A map of United States marine protected areas.(Photo Credit: NOAA)
From Sea Technology
History repeats itself, and according to a new report, the same patterns that affected species extinction on land could be happening in the global oceans.
Despite this trend, however, we can help shape the future of ocean life by advocating for more marine protected areas and being an informed consumer.
Sea Technology spoke with Douglas McCauley, a University of California, Santa Barbara scientist who worked on the report, about what terrestrial species extinction means for marine life and the industrialization of the oceans.
Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean
How many land-based species have gone extinct?
In the last 500 years, there have been about 500 species of terrestrial animals that have gone extinct. There are many more that have gone extinct prior to 500 years, but some of the record keeping gets harder to do when you move back thousands of years.
What we are trying to do is focus on extinctions that are driven by people.
It's easier to concentrate on the past five centuries, where we know much more about what has happened to the environment.
In the ocean, in the same time period, 15 animals have been lost.
Why is the trend of species extinction on land important when looking at marine life?
It is a way for us to get a sense of how history can inform the future.
Things are basically behind in the oceans, in terms of our impact on wildlife communities, relative to our impacts on land.
It seems that we run through a couple of different transitions in the way that we influence wildlife.
When we look back at what happened on land, we can see how these transitions took form and what the consequences were.
We started hunting animals directly.
Then, we switched over to using the resources and space that animals use, hunting their homes and degrading their habitats.
That transition toward moving from hunting directly to hunting the land they use happened about the time, in a serious way, of the Industrial Revolution.
It was during that period where we were degrading habitats more rapidly that we also saw a major elevation in rates of terrestrial animal extinction.
In the oceans, the clock is turned back.
We're still hunting animals directly.
What we report is that there may be early signs of going toward this same shift in the ocean.
If we look at a wide range of data sources from marine industry, it seems there is a lot of new growth in development in the oceans.
We are now beginning to use space in the oceans at unprecedented rates.
That may be pushing us toward a period where we begin to industrialize our use of space in the oceans.
You mention a marine industrial revolution.
Is this shift what that refers to?
The terrestrial Industrial Revolution was about building out our cities and factories and using resources from wild spaces.
That seems to be what we are seeing early signs of in the ocean.
We are building power plants in the oceans.
We're beginning to set ourselves up to start mining in the oceans.
There are more than 1 million square kilometers of seabed that have been set aside for future mining. We're beginning to farm in an almost industrial-strength way.
It seems like some of the signs in these data remind us of the early days of the terrestrial Industrial Revolution.
As an ecologist, that's where we get a bit worried, because we saw this explosion of growth go hand-in-hand with major extinction rates.
We don’t want that to happen in the oceans.
We need to be careful about where we put this industry and what rates we let it develop.
In your research, how do you correlate human actions and species extinction?
The nice thing is, with only 15 animal extinctions in the oceans, there is not a lot of ambiguity.
You take an animal like the Caribbean monk seal, one of the more charismatic marine animals that was driven extinct.
It was just hunting.
We can look at historical records.
We arrive, and we start directly hunting the seals.
Future extinctions get a bit more complicated.
The major shift is that climate change is going to be a challenge in the oceans.
We are making the oceans more acidic and warmer, and that's a new source of stress that these animals have to cope with.
So, if their populations are getting low, they have to work though the process of adaption to a new environment.
So much of the ocean is unexplored. How does that play into your research?
The oceans are incredibly difficult places to study and understand.
This is the reason why a report like this is new.
We have been talking about these extinctions that are taking place on land, and the science is so much easier to document on land.
Doing it in the ocean is a lot harder.
First of all, this report is coming out a little late because of the challenges describing these patterns of change in the ocean.
They can only be incomplete views.
This is the best distillation of information from so many different sources, yet it remains a pretty incomplete view of what's happening out there with marine wildlife.
What can we do to help preserve marine species?
There are some big things and some small things.
Put more parks in the ocean.
Everybody knows that protected areas, parks on land, are the places you go to see wildlife.
Marine wildlife also thrives in parks.
We have far fewer protected areas in the oceans than we have on land.
We simply need more.
We need to address climate change.
It doesn't help us to set aside space for wildlife if we are heating up that space and acidifying it.
You don't think about a connection between what kind of miles-per-hour rating your car gets and oysters or tropical fish, but there is in fact a connection.
Everything that we do in our daily lives to reduce carbon emissions is going to buy marine animals time.
Use less plastic.
There are five trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans.
The last thing I'd say is don't eat endangered wildlife.
Use one of the smartphone applications to sort through your seafood section to figure out which are the rhinos of the sea.
- NYTimes : Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction, Broad Study Says