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It's Not Too Late To Do Something To Save Our Oceans

Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Ed. note: This is a guest post written by Dune Ives, executive director of the nonprofit Lonely Whale Foundation.

Today’s headlines can be scary: Our waters are warmer than ever; there are less fish in our seas; one-third of the coral reefs are being bleached, and by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish floating in our oceans.

News like this leaves many of us wondering what these changes will mean for our generation and our children's, and what kind of positive differences we can make to clean up our acts before it's too late.

To start, it's important to understand how we got here in the first place. Since the industrial era began in the late 1700s, we have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide (also known as CO2) in our atmosphere so severely that it's 100 parts per million higher than ever recorded before. As a society, we contributed to this rise by burning fossil fuels, destroying forests, and replacing natural areas with cement-filled cities, all of which cause more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere.

Right now, the world's oceans absorb 25% to 50% of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. But the ocean isn't able to absorb carbon dioxide as fast as we are polluting, which has led to both global warming and ocean acidification.

What does this mean for our future? Richard Feely, PhD, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory breaks down what you need to know about how toxins in our air are polluting our oceans, and what you can do to help.

If we destroy the oceans, what happens to our culture?

Dr. Richard Feeley, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
What kinds of effects are we seeing on our oceans?
"We are seeing major environmental changes, like coral-reef bleaching. Water in tropical areas can be as high as three-to-five degrees warmer than average. When there is warming of the waters for long periods of time — weeks or months — the corals bleach.

"What that means is that the coral expel dinoflagellate — the tiny animal that lives inside them — to protect themselves from the very high temperatures. If those small animals can’t return to the coral, they die and the corals die...when the corals die, they turn white. That’s why it’s called 'coral bleaching.'

"The coral reefs have undergone major stress this year. This is a key issue, as the combined long-term impacts of warming and ocean acidification build up over time and we’ll probably see larger and larger destruction of our coral reefs."
What is ocean acidification?
"In addition to coral bleaching, there is the issue of the increase in the ocean’s acidity. What happens is that when that CO2 that’s in the atmosphere reacts with sea water, it creates carbonic acid, the same thing we have in soda pop. That carbonic acid then releases a hydrogen ion, which lowers the pH of water and increases the acidity.

"Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve seen an increase in the ocean’s acidity by 30%. Now, the projections are that by the end of this century, with continuous fossil-fuel emissions, we could see a further increase in the acidity of the oceans by as much as 100% to 150%. We’ve never seen anything like this before."
This has never happened before?
"Over geological time, we’ve seen ocean-acidification events. In fact, there have been five major events. But they have been initiated over hundreds of thousands to millions of years. We’re having the same kind of impact over a few hundred years. So, the rate of acidification is anywhere from 10 to 100 times faster than what we’ve seen. What that means is that most of that acidification is happening in the surface waters, where most marine life lives, so they are feeling the effects of that acidification right now."

How does ocean acidification impact me?
"We are all dependent on the oceans in one way or another. One in seven people get most of their protein from fish in the sea. Food from the sea is really important, because that means we have food security. If we neglect the oceans, we could have greater famines than we do right now.

"We also all love go to the ocean to relax, to see animals, to scuba dive. Much of our culture is involved with the sea. Here in the Pacific Northwest, many of the tribal nations have spent their entire existence relating to the sea directly. If we destroy the oceans, what happens to our culture? What happens to the beliefs that we have as humans beings about our connection to the sea?

"The oceans provide the oxygen that we breathe, they provide the food. Our air is dependent on the oceans, our food is dependent on the oceans. Much of the energy we could derive could come from ocean."
How is this affecting the seafood we eat?
"We humans love our shellfish: We love our oysters, we love our lobsters...the shellfish industry is very, very important to the overall economy of the United States — all of the fisherman, all of the restaurants…we spend about $32 billion (£23 billion) a year on fish and shellfish each year.

"[But] fish eat shellfish, too. Half of the fish that live in our oceans eat shellfish, and so do animals like seals, walruses, otters, and birds. It’s part of the food chain. How we impact the lower-end of the food chain has a significant impact on the rest of our ecosystem."

So, should I be eating seafood and shellfish?
"I think that it’s much more important for you to be aware of the problems and to be vocal about the problems, to convey the problems to as many people as we can — particularly our leaders. I wouldn’t say pull back from eating seafood yet. I wouldn’t say that we know the answers to these impacts yet. We need to get a better understanding about what the overall impacts of ocean acidification are and how to combat them. We have to be cautious and encourage our leaders to support more research on this issue."

Is there hope for the future?
"I am very hopeful, because as we’ve seen from the Paris agreements, we are taking this seriously and we are working on reducing CO2 emissions. Our decisions right now are very important. We have not seen major impacts from ocean acidification on our oceans yet. How much we work towards reducing CO2 emissions will have a direct impact on the level of ocean acidification.

"We need to make these decisions right now. We need to pay attention right now, and we need to get the word out and make an impact right now."

Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.