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Issue #1508      6 July 2011

World’s oceans under threat

As part of the International Program on the State of the Oceans (IPSO) scientists are preparing a comprehensive assessment of the health of the world’s oceans. The report is of major significance, because the oceans create half of our oxygen, drive weather systems, modulate the atmosphere and provide us with food and other resources. Although the report will not be published until next year, research already conducted has demonstrated that oceanic ecosystems are seriously threatened because of human activity.

Emptying the oceans

Between 9,000 and 10,000 tonnes of fish are caught every year. Until fairly recently, over-fishing and habitat destruction have been mainly responsible causes for the world-wide exhaustion of fish stocks.

The international fishing industry is a text-book case of capitalism’s “anarchy of production”. Disputes between Western European nations over fishing rights prompted the “cod wars” some thirty years ago. The disputing parties reached an uneasy truce but the underlying problem, declining stocks of the north-west Atlantic cod, was not tackled and stocks of cod have now been decimated.

Similar disputes have broken out elsewhere, for example over unauthorised fishing for “orange roughy” and other species within Australian Antarctic waters. An international dispute has raged for decades over whaling, in particular Japan’s despicable whaling program which it describes as part of a “scientific study” of whales.

Stocks of fish in shallow depths are now declining rapidly because of over-fishing, As a result, fishing craft are now turning to trawling at great depths and across the sea bed, even over coral reefs, which not only decimates stocks of fish but also ruins their habitat.

Ocean pollution: a massive problem

Pesticide and fertilizer run-off and mineral extraction are major factors in declining fish stocks. Disposal of human and animal waste in the sea promotes the growth of micro-organisms such as algae, which smothers coral polyps, vividly demonstrated by damage to the Great Barrier Reef and other coral systems. Because of rising sea levels, pollution and other factors, 16 percent of the world’s coral reefs suffered bleaching in 1998.

The mining industry is now a major contributor to marine pollution, because of the leakage of oil and gas from drilling rigs, as demonstrated by last year’s massive leakage of oil from the BP drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and leakages in Australian waters and elsewhere.

Coral reefs in the Indonesian-controlled West Papuan island of Raja Ampat host an amazing 75 percent of the world’s coral living organisms. However, the coral’s very existence is now threatened by the mining of coastal soil which is shipped to Queensland Nickel’s Yabulu refinery for extraction of nickel and cobalt.

The mining process strips vegetation and after rain the reef waters become stained deep red from loose soil, which sinks and smothers the coral. Protests from the local community have been silenced by the Indonesian military.

The introduction of alien species is also a significant threat. Shipping activities are largely responsible, for example by flushing ballast water in an area different from where it was taken on board, or by the transport of marine species on ships’ hulls. The introduction of alien species, combined with overfishing, is said to have resulted in the collapse of marine ecosystems in the Black Sea in the 1990’s.

Climate change, the rising challenge

Because of greenhouse gas increases, the atmosphere is warming over most of the Earth’s surface, even though certain areas such as Western Europe are likely to become colder because of alterations in the flow of the ocean currents, which in turn will have a devastating effect on marine species that rely on currents for access to food and breeding areas.

The oceans have absorbed more than 80 percent of the atmosphere’s increased heat, resulting in a rise in the volume of the oceans and sea levels. The oceans have also absorbed 33 percent of human-emitted carbon dioxide, and as a result the ocean water is becoming acidic and is gradually eating into the shells of shellfish and crustaceans. The impact is most noticeable in the thinning shells of the smaller species, which will have no protection from their predators if their shells disappear altogether.

The loss of these shell fish would have a massive impact on the marine food chain. Some scientists now predict that because of climate change, over fishing, pollution and other problems, there will be no fish for human consumption within thirty years.

Capitalism responds

Certain sections of capital (particularly those involved in emerging renewable energy systems) have taken a progressive position with regard to climate change. However, minerals and oil interests have frustrated effective action, as demonstrated starkly at the Copenhagen conference on climate change.

Climate change is now melting the Canadian coastal ice, which promises to deliver the “north-west passage”, the holy grail of nineteenth–century maritime trade between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. As a result, tension is rising between the governments of Canada and the US, both of which are laying claim to potential shipping routes between the coast of Canada and the northern Canadian islands.

Meanwhile, as fish stocks fall, fishing corporations buy ever-bigger craft and nets, committing themselves further and further into debt in order to chase ever smaller stocks of fish.

The way forward

Marine scientists have called for the creation of extensive new marine reserves around the world, to provide fish sanctuaries and breeding grounds.

However, last week the NSW O’Farrell government entered into an agreement with the Shooters’ and Fishers’ Party to oppose any moves to create new marine reserves or to extend existing reserves, in return for which the government will presumably receive support from the Shooters and Fishers in the Upper House for government initiatives, e.g. new industrial relations laws.

That’s an extremely retrogressive move, but in a sense it shows the way forward. Australia’s historic two-party system is beginning to break down, and the balance of power is shifting to the smaller parties. That’s why forming alliances with left-wing and progressive parties on issues of common agreement is so important in uniting to defeat the parties of reaction and playing our part in saving the ocean – and the world.  

Next article – Aged care – funding cuts ahead of “reform”

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