David Suzuki: The challenge of sustaining our oceans

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June 8 is World Oceans Day. It's a fitting time to contemplate humanity's evolving relationship with the source of all life. For much of human history, we've affected marine ecosystems primarily by what we've taken out of the seas. The challenge as we encounter warming temperatures and increasing industrial activity will be to manage what we put into them.

As a top predator, humans from the tropics to the poles have harvested all forms of marine life, from the smallest shrimp to the largest whales, from the ocean's surface to its floor. The staggering volume of fish removed from our waters has had a ripple effect through all ocean ecosystems. Yet the ocean continues to provide food for billions of people, and improved fishing practices in many places, including Canada, are leading to healthier marine-life populations. We're slowly getting better at managing what we catch to keep it within the ocean's capacity to replenish. But while we may be advancing in this battle, we're losing the war with climate change and pollution.

In the coming years, our ties to the oceans will be defined by what we put into them: carbon dioxide, nutrients washed from the land, diseases from aquaculture, and land-based animals, invasive species, plastics, contaminants, noise, and ever-increasing marine traffic. We once incorrectly viewed oceans as limitless storehouses of marine bounty and places to dump our garbage; now it's clear they can only handle so much.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent report described how ingredients in the ocean's broth are changing dramatically. Life in the seas is closely linked to factors in the immediate surroundings, such as temperature, acidity or pH, salinity, oxygen, and nutrient availability. These combine at microscopic levels to create conditions that favour one form of life over another and emerge into complex ecosystems.

The oceans now absorb one-quarter of the atmosphere's CO2. That's bad news for organisms with calcium carbonate shells that dissolve in acidic conditions. We're witnessing the effects of ocean acidification on shellfish along the West Coast of North America. Earlier this year, a Vancouver Island scallop farm closed after losing 10 million scallops, likely because of climate change and increasing acidity. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also linked oyster die-offs along the Pacific coast to climate change.

While we may be getting better at figuring out how to sustainably harvest crabs, lobsters, and sea urchins, we're just starting to investigate whether they can even survive in oceans altered by climate change.

Whales also offer a glimpse into our changing relationship with oceans. From the 17th century until well into the 20th, commercial whaling in Canada left populations severely depleted. Now, our most endangered whales are threatened by industrial activity. The St. Lawrence beluga population, for example, was decimated by hunting until 1979. Today's biggest threats include contaminants, vessel traffic, and industrialization, including a proposal to develop an oil port in the heart of their critical habitat.

Although the conservation challenge is daunting, nurturing functioning ecosystems offers hope. Healthy oceans ensure we can continue to enjoy seafoodand they're more resilient to increasing human impacts. If the global fishing industry wants to ensure its survival, it should advocate for marine ecosystem conservation.

By continuing to improve fisheries, protect habitat, carefully control industrial activities and create marine protected areas, we can maintain marine ecosystems that are better able to adapt to the pressures of climate change and other human activities. That's happening on the Pacific North Coast, thanks to a partnership between the B.C. government and First Nations to develop marine plans to guide future ocean uses.

Although there's much to lament about the state of the oceans, I remain inspired by the David Suzuki Foundation's Ocean Keepers and others working to defend our precious coastal waters. With less than five per cent of the oceans explored, we have much left to discover and learn.

As the late American marine biologist, author and conservationist Rachel Carson wrote, "It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist: the threat is rather to life itself."

Comments (4) Add New Comment
Mary Finelli
Let's respect the oceans' inhabitants by not causing them needless harm. All the nutrients derived from fish and other aquatic animals can be obtained more healthfully, humanely and environmentally responsibly from plant sources. This includes vegan seafood, which is convenient, affordable and delicious! Recipes, products and more, including information about what sensitive, admirable animals fish are and why we should protect them, can be found at FishFeel.org.
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jessi thompson
thank you, mr. suzuki, for highlighting a problem that strikes near to my heart. ocean acidification is happening now right in front of our eyes because of human activity. now i'd like to ask the readers who agree (rather than waste precious little time on the ignorant) what have you done to reduce carbon pollution today?
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Rena Woss
It's Environment Week and this is a Letter to the Editor (published June 5, Lethbridge Herald) that I wrote:
Environment Canada states they are “Strengthening Our Environment Today for Tomorrow”… “taking strong action to preserve the natural environment through science by maintaining air and water quality”. This rhetoric sounds good but actions prove otherwise. Our water, air and soil have never been in greater peril and scientists across the country have never been more alarmed as federal budgets to research programs of water, ocean habitat, climate change and public health care are destroyed or cut to the bone. Lax environmental controls have made it possible for industry to use water as a commodity rather than the life giving force it is. Lakes and rivers have been allowed to be infiltrated with over 70,000 different water contaminants. Over 40% of lakes in America are too polluted for fishing, aquatic life or swimming. So much destruction in less than a hundred years! How does this happen? Is it not due to government and public apathy; of electing people who are not informed; who have their priorities wrong?
The water in my city (Lethbridge, AB) has also been compromised by industry. To make matters worse, the Alberta Government was prepared to increase the threat- selling mineral rights to Golden Key Oil for drilling/ fracking inside our city. Fracking would have contaminated millions of gallons of fresh water, turning it from wholesome to a hazardous waste. It’s mind boggling to think that our government would allow this anywhere, let alone here in Lethbridge - a semi-arid part of the province where water is scarce and droughts are frequent all for the sake of creating energy when energy can safely be created with our abundant renewable resources of sun and wind. To raise awareness of the need to protect water, Lethbridge is holding a water tribute this Sunday, June 8th at 1:30 in Indian Battle Park. Our community “Tribute to the Oldman River” may be the first of its kind in Canada where government officials and the citizen are standing up and speaking out for the protection of WATER.
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Doug
Oh ya were all just going to start taking care of the worlds oceans all of a sudden! What a bunch of lip service if I've ever heard it. 90% of the world care about money and everything else takes a back seat . I have never witnessed any policies or protection put into place that had an ounce of relevance to the long term well being of the oceans or the land in which we live.
I've watched david Suzuki for decades and now I realize he is also at the mercy of big business and will compromise his own ideals for his own security. It's time for a wake up call and it looks like it's here.
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