The goal of the research paper was to research a controversial topic related to our projects. The purpose of this was to make sure that there were at least two sides to the argument to address in our papers. I chose to write my project on the effect of human intervention in marine habitats. Specifically, how dangerous we are to marine wildlife.
Danger and Diversity
The surface of the moon, the surface of Mars, and 98% of the surface of Venus are all mapped to a precision of 100 meters. By contrast, the entire ocean floor is only mapped to a precision of 2 kilometers. What this means is that on the moon, Mars, and 98% of Venus, we can’t see anything smaller than 100 meters, while on the seafloor, we can’t see anything smaller than 2 kilometers. 100 meters is the length of a football field. 2 kilometers, on the other hand, is about the length of the Golden Gate Bridge. On Venus, we can see anything bigger than a football field. In our own oceans, the 14th largest suspension bridge in the world could escape detection. In addition, the deepest known part of the ocean is 11 kilometers deep. Almost 6 times the depth of the Grand Canyon. New species are being discovered every day, and scientists know so little about the murky blue depths of our planet. And if we don’t act soon, the damage may become irreversible.
To a certain extent, we know that we need certain marine species to survive and continue to thrive. But there are so many species that exist and affect our ecosystems that we know nothing about. A perfect example of that is the marine life at the bottom of the ocean. For decades, people thought that as you went deeper into the ocean and light became weaker, biodiversity would also decrease. As one Dartmouth journal states, “It was previously believed that life could not exist in the deep sea due to a lack of light, cold temperatures, and high atmospheric pressures” (Vo). However, when humans finally explored the depths, we found thousands of species, thriving. Although, this is still not the end of the story. Many of the species at the bottom of the ocean live difficult, solitary lives, and an article on Live Science asserts that as a general rule, the deeper you go, the harder it is to find organisms (Mustain). Because of this difficulty in locating new species, both due to the hostility of the ocean floor and the isolation of the organisms themselves, it can be difficult to even know how much of the picture we can’t see. It is estimated that up to two thirds of marine species remain a mystery to humanity (DNews). Efforts to reduce that number have been underway for decades. Founded in 2000 by Jesse H. Ausubel, the Census of Marine Life was one of these. According to the Smithsonian, which presents the findings of the Census on their website, “During the decade of the Census of Marine Life, more than 6,000 potential new ocean species were discovered by the roughly 2,700 participating scientists from more than 80 countries.” (Frost) Because we can see so little of the ocean, it’s not surprising that species can go extinct without us even knowing. This can lead to many people thinking that marine species are somehow hardier, or more resistant to extinction (Marine 32). Looking at the entire ocean can be daunting. There are so many unknowns, so many variables that must be taken into account, that obtaining reliable data can be nearly impossible. Due to this, it can be better to focus on specific areas that contain the diversity found worldwide. One of those areas is the Monterey Bay.
Designated in 1992, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, or MBNMS, spans 4,601 square nautical miles, and is host to 36 species of marine mammals, more than 180 species of seabirds and shorebirds, at least 525 species of fish, 4 species of turtle, 31 phyla of invertebrates, 450 plus species of marine algae, 1,276 shipwrecks, and 718 prehistoric sites (NOAA). Altogether, that’s over 1,226 species and 1,994 historical sites. The geography of the area is uniquely suited to biodiversity, and it is one of the most diverse areas of the sea, with new discoveries being made regularly. Even historically, the Monterey area has been known for its abundance. According to the SFGate, in the 1700’s, when settlers were first exploring the California coast, “sea otters, pelicans, sea lions and harbor seals were abundant, and every kind of shorebird imaginable lived in the wetlands and sloughs. Offshore, there were gray, humpback, fin and blue whales, dolphins, harbor porpoises and great white sharks that came to feed on the rookeries.” (Fimrite) The unique biodiversity also benefits the residents of Monterey, since the rare abundance of attractive marine species attracts thousands of tourists every year. However, tourism was not always the chief industry for the waters of Monterey. From 1902 to 1950, Monterey thrived off of the sardine trade.
The central California fishery increased rapidly, and by 1928, was harvesting 120,000 tons of sardines in a single season. In 1939, just 11 years later, that number had increased to 460,000 tons (Parrish). The sardine industry was mostly pioneered by immigrants. Since they had lived in areas around the world where it was much harder to catch sardines, their experience, and the mixing of methodologies from different areas of the world, allowed them to fish the California sardines in vast numbers. However, during the peak of the industry, overfishing was not a major problem.
A report published in 2000 about the history of Cannery Row by the marine biologist stationed there to monitor the wetfish industry by the California Department of Fish and Game, Richard Parrish, presents the statistics: “during the peak of the fishery (1932-47) the average annual exploitation rate was 25% of the sardine biomass and the biological production rate (surplus production) was 20% of the biomass; a difference of only 5% per year.” (Parrish) Overfishing wasn’t the sole cause of the decimation of the sardine population. Instead, it was the combination of a natural downturn and the failure of fisheries to adapt to it.
Fish cannot regulate their temperature, so they are dependant on ocean temperatures to keep their bodies at their optimal temperature. Sardines favor colder waters, so when the waters in the Monterey Bay began to warm up due to a cyclical change in the tides that historically occurs every 55-60 years, the sardine population began to naturally decline (Parrish). While the decline was natural, and had happened many times before in the past, it had never happened at the same time as a thriving fishery industry. TIm Essington, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at University of Washington, has evidence that fishing can both worsen the effect of the decline, and increase the frequency with which they occur (Grossman). This is exactly what happened with the Monterey Bay fishery. They continued to fish at the same levels, regardless of the fact that the sardine population was now losing 43% of its population each year (Parrish). It didn’t take long before the sardine population had become so suppressed that it would take nearly 40 years to even begin to recover.
The effects of this collapse were severe. In 1939, the sardine fishery was worth about $6.5 million. It provided income and a livelihood for over 9,000 commercial fishermen, and countless more who worked in the canneries (THE STAFF). The economy of the entire city of Monterey shifted from fishermen and canneries to tourism. There were also severe ecological consequences. Species that fed on sardines suffered, and the entire food web was altered. Today we face another downturn in the sardine population, and, with more information available to us now than we had in 1940, a more detailed picture of the consequences emerges. A yale article provides this information straight from the source; “More than 70 percent of all sea lion pups born this year may perish because of a lack of sardines” (Grossman).
In the end, humanity should care about the ocean simply because it is dying. However, many people require personal impact to care about the world we live in. The value of the fishing industry in the United States reached 5.45 billion U.S. dollars in 2014, with the majority of fish caught used for human food (Laporte). 66% of consumers surveyed said they used fish as a protein source (US Consumers). In 2005, the average American was consuming 20-30 kg of fish each year (FAO Fisheries). ⅔ of the fish consumed is caught wild, not farmed (FAO Fisheries). Should the ocean die, humanity would lose a significant source of food and income; not to mention that through various underwater processes, the ocean provides us with about half of the air we breathe (Mustain). Take a minute to imagine what the world would look like without marine wildlife. In 2011, 11.500 million dollars were earned globally through marine tourism (Annual). Most of this tourism came from reefs. Reefs cannot survive without the species that inhabit them. Without marine wildlife, coral reefs, and all the benefits we get from them, disappear. And we’re getting close to that point. In New Zealand in 2013, 31% of marine plant species, 34% of marine invertebrate species, and 72% of marine fish species were at risk of extinction (New Zealand).
Humans need to care about the world around them, because even though we may not realize it, our world is intricately interconnected. One part dies, and the rest will soon follow. We must take action before it is too late. Look into conservation programs in your area, donate to marine research programs, eat seafood that is obtained sustainably; the list of things you can do as an individual is long. The most important thing to do, however, the most important thing you can possibly do to help the ocean, is to care.