Andreas Späth

We're killing our oceans

2010-02-17 12:10

"Are we screwed? Yeah, to a considerable extent!"

That's how Dr Edward L Miles, Professor of Marine and Public Affairs at the University of Washington answered a somewhat rhetorical question during a scientific conference about the effects of rising atmospheric CO2 levels on the world’s oceans. His blunt assessment is just one of several sobering moments in A Sea Change, one of three recent documentary films addressing the plight of our seas.

A Sea Change tackles a phenomenon that threatens marine life as we know it, but which most people haven't even heard of: ocean acidification. The oceans are a very important "sink" for CO2. As part of the natural carbon cycle which has been in operation since the Earth's primordial seas were first formed in the distant geological past, CO2 from the air dissolves in sea water, forming carbonic acid.

A 2009 study showed that the oceans have absorbed more CO2 every year since 1765 and currently suck up somewhere between 25 and 40% of all of the CO2 humans generate by burning coal, oil and gas. As a result, the acidity of the world's oceans has increased by about 30% since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

The sea is essentially becoming increasingly corrosive to many of the tiny algae and planktonic organism which have carbonaceous skeletons or shells and occupy the bottom of the food chain - the main source of food for fish. The changes are happening at a rate that is faster than at any time during the last 50 million years - fast enough, some experts fear, to lead to widespread extinctions and "a world without fish".

The End of the Line investigates a more direct, but equally overlooked human threat to the fish in the sea: our increasingly sophisticated fishing industry. Every year, fleets of modern factory ships drop some 1.4 billion hooks into the ocean and rip up entire seafloor ecosystems with trawling nets the largest of which could accommodate 13 jumbo jets.

The results are devastating. Worldwide fish catches have been in decline since 1988 and the abundance of large fish like tuna, cod, marlin and halibut has plummeted by 90%. If we continue at the current rate, scientists project that the stocks of all of the species of fish we now eat will collapse by 2050.

The greedy politics of industrial over-fishing are perhaps most graphically demonstrated by the case of Mediterranean bluefin tuna, sought after by sushi lovers and fished to the brink of extinction. European scientists recommend an annual catch of 10 000 tons to ensure the population’s recovery. EU fisheries officials set quotas of 29 500 tons. The industry ignores both and catches some 61 000 tons.

If A Sea Change and The End of the Line provide compelling evidence for humanity's capacity to lay to waste something as bounteous as the planet’s oceans, the Oscar-nominated The Cove is guaranteed to have you in tears about our species' propensity to inflict cruelty to others. Using an impressive array of high-tech surveillance equipment and shiploads of brazen courage, this is the movie that blows the lid off the depravity that is the ultra-secretive Japanese dolphin trade. It tells the remarkable story of Richard O'Barry - the man who captured and trained the five dolphins involved in the making of the TV series Flipper - whose brave activism has helped to expose the bloody dolphin slaughter that happens every year in the otherwise sleepy Japanese seaside village of Taiji.

While these movies document the calamitous future facing our oceans, they also offer hope and solutions, showcasing the ability of ordinary people to make a difference, by educating others and actively working towards a change for the better. So watch, be outraged and help stop the devastation.

- Andreas is a member of While You Were Sleeping, a non-profit collective that organises public screenings of documentaries with important social, political and environmental topics in Cape Town.

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