Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#659 - Wrecking the Oceans, 14-Jul-1999

Until recently, the oceans seemed so vast that no one could
imagine humans damaging them. Now, however, a decade of
scientific research has shown that this view is mistaken. Human
activities are degrading the oceans in numerous ways.

** The dominant view among experts is that burning coal and oil,
including gasoline, is contributing to a warming trend in the
atmosphere and the surface of the planet, including the oceans.

** As a result of global warming, according to the International
Council of Scientific Unions and the World Health Organization,
we should expect the sea level to rise because melting glaciers
and ice caps will increase the amount of water in the oceans and
because water expands as it grows warmer.[1] In fact, the
average temperature of the oceans has risen about 1.8 degrees
Fahrenheit this century and sea level has been rising, though
not in a steady progression, since 1920.

** Recent studies reported in SCIENCE magazine indicate that the
Pacific Ocean off the California coast is considerably warmer
and consequently much less productive than it used to be. For
example, the size and number of kelp have declined, in step with
rising water temperature.[2] More ominously, during the past 40
years, the production of zooplankton (tiny floating animals) in
the California Current has declined 70% as sea surface
temperatures have steadily risen.[3]

** The species of animals inhabiting the tidal areas of the
central California coast have changed during the past 60 years
because of a northward shift in animal life in response to
rising water temperatures.[4]

** As species have moved northward and zooplankton production
has declined dramatically, the number of pelagic
(ocean-dwelling) birds off the California coast has declined 40%
since 1987, largely as a result of a 90% decline in the
numerically dominant bird species, the sooty shearwater.[5]

** As populations of kelp, zooplankton and birds have declined
off the California coast in recent decades, researchers have
been documenting a loss of nutrients on the deep ocean floor.
Here, in the cold darkness 2 miles or more below the surface, we
find fish, snails, worms, slugs, barnacles, corals, crabs,
prawns, sponges, sea anemones, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, sea
urchins, feather stars and sea lilies in addition to untold
numbers of zooplankton, bacteria and other creatures whose
existence has never been recorded.

Because people experience the ocean floor at low tide when
barren-looking mud flats emerge, we have the idea that the ocean
bottom is bare. This is not the case. Tidal mud flats do not
support much visible life because waves beat on them constantly,
tending to break anything that grows large. But the floors of
the ocean -- particularly along the continental shelves --support
abundant life. An estimated 10 million species inhabit
the ocean floors, compared to 1.4 million known land dwellers.

Most of the food supply for these deep dwellers is produced in
the upper ocean where sunlight is available to drive the basic
process of photosynthesis whereby carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are
made into carbohydrates, forming the first level of the oceanic
food chain. Leftovers from the surface-level food chain,
including dead plants and animals and fecal matter, rain down on
the ocean floor, providing food for those below.

Now however, these deep-dwelling species are in for trouble,
according to a report published in SCIENCE magazine in May.[6] A
seven-year study of nutrients raining down from the surface
layers has documented a 50% decline in food reaching the deep
floor. The culprit seems to be declining productivity in the
upper ocean, caused by rising sea temperature. "If the food
deficit continues, it is going to change the configuration of
the deep-sea communities," says Kenneth L. Smith, Jr., of the
Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, and an author
of the recent report in SCIENCE. "Some species will die out
while those that can survive on a very low food supply will
still be able to maintain themselves," he told the NEW YORK

** But there is still more bad news. About 10% of the corals in
the world's oceans have already died because their watery home
has grown too warm. Many more have become bleached, which is a
step toward death for corals. If current conditions and trends
persist, an additional 20% to 30% of the world's coral could be
lost during the next century, according to James W. Porter, an
ocean studies specialist at the University of Georgia.[8] Dr.
Porter says "Corals are like the canary in the mine. They are
telling us that the water where they live is becoming suboptimal
for their existence."

In some parts of the world, the death of corals has reached
alarming proportions. In the Seychelles (in the Indian Ocean off
the east coast of Africa), 80% of corals have been lost.[9]
Along the coast of Indonesia, 90% of corals are reported dead.

Fish do not eat corals, but many fish feed on crabs, clams, and
worms that live among the coral, and coral provides protection
for much of the swimming life in tropical oceans. So the loss of
coral is a serious blow to oceanic ecosystems. "If there are no
healthy coral, the fish won't be there," says Thomas F. Goreau,
president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance in Chappaqua, New

Corals are degraded not only by ocean warming, but also by
bacteria and viruses released by humans. Since 1996 James W.
Porter has observed a four-fold increase in disease at 160 coral
sites along the coast of Florida. Almost none of the responsible
pathogens (bacteria and viruses) have been seen before. They are
"new to science," Dr. Porter says.[8]

** Humans are being affected too. One study found that nearly 25%
of those who visit Florida beaches for swimming, windsurfing or
boating become sick as a result. Huge colonies of viruses are
being released into Florida's coastal waters by 1.6 million
septic tanks, according to Joan B. Rose, a University of South
Florida researcher. An estimated 20% to 24% of humans who
encounter such viruses at the beach develop ear infections, sore
eyes and throats, and respiratory or gastrointestinal disease.
Some of the viruses detected in coastal water are associated with
serious ailments, such as heart disease, meningitis and
hepatitis. Viral infections cannot be cured by antibiotics. Most
people recover from infections they get while swimming or boating
in coastal Florida, but an estimated 1% of those infected remain
chronically ill.[8]

Viruses with human origins are also found in shellfish, and not
just in Florida. Studies in New York coastal waters have found
up to 40% of the shellfish infected. Many of the viruses that
can infect humans directly, or through contaminated shellfish,
cannot be detected by routine monitoring, Professor Rose says.

** Humans degrade coral reefs in other ways. On May 16 this year
the NEW YORK TIMES reported that a shrimp boat ran aground on a
coral reef in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Mexico,
destroying 1300 square yards of reef. Mexican officials are
reportedly seeking a $1 million fine from the owner of the boat.
A cruise liner in 1997 reportedly destroyed 550 square yards of
coral reef in the same area.[11] It doesn't take much to break
a branch off a coral reef -- an anchor carelessly deployed from
a pleasure boat can do it, or even a kick by a human diving or

Then of course there is modern fishing. The world's fishing
fleet has doubled since 1970. New fishing gear (global
positioning system [GPS] receivers, fish finders, and new kinds
of trawls and nets) have made it possible to sweep the oceans
like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up nearly everything that lives.
A recent report from the Marine Conservation Biology Institute
in Redmond, Washington, says modern fishing is comparable to
forest clearcutting -- except that the wreckage caused by modern
"factory trawlers" is hidden from view.[12] As a result of new
fishing technologies, 13 of the world's 17 major fisheries are
depleted or in steep decline. (See REHW #587.) For fish and for
fishing, the future looks grim.

In sum, until governments take "sustainability" seriously and
assert control over private corporations, the oceans seem likely
to continue to deteriorate.

--Peter Montague(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] G. deQ. Robin, "Changing the Sea Level," in Bert Bolin and
CHANGE, AND ECOSYSTEMS (New York: John Wiley, 1986), pgs.
323-359. And see Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
CLIMATE CHANGE (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1991), pgs.
131-159. And: A.J. McMichael and others, editors, CLIMATE CHANGE
AND HUMAN HEALTH (Geneva, Switzerland: World Health
Organization, 1996), pgs. 145-160. Some readers will be inclined
to fire off mail telling us that water expands as its
temperature drops, not as it rises. Please note that water
expands as its temperature rises above 39 degrees Fahrenheit AND
it expands as its temperature drops below 39 deg. F. For
verification, see "water density" in the index of any recent

INVESTIGATIONS [CALCOFI] REPORTS Vol. 37 (1996), pg. 111, cited
in Kenneth L. Smith, Jr., and Ronald S. Kaufmann, "Long-term
Discrepancy Between Food Supply and Demand in the Deep Eastern
North Pacific," SCIENCE Vol. 284 (May 14, 1999), pgs. 1174-1177.
See the CALCOFI home page at www-mlrg.ucsd.edu/calcofi.html.

[3] Dean Roemmich and John McGowan, "Climatic Warming and the
Decline of Zooplankton in the California Current," SCIENCE Vol.
267 (March 3, 1995), pgs. 1324-1326, and Dean Roemmich and John
McGowan, "Sampling Zooplankton: Correction," SCIENCE Vol. 268
(April 21, 1995), pgs. 352-353.

[4] J.P. Barry and others, "Climate-Related, Long-Term Faunal
Changes in a California Rocky Intertidal Community," SCIENCE
Vol. 267 (Februatry 3, 1995), pgs. 672-675.

[5] R.R. Veit and others, "Ocean warming and long-term change in
pelagic bird abundance within the California current system,"
MARINE ECOLOGY PROGRESS SERIES Vol. 139 (1996), pgs. 8-11. See

[6] Kenneth L. Smith, Jr., and Ronald S. Kaufmann, "Long-Term
Discrepancy Between Food Supply and Demand in the Deep Eastern
North Pacific," SCIENCE Vol. 284 (May 14, 1999), pgs. 1174-1177.
And see Ellen R.M. Druffel and Bruce H. Robison, "Is the Deep
Ocean on a Diet?" SCIENCE Vol. 284 (May 14, 1999), pgs.

[7] William J. Broad, "The Diverse Creatures of the Deep May Be
Starving," NEW YORK TIMES June 1, 1999, pg. 5.

[8] "As Oceans Warm, Problems From Viruses and Bacteria Mount,"
NEW YORK TIMES January 24, 1999, pg. unknown. Available at

[9] "Warm Trend Reportedly Speeds Death of Coral," NEW YORK
TIMES December 20, 1998, pg. unknown. Available at

[10] Global Coral Reef Alliance, 324 North Bedford Road,
Chappaqua, NY 10514; telephone (914) 238-8788 or (914) 239-8768.

[11] "Boat Harms Mexican Reef," NEW YORK TIMES May 16, 1999, pg.
unknown. Available from www.nytimes.com.

[12] Les Watling and Elliott A. Norse, "Disturbance of the
Seabed by Mobile Fishing Gear: A Comparison with Forest
Clear-Cutting." Marine Conservation Biology Institute
Contribution #17. Undated (1998?) pre-publication version of
paper available at http://www.mcbi.org/btrawl/wnpaper.html.

Descriptor terms: oceans; fish; fishing; primary production;
birds; wildlife; zooplankton; global warming; california; ca;