This isn’t a story about BP’s oil gusher in the Gulf, though God knows when all is said and done if the “moderate impact” of that catastrophe may very well mean the end to much of the edible marine life, including shrimp and fish stocks, in the Gulf of Mexico for decades to come.

No, bad as the BPocalypse may be, that’s not the main reason for this story. You see, human activity, from pollution and overfishing, has been rapidly depleting fish stocks around the world and destroying the fragile ecosystems of the world’s oceans.

“The oceans cannot save themselves,” says Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute. “Collective commitments to thriving ecosystems are needed to save overfished species from being systematically depleted from compromised habitats.”

Major reasons for the depletion of fish stocks include overfishing, the use of bottom trawling and other destructive fishing techniques, unsustainable aquaculture, and illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. […]

Pollution from chemical, radioactive, and nutrient sources; oil spills; and marine debris can contaminate the marine environment, kill organisms, and undermine ecosystem integrity. Of particular concern is the effect on marine wildlife of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), especially those chemicals not yet regulated under the 2001 Stockholm Convention, such as brominated flame retardants. Marine debris, including plastics and derelict fishing gear, is responsible for causing death and injury to many marine species, among them seabirds, turtles, and marine mammals. Large oxygen-depleted “dead zones,” made worse by excessive nitrogen runoff from fertilizers, sewage discharges, and other sources, are further signs that the oceans are under severe stress.

This doesn’t even include the effect that global climate change and the increased acidity of the oceans from increased absorption of CO2 is having on marine life:

With the oceans absorbing more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide an hour, a National Research Council study released Thursday found that the level of acid in the oceans is increasing at an unprecedented rate and threatening to change marine ecosystems. […]

Unless [CO2] emissions are reined in, ocean acidity could increase by 200 percent by the end of the century and even more in the next century, said James Barry, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California and one of the study’s authors.

“Acidification is changing the chemistry of the oceans at a scale and magnitude greater than thought to occur on Earth for many millions of years and is expected to cause changes in the growth and survival of a wide variety of marine organisms, potentially leading to massive shifts in ocean ecosystems,” Barry told the Senate Commerce Committee’s Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee on Thursday. […]

“Like climate change, ocean acidification is a growing global problem that will intensify with continued carbon dioxide emissions and has the potential to change marine ecosystems and affect benefits to society,” the [National Research Council] report said.

The report called for an expanded system to monitor ocean conditions and for increased research into ocean chemistry and the impact that changes would have. Scientists think that increased acidity could affect the entire marine food chain, from microscopic forms of phytoplankton to fish and whales.

Already levels of heavy metals in fish harvested for human consumption, such as mercury, make eating fish a risky business, to the extent that even the Bush administration’s EPA advised pregnant women not to consume a wide variety of fish and shellfish contaminated with mercury.

Aquaculture is not necessarily the solution either. For example, salmon raised in fish farms contain high amount of dioxin in them because they are primarily fed “ocean caught fish meal and meat offal from poultry and hog processing.” Dioxin is a toxic substance in human beings, and is known to have many adverse consequences for human health.

Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.

Overall 75% of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. That’s a significant amount. Along with all the other environmental stresses to our oceans I’ve described previously, we are rapidly approaching a point of no return, where seafood, a major contributor of protein to human diets around the world may be lost to future generations.

The concern is great enough that many of the major fishing nations are meeting in London today for initial talks on how to “prevent the collapse of global fish stocks.”. The problem is that the solution, a treaty to create “national parks of the sea” which would be off limits to any fishing, may be impossible to achieve. Not all nations are in agreement as to what such a treaty should or should not include.

Many countries actually provide substantial monetary subsidies which encourage overfishing.

EU fisheries subsidies have encouraged overfishing over the years and helped maintain an over-capacity in the industry, according to a study published Wednesday. […]

“EU fisheries subsidies and the overfishing of valuable fish stocks are clearly connected,” said Tim Huntingdon, consultant at British-based Poseidon Aquatic Resource, which carried out the study along with fellow NGO the Pew Environment Group.

To deal with this crisis, we need action on a global scale, action by many different governments, and soon. We need to limit sources of ocean pollution, to address overfishing and exploitation of existing fish stocks, and to address global climate change. In particular, limits on the emissions of CO2 which are rapidly acidifying the oceans and drastically altering marine ecosystems are essential.

Yet does anyone see serious action on these interrelated problems anytime soon. BP’s use of toxic chemical dispersants in the Gulf is just a drop in the bucket when compared to all the various ways human activity is destroying one of humanity’s greatest food resources: the oceans. Already numerous dead zones exist in which there is no marine life at all. Zero, nada, zip.

The number of oxygen-deprived “dead zones” in the world’s oceans has been increasing since the 1970s and is now nearly 150, threatening fisheries as well as humans who depend on fish, the U.N. Environment Program announced [in March 2004] in unveiling its first-ever Global Environment Outlook Year Book.

These “dead zones” are caused by an excess of nitrogen from farm fertilizers, sewage and emissions from vehicles and factories. In what experts call a “nitrogen cascade,” the chemical flows untreated into oceans and triggers the proliferation of plankton, which in turn depletes oxygen in the water.

In short, our over-reliance on nitrogen and phosphorus based fertilizers as well as all the other pollutants, raw sewage and CO2 we are dumping into our oceans as if they were one unlimited waste disposal is literally killing marine life which has been a source of human food for millenia.

I appreciate that talks among political figures from various nations are ongoing, such as the talks in London this week. However we need immediate action if we are to save our oceans. So far, I see precious little action or even an awareness of the problem among the world’s governments.

And the media has done little to emphasize the seriousness of this crisis. How many TV News shows have you seen dedicated to reporting about and explaining this looming disaster? I cannot remember one. Perhaps this story is covered better in other countries, but I doubt it.

So what can you do? Start by informing your representatives in Congress that this is an issue that you care about and on which you want them to take action. The BP spill gives us an opportunity to push this issue to the fore. Because it isn’t just Gulf seafood that may be lost to us, it’s all seafood unless we start promoting and implementing more sustainable policies.

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