About 'The Starving Ocean'

This is a personal website, documenting my independent research into today's changing marine ecosystem. An alternative explanation is offered, which I am convinced may be driving many broad trends: that centuries of human fishing has removed such a quantity of protein (building blocks that would normally have been recycled) that we now have a much 'leaner' or 'starving' marine food web, one that is operating at a reduced productive capacity. (2008 - My view of fish eventually evolved from "building blocks" to "catalysts" for life in the sea. Big difference.)

A surprising number of puzzle pieces fall neatly into place once this view is considered...in any case, there is a need today for new explanatory theories that account for all of the elements in the larger changing picture. And public awareness of these issues urgently needs to be raised.

I have no formal background in marine biology, no funding, no affiliation, just an intense interest in this subject because of the alarming negative changes that I have witnessed in my (not especially long) lifetime in coastal Atlantic Canada. Originally this project was titled "Wake up and Feed the Fish! A New insight into the causes of the Collapsing Fisheries" (1999). My suggestion then was that we find a way to divert solid human food scraps to the fishing banks. But the new website title, 'The Starving Ocean,' (2002) is meant to reflect the fact that this issue is about much more than fish. And, before entering a debate about treatment options, it is critical that we first establish the correct diagnosis, and then identify the actual cause. The articles posted here cite a wide range of evidence to support the diagnosis of a generally 'starving' ocean, and offer arguments that this 'starvation' of today's marine life may ultimately have been caused by human fishing.

(2008 - Due to mounting oxygen loss in ocean waters, I now conclude there is no safe way to implement any broad-scale diversion of human food waste usefully into the ocean ecosystem. Animal life surviving today will be unable to consume our food waste efficiently, so by default it will rot, which will only accelerate the current general degradation of the ocean environment. The only thing we can do to enhance healing of the weakened web of sea animal life is to leave it alone. Stop fishing now. A ton of living, swimming fish holds an immeasurably greater ecological value than a ton of broken down fish flesh components. All living sea animals naturally fertilize the sea itself, actively driving the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they stimulate food production for their own benefit. Accepted theory has underestimated or missed this point.)

Debbie MacKenzie
email: Codmother@bellaliant.net

Update - 2008 - I was recently asked to give an interview to an online magazine, Orato.com, and the article below was subsequently published February 14, 2008. Orato editor Robyn Stubbs interviewed me and she chose to title this summary of my thesis "The Dying Ocean." For myself, I still hold out hope that the ocean is only critically ill with some chance of recovery. However, there is precious little time to turn it around.


The Dying Ocean

 by Debbie MacKenzie

The ocean is dying, in the sense that animal life overall is losing strength and faltering.  Centuries of human fishing is the major cause, not only of diminished human fisheries, but also of generalized breakdown patterns that are increasingly apparent today, from starving fish, whales and seabirds, to bursts of runaway growth of algae and bacteria, seen as “red tides” and “dead zones.”

Our removal of so many active, living sea animals has unexpectedly impaired the very nutrient cycling engine of the marine ecosystem itself, because every living, moving sea creature always helped to stabilize and energize the whole system. The incredible bulk of marine animal life that existed a few centuries ago is now gone. And by its removal the ocean web itself has been injured, virtually gutted by fishing.  According to accepted scientific theory, that was never supposed to happen. But it has, and the evidence is everywhere.

I grew up in a little fishing village on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia, and I have a pretty clear memory of life along the shoreline back to the early 60s. I have been very close to the fishing industry, and I have been very close to the ocean itself for 50 years. Concerned by changes in the sea life at my doorstep, I have closely monitored scientific research coming out of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans for the past decade. My conclusion: we are in much worse trouble than the DFO is willing to admit, and the DFO is sitting on information that has global significance.

The best way to describe the change in my lifetime is a decline in everything. There has been a major decline in large ocean animals, including fish; this much is fairly well known. However, it is important to realize that you can scale this observation down as well; there are now no large snails, there are no large mussels, there are not really even large seaweeds like there once were. Plants and animals that flourish now tend to be smaller, fine and fuzzy – lower energy things, that are more efficient and adapted for low nutrient feeding.

Food production in the ocean has slowed overall, and this is reflected in the condition of the few large fish still surviving. All are unusually small and thin today. Tuna, swordfish, cod, you name it, that is the reality. I see a whole ocean system downshift; where I can watch plankton-feeding barnacles and mussels declining here in Nova Scotia, I see a parallel in the die-off of plankton-feeding corals in the tropics.

What does this mean? It means there has been a slow-down in overall productivity and energy flow into the ocean, which means photosynthesis and carbon dioxide uptake by the ocean has also slowed over time. Do all these signs today mean humans have actually damaged the ability of the ocean to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by fishing and whaling? That is my conclusion, although it is not generally accepted. But to me it is obvious that an ocean dominated by bacteria and other microbes (i.e. where we are heading) cannot stimulate plant growth as fast as can an ocean dominated by animals (i.e. what the earth had prior to human fishing).

When I look at the seaweed, the large traditional weeds appear under-fertilized, like they’re not getting enough nitrogen. That helps tell the tale. I try to read everything the DFO scientists and others publish on this area, and I have been watching for the ocean biochemistry to change. And in fact, it has changed.

If you dig through DFO’s biochemical papers and observations, you will find in Atlantic Canada that the nitrate (a very significant part of the natural fertility of the sea) has decreased throughout the water column, not just on the top layer. And that is an ominous sign. A decline in bottom water nitrate is a clear indication of a loss of plant growth potential, even using the standard interpretation of how these things work.

Many people are scratching their heads now over what we can do to get the ocean to suck up more carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away at the bottom. One suggestion is iron fertilization. There are areas of the open ocean where the limiting ingredient for plant growth is iron: sprinkling iron dust in those areas will stimulate a plankton bloom, and that plankton bloom will take in some carbon. The idea is that the carbon will then make its way to the bottom of the ocean by sinking or by being eaten. Deep ocean water overturns very slowly so the carbon would be kept down there for a few centuries before natural currents bring it back up.

But iron fertilization is a poor idea because we cannot predict the full ecological impact. It might be useless or it might be dangerous. We don’t know, once we stimulate an unnatural plankton bloom with iron dust, if it will be toxic to animal life or if it might end up rotting and removing oxygen from the bottom water. Iron fertilization could backfire.

Fertilization of the ocean is definitely a major key to removing more carbon from the atmosphere – the ocean is the biggest thing on the planet capable of taking in carbon. Fertility of the ocean is crucial, and, although science has been slow to acknowledge it, living fish, whales, seals and seabirds all naturally speed up the fertility of the ocean, essentially by their very active movement. The web of marine animals has always been self-fertilizing!

This realization shows us that the ‘sea animal deficit’ we have caused has inevitably caused a natural ‘ocean fertility deficit’. If we now leave marine animals alone, the ocean animal web will have a natural tendency to repair itself; a natural tendency to rebuild and accelerate fertility on its own. Maximizing the living presence sea animals on the planet, including as many as possible of the larger types, will produce the best result, ocean-fertility wise.  The safest way for humans to get the ocean to lock more carbon away will therefore be to stop all fishing, whaling and seal hunting. The idea is politically unpopular, to say the least, but it would help turn the ocean around.

The fishing industry currently admits that it must deal with the direct impacts of fishing that people can see and understand. Fishermen will have to stop bottom-trawling, catching things that they aren’t targeting, killing turtles and dolphins, birds and juvenile fish. However, what the industry cannot or will not square with is the mounting scientific evidence of damaging indirect effects of fishing: the energy draining impact on the ecosystem overall. 

Life is now precarious for large sea animals in general. Beyond food shortages, microbes are becoming more dominant in the environment, raising threats to animals from toxic algae blooms, dead zones and rising infectious diseases. These changes have the potential to take down some of the larger animals quickly. I do not expect to see a long, slow, gradual disappearance for some of these species; whales and seals, for instance, might just crash.

Sea turtles, extremely old species that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, are now coming ashore sick and starving. That should give us cause to worry. The system overall is ailing and it is time to face up to what we’ve done to it.  

I don’t have a vegetarian or vegan philosophical agenda, but it makes sense to shift in that direction. We should stop killing sea animals across the board, and we should stop doing things that feed bacteria in the sea, which is what we do with pollution. If we want ‘sustainable’ fish protein in our diet, we should develop smart aquaculture. There are now no ‘sustainable’ ocean fisheries.

Ocean animals as a group should be given free rein to try to pull themselves back from the brink of human-induced annihilation, and to re-charge the fertility of the sea. This will also be key to long term human survival.



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