islands,” said Chris Mobley, superintendent of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries. “As DDT was banned, it slowly began to dissipate, and now the brown pelicans are rebounding, and we see bald eagles nesting on the islands.”
Good news from fishermen
Fish lovers – including scientists, commercial fishermen and sport fishermen – report good news from the waters off Ventura County.
According to NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Region Agency, which monitors domestic fish stocks, fish stocks in the Pacific Southwest are in fairly good shape, with only two species of tuna subject to overfishing. Fish population numbers in oceans around the country are on the upswing.
“It’s accurate to say we have turned the corner on overfishing and are making steady progress,” said Monica Allen, an agency supervisor who works in Washington. “The area where we need to make the most progress is on the East Coast, which has the nation’s oldest fisheries.” Both commercial fishermen and sport fishermen agree.
“I think it’s doing pretty good,” said Pete DuPuy, who has been fishing commercially off Ventura County for nearly 20 years and currently captains a squid boat. “There seems to be plenty of fish. Especially off the West Coast, the U.S. fishery is heavily regulated, and I think California Fish and Game has done a good job taking care of it. You go to fish down off Mexico and it’s different – the resource has been hammered pretty well down there.”
Sport fisherman Jerry Stussman, who has been chartering boats to go fishing off Ventura as much as three times a week for more than 30 years, echoes DuPuy’s comments.
“Since the beginning of the year, the water has warmed up, and I’d say the fishing is very good to excellent right now,” he commented. “A record 69-pound halibut was caught last week. We’re catching our limit sometimes in less than an hour. We fisherman argue, we scream, we moan and groan about what the environmentalists are doing, but no one can argue that the result has been positive.”
Both Stussman and DuPuy allow that the fishing was better 30 years ago, a point that Gary Davis, the former fisheries manage, stressed. Davis points out that fishermen’s expectations were much higher in past years. He recounted working as a fisherman in San Diego in the l950s, and catching mackerel as bait to lure huge tuna and marlin. He left Southern California and fishing to go to school and work in Florida, returning in the l980s. Now the marlin and tuna are mostly gone.
“When I came back, I looked at the newspaper and saw that now fishermen were happy to catch mackerel,” he said.
“That wouldn’t have passed in the l950s. Mackerel was a baitfish. People don’t realize how far down the slope we have slid.”
The biggest lurking threat: ocean acidification
For marine biologists, the monster of the deep is not a creature but ocean acidification. Because the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are gradually making the oceans more acidic. Scientists estimate seawater is already about 30 percent more acidic than in the 19th century, and could become as much as 150 percent more acidic by the end of the century.
This directly threatens coral reefs, already stressed by ocean warming, but also the countless “calcifiers,” including sea urchins and abalone, which make their shells from filtered sea water. As the water becomes more acidic, this becomes more difficult.
“It’s a little early to tell what’s going to happen,” said Mobley. “The science tells us that ocean acidification may well be a problem. In acidic conditions in the lab, many crustacean species, such as sea urchins and lobsters, have difficulty forming larvae. If we were to lose one of those species there would be a tremendous ripple effect up the food chain in the ocean, and a huge economic impact as well, if we were to lose shrimp, sea urchins or lobster.”
Stephen Palumbi, who runs an ocean research lab in Pacific Grove for Stanford, expressed similar concerns, tempered with uncertainty.
“In any future acidification scenario, there will be biological winners and losers. For corals, it’s likely bad news. Kelp forests? I don’t know. All ocean ecosystems are potentially altered by it, which ones may escape with lesser impacts is what we do not know enough about yet.”
The specificity of Mobley’s and Palumbi’s responses in relation to uncertainty stand in contrast to the “State of the Oceans” report, which broadly depicted an ocean approaching “global ecological catastrophe.”
The shockingly dire report turns out to have been controversial among marine biologists as well. Although all scientists polled for this story expressed concern about climate change, and especially ocean acidification, many thought the report went too far in forecasting an imminent ecological and economic collapse.
“The scientists who contributed to the report were, with one exception, marine biologists,” commented Donald Boesch, who runs a marine biology lab for the University of Maryland. “None of the authors claims any expertise in relation to the cause of socioeconomic upheaval or what might challenge human civilization. The overstatement of the case and lack of support for such assertions diminishes the credibility of the report.”
Nonetheless, marine scientists and environmentalists contacted for this story expressed sadness over the changes overtaking the oceans — particularly the fate of the coral reefs.
“Reducing contaminant levels is great, but it’s chump change compared to ocean acidification,” said Weisberg. “We’re talking wholesale global changes, including species losses. I have two daughters with whom I have dived on coral reefs. I’m glad to have shared that experience with them, but I fear that acidification effects means they won’t be able to do that with their children.”