Making a Splash
Wildlife conservationist Steve Irwin said, “I believe our biggest issue is the same biggest
issue that the whole world is facing, and that’s habitat destruction” (Lister 1). In a perfect world
all life forms would live productively in harmony; however, the universe, our planet earth
included, is magnificently chaotic. Throughout Earth’s history, change can be observed in every
type of ecosystem. Evolution is inevitable. Many species have advanced to keep up with their
environment’s progression; sometimes the environment’s metamorphosis and each species’
ability to move forward, do not accelerate with the same momentum, resulting in extinction or
the brink thereof. Specifically, the world’s oceans’ rapid demographic changes are blamed on
overfishing, pollution, global warming, and marine life hierarchy change. Marine life cannot
compete with the rate of evolution because humans have created factors that hasten this natural
process; specific marine species face extinction, which further amplifies the already drastically
transformed marine environment.
The Scalloped Hammerhead Shark and the Smooth Hammerhead Shark are on the brink
of extinction because of irresponsible overfishing. Different regions have used sharks, and
different parts of sharks, for ritualistic traditions, utensils, and food throughout history. An
important meal tradition to the Asian-Pacific culture, called shark fin soup and additional shark
trade, accounts for 1.3 to 2.7 million deaths each year between the two endangered Hammerhead
Sharks mentioned above (Fairclough 1). Up until the U.S. Shark Prohibition Act was passed in
2002, fishermen were recorded practicing “live shark finning;” this involved catching a shark, or
pod of sharks, and cutting off each sharks’ fin then throwing the still alive shark back to the
ocean to either drown or bleed to death. Fishermen kept only 5% of the net weight of the fish and
left the remaining 95% to waste, further contaminating the sea (Techera 609). Since sharks can
take up to 10 years to reach sexual maturity, and female sharks produce only about 100 pups in
their entire lifespan, this prodigious slaughter is detrimental to the entire ecosystem (Zmarzly 1).
Dwindling populations can cause extreme results: “…the loss of the smooth hammerhead caused
their prey to increase…the larger ray population now eats more scallops, clams and other
bivalves…[which] also hurts human fisheries” (Fairclough 1). As of 2012, “the seas have lost
upwards of 75% of their megafauna – large animals such as whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and
turtles – as fishing and hunting spread in waves across the face of the planet” due to ghost and
irresponsible fishing (Roberts 1). Ghost fishing is the unintended capture and slaughter of species
other than those intended in fishing materials or capture of species with discarded fishing
material (Matsuoka 691). An experiment conducted by Cooper Pecci and his collogues found
that 22% of lobsters for inshore-type lobsters, off the coast of Japan, are unintentionally caught
in discarded lobster traps alone; 95% of those caught die because of their entrapment (696).
These same scientists estimated that 212,000-505,000 individuals of the octopus population are
killed each year due to forgotten or broken traps. Up to 200 tons of lead sinkers, used to sink
hooks, are lost each year in Sweden during salmon season. These are later ingested by different
marine species, contaminating the fish, harming or killing everything above those fish on the
food chain, and expanding ghost fishing beyond marine life (698).
Discarded fishing gear not only kills marine life, but it also further contaminates the
ocean’s environment. Decaying fishing nets slow the regional flow because of decaying
organisms on fishing net fibers, causing harmful substances to be deposited (698). Decaying
organisms caught in and a part of lost fishing gear increases carbon dioxide levels. Something
that the ocean absorbs that is sometimes forgotten is carbon dioxide (CO2). Scientists have
determined that “The oceans have absorbed around 30% of the carbon dioxide released by
human activity since pre-industrialized times,” which is expected to raise the oceans acidity by
150% by 2050 if the carbon dioxide emissions do not decrease. One theory projects that with the
continuing acidification levels, phytoplankton and shell fish will have difficulty producing their
carbonate shells, making life very difficult. Without these species to counter the carbon dioxide
levels, the oceans oxygen levels will decline until gas percentages dwindle back to prehistoric
levels (Roberts). Carbon dioxide is not the only unintentional substance human activity disposes
of; noise pollution is just as detrimental to marine mammals as CO2 is to plankton and shell fish.
Sonar frequencies are interfering with whale communication. Whales communicate underwater
with frequencies ranging from 20 to 2000 hertz, which are relatively low when compared to ship
propellers and air guns (used in oil drilling). This causes whales to lose contact with one another
and with their prey; this decreases food intake, delays migration, and decreases chances of
mating, further hurting the population. A study in Fundy, Canada, found that these same
frequencies can be physically detrimental to marine life as well: the “shipping noise can ‘pulp’
the ears of the squid and octopuses, making it hard for them to balance in the water and move,”
inhibiting their ability to catch prey or escape from an attack (Gupta 1). More than just squid are
effected by chemical pollutants drained into the ocean. The ocean is “being poisoned by
substances that are toxic, remain in the environment a long time, travel great distances,
accumulate in marine life, and move up the food chain.” These organic materials are deposited
via streams, rivers, and run-off. Hundreds of new chemicals contaminate the seas in an effort to
create more efficient fertilizers, detergents, and plastics (Sielen 126). Plastics were thought to
only break down at very high temperatures, or over the course of thousands of years. But, a
recent study in Japan, found that plastic releases bisphenol A (found in water bottles) at lower
temperatures, and as quickly as one year after the trash is dumped. Another chemical directly
affecting the toxicity levels is polystyrene, something found in disposable cutlery, Styrofoam
plates, and CD cases. These toxic compounds have been known to create reproduction problems
in marine life as well as cause cancer. Two hundred and sixty-seven different marine species are
affected by eating plastic wastes, dying from choking or because the foreign material gets caught
in their digestive tract. Aside from the toxicants produced from decomposition that affect them
on a molecular level the macro-level garbage alone deplete any chances of a prospering
population (Barry 1).
As shown with the effects decomposing plastic chemicals have on marine life, the
ocean’s ecosystem can be labeled as very sensitive. The consequences of continued pollution and
raising water temperatures can be measured on a catastrophic scale. Increasing dead zones, “A
total of 405 dead zones have been reported by oceanographers worldwide during the period
2000-08,” is one repercussion. Not only does the world oceans' have more Dead zone square
footage then ever recorded in history, but it has continued to double every decade since 1960
(“Concern Over Global Spread of Ocean Dead Zones” 5). The dying coral reefs and dead zones
are the result of lowering oxygen levels throughout the sea. In the Pacific Ocean, the first 200-
600 meters down has only a tenth of what is considered normal oxygen levels. This suffocation
fuels the expansion of dead zones (6). Low oxygen rates also directly correlate with decreased
fish reproduction, which harms the ecosystem’s food chain (5). Further bruising the ecological
community are invasive species transported via fishermen and travelers. Climate change and
pollution encourage these newly introduced, or once contained, species to thrive:
“Jellyfish, for example, are great opportunists, and some scientists fear that large parts of
our most productive seas will transform into jellyfish empires. Jellyfish positively thrive
in pollution-enriched seas. Given unlimited food, they can reach adult size fast. With
their stinging tentacles, they are formidable predators” (Roberts 1).
With this sort of takeover, Jellyfish could potentially eradicate an already dwindling population
of fish. Jellyfish have both the ability to reproduce and feed themselves by eating their young
when population numbers get out of control. They lack carbonate skeletons, making them
immune to the rising CO2 levels and pH. In addition to this Jellyfish conquest, with the projected
conditions, a microscopic subjugation will also be likely. The ecosystem that is approaching has
been labeled “the rise of slime;” an ecosystem that is very similar to the first years of organismal
life (Roberts 1). In this type of ecosystem, only small organisms lacking carbonate skeletons will
thrive; most of the ocean’s macroscopic species will die.
Just as the dinosaurs are now extinct because of climate change, the evolution of the
world is something only time can stop. Unlike the dinosaurs’ lifestyles, many human actions
interfere with the environment, specifically the ocean’s environment. The ocean covers over 70%
of the planet; if the ocean dies, the rest of the world will too. We have created an environment
that hinders marine life more than evolution does alone. Things coming and going is the way of
life, but the carelessness of men seem to be further hindering each species’ chance of survival.
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