July 6, 2010
We are killing our oceans. As I write, barrels of oil are still gushing from the broken BP well into Gulf of Mexico waters. The blog commentariat is in gusher mode too; most people are expressing heartfelt pain for the toll this environmental disaster is taking. But some seem to think the problem isn't too severe. The ocean is vast, they say, and what is pouring into it from below its floor is by comparison tiny. One person compared it to a spoonful of oil in a swimming pool.
This is absurd. But it brings up an interesting point about our attitude towards the ocean. We think it is so large as to seem limitless. On old maps the oceans stretch to the horizon, the limit of the knowable, whereupon people fall off the edge of the Earth. We know better now, but somewhere deep inside us the vestiges of that mythology live on.
That's partly because we stand in awe before something so vast; it also reflects, I suspect, a subconscious desire to rationalize our careless ways. It is nearly impossible for most of us to believe that we are having catastrophic effects on our oceans—indeed, most of us are probably unaware of it. Three things are killing the oceans, explains Professor Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego: overfishing, pollution, and climate change.
I've written before about acidification, how carbon emissions have accomplished the unthinkable by changing the ocean waters' chemistry, imperiling valuable coral reefs and other forms of sea life. That's only part of the picture.
Let's take it at the local level. Are our waters pristine, anywhere? Here in Rhode Island, we are now pounded with increasingly common heavy rainfall that causes rapid flooding of rivers. During these storms, our sewage treatment plants are overwhelmed, and when they flood, fecal matter pours into rivers and flows into the ocean. Beaches are closed, from time to time, because of high bacterial counts in the water. This happens up and down the East and West coasts.
Let's assume we can't swim, but we can still walk the beach. This is one of my favorite things to do, at any time of the day or the year. I like low tide best, when I can catch a glimpse of that mysterious intertidal zone, and watch the creatures in the little pools that collect around the granite outcroppings characteristic of this area. These days, I no longer walk empty-handed, as I once did, because it isn't the plovers that are catching my eye. It is the plastic.
Plastic trash and debris abound in the ocean and litter our beaches.
Photo: Ocean Conservancy
All year round, I fill trash bags with the detritus of human activity, from soda cans to sneakers to plastic baggies to abandoned toys; it is worse in the summer. The cigarette butts drive me crazy; has the beach become one big ashtray?
Magnify what's happening on my beach to a global scale and you get the Texas-sized patch of plastic debris that is swirling around in the North Pacific Gyre, one of five major oceanic gyres. No one can say with certainty how large this trash patch is—it could be as large as the continental U.S.—because the plastic breaks down into particles that are suspended in the water below the surface. But one thing is certain: The plastic in the ocean—which will never biodegrade—is wreaking havoc on wildlife.
We don't seem to understand—or appreciate—the catastrophic effects of such cumulative pollution. If someone drove a dump truck to the beach and unloaded a pile of trash onto the sand, beachgoers would be furious. They would do what they could to stop it. Yet they are heedless when their neighbors leave trash, bit by bit, as if it will simply disappear into the blue beyond. We don't perceive trouble that creeps over us slowly the same way we do trouble that hits with an immediate force. But perhaps epic disasters like the BP gusher can focus attention on the subject of ocean abuse.
As Jackson describes it, we succumb to "shifting baselines syndrome"; we don't pay close attention to slow change, even if it is chronic. Think of it in a personal way: if I gain two pounds every year, I might say (as I have) to my doctor, well, I'm only two pounds heavier than I was last year, so that's pretty good. But if I shift my baseline, and look at my weight now compared to fifteen years ago, the picture isn't so healthy.
Our baselines have been shifting with regard to our oceans. We are in danger of forgetting what they used to be like, lowering our standards for what is an acceptable measurement of health. Overfishing is, according to Jackson, "the most important alteration to oceans in the past millennium." Because our supermarkets are full of fish, we assume ocean life is as abundant as ever—even while it is deteriorating.
Take lobsters. In the early 1800s, they were so abundant that they were used as bait and fertilizer. They were caught by hand during low tide along our rocky shores. In Rhode Island, colonial law protected prisoners and servants by limiting the number of times a week they could be served lobster. By the end of World War II, lobsters were a delicacy. In the last ten years, debate has raged among lobstermen about whether the lobster fisheries are in danger—because they are comparing catches from last year to catches from five years ago. But if we step back, and compare catches to one hundred years ago, there is no question that the lobster population is crashing.
There is something seductive about the dark, opaque surface of ocean water; it is mesmerizing. Many of us have felt the lulling solace of the eternal movement of waves and tides. Because we can't see through the ocean's surface, we irrationally operate with the assumption that the ocean can overcome anything.
Now is the time to decide what sort of ocean we want to leave for the generations that succeed us.
We know better, intellectually: we know, for instance, that BP was drilling 1 mile deep. Underwater, that seems an enormous distance because we don't have a human experience of such depth the way we do, say, of a one-mile walk, or a seven-mile run. (The ocean's deepest point is seven miles.) No one can go such a distance underwater unaided and survive. In some atavistic way, one mile in the ocean seems far, far deeper than ten miles on land.
The impossibility of ever seeing this undersea world makes it seem as remote and untouchable as the surface of the moon—so how could we possibly have an impact on it? But we have—for the worse. The only possible good that could come of the terrible BP-Gulf Gusher is that as a nation we realize what a mess we are making of our world, our home. The oceans cannot take infinite abuse. But if we protect them, they will provide infinite food, inspiration, refreshment, and wonder for generations to come.