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A few thoughts for Earth Day


I posted a news item on our magazine website this week in advance of Earth Day (April 22) in which the Oceana group calls upon people to remember the world’s oceans on Earth Day. You can read about the group’s campaign at www.Oceana.org
We have an informal rule among the editors in the EcoLog Group, and that is since we are in the business-to-business (B2B) press, we avoid anything to do with the three Fs (fur, fins and feathers). It’s not that we don’t care about saving whales or baby seals or polar bears, it’s just that there are other information venues and groups that focus on that. In my case, I indirectly help out the three Fs by promoting sustainability within modern industrial society, what I call “industrial ecology” (a term I sometimes expand to “municipal/industrial ecology”).
But, seeing as this is an Earth Day item, I decided to break my own three Fs rule. If you read my earlier post about Lawrence Solomon’s excellent article series The Deniers (about global warming skeptics) you’ll gain some insight into why I posted the Oceana item instead of some of the others that always arrive in abundance just before Earth Day.
I’m very happy that concern about climate change has renewed interest in environmental issues, which are now top-of-mind for people, according to recent surveys and even a cursory review of newspaper headlines. You’d have to live in a cave not to notice that people are interested in this subject, and want to know what they can do to help. (Watch for Al Gore to jump into the U.S. presidential race — he’s in third place according to polls, and he isn’t even running!)
The trouble not just that I’m concerned that much of the small amount of warming that appears to be underway may be from natural causes, such as increased output from the Sun, which goes through cycles. Rather, the point is we’re so busy worrying about a possible warming of the atmosphere that our attention as a society is being drawn away from some hard core conservation issues about which there’s far less scientific uncertainty. For me, the top conservation crisis of our time is the degradation of the marine environment, from pollution and especially over-fishing. I have read several articles and seen several TV and film documentaries recently that have raised my awareness about this and it causes me to lose sleep like no other issue.
Unless something drastic is done, within my lifetime I fully expect to witness the wholesale collapse of the earth’s aquatic ecosystems (let’s call them that, and not just “fisheries” which is so anthropocentric). It’s well known that the coral reefs are bleaching. My guess is that it’s in part from global warming but also a deadly combination of fishing, pollution and soil runoff from the islands and other terrain that has been deforested in many tropical areas. The reefs are being choked already and then along come fishermen with dynamite! Goodbye reef!
In the deep oceans we have a true “tragedy of the commons” underway. The tragedy of the commons is a term that describes what happens in any area that is a shared resource for which no one has a duty of care, or a property right. With no one really policing the oceans beyond the aribitrary offshore boundaries governments claim (and there’s not much in the way of sustainable fishing closer to shore, either), it’s actually in the short-term interest of fishermen to catch as many fish as quickly as possible, and thereby beat their competitors. Large factory ships catch and process/freeze the fish out in the ocean, out of sight and out of mind for everyone, including governments. The tragedy of the oceanic commons is illustrated by the terribly destructive techniques employed.
Do you know that an area of the ocean floor roughly the size of the United States is scraped bare every year by the most popular fishing technique, which involves dragging special nets on the bottom? This is a part of the world about which we know practically nothing. We know more about the surface of Mars than we know about our own ocean bottoms. Then there are the huge drift nets, which are often abandoned and simply float in the water for years, even decades, as huge pointless killing machines, entangling and strangling or suffocating hundreds of different species. Then there is long-lining, via which trawlers hook hundreds of marine animals on enormous lines equipped with hooks and shorter lines positioned at regular intervals. These are death machines that kill many many animals of no commercial value to fishermen. The techniqie is popular simply because it’s convenient for the fishermen. It reminds me of that popular military T-shirt slogan: “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out!”
Taken together, all these destructive practices amount to nothing less than marine genocide. Observers in an alien spacecraft hovering over the ocean would assume human beings are on a program to destroy all life in the oceans, rather than harvest food in any kind of sustainable manner.
Campaigns to save the whales are well known (and now under threat of being dismantled, also). But no one is protecting the sharks — the most important “alpha predators” in the seas. Removing the world’s sharks (as we are doing rapidly) is akin to removing all the spiders; how long would it be before we’d be knee deep in flies? Killing off the sharks will have the perverse effect of allowing subspecies populations to bloom and then collapse as they decimate their own food supplies. We are well on our way to creating a marine desert, it appears.
Do yourself a favor and go see the new documentary Sharkwater. It’s the best film ever made on this topic, I believe. We need to make sure all the policymakers in all the world’s countries (especially in Asia) see this movie and take action. Personally, I would like to see Al Gore promote that film and not just his own An Inconvenient Truth. We run the risk of reducing our greenhouse gases, only to one day find our seas are empty.


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