Future of oceans

By Charlie Trick
November 16, 2012

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OceansIllustration by Scott Woods


Editor's Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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To look forward 40 years, I need to look back a few decades. I need a running start for this discussion.

As a boy from the prairies, the oceans represent the greatest unknown on the planet. Like most bewildered youngsters, large meant powerful, solid, unmovable – like the Incredible Hulk. It meant mysteries, potential, exploration and exploitation.

It was there for the taking.


Yet it took very little time in my graduate studies to hear this vision was not only untrue, but almost the exact opposite of what I believed. The mysteries were there for sure, but the understanding was built on the unpredictable fragility of its biology, chemistry and physics.

At that time there were only two-to-three billion people on the planet, we earned and expected far less from the Earth by way of resources. Our personal footprint was smaller and global demands far less than today.

Yet, during a class by Dr. Karl Banse at the University of Washington, I learned of a monumental loss of an ocean species – a loss that would make the world less joyful, less interesting, less imaginative – forever. As he said at the time:

The mermaid had been weeded out and would be forever gone.

(That would be my first extinct species of significance, although the dodo bird comes a close second.)

For many, the mermaid was only known through caricatures, drawings and Saturday cartoons. But to Banse, mermaids existed. These sirens were a mix of folktales and characters on nautical charts. They called to landlubbers and sailors alike. They depended on the sea.

They perhaps got perturbed when two-legged land animals entered their environment – and then, perhaps, lured the curious out to meet them to the visitor’s ultimate death.

Their demise was not due to the aggression of the human hunter, but rather due to factory fishing removing the foundation of the food chain. It took a substantial number of steps in a food chain to meet the diet of the mermaid, and humans’ increasing need for fish stripped the colder coastal waters. Mermaids starved with only smaller and smaller remnants, like the jellyfish, remaining.

Shrinking the steps in the food chain was the first attack by humans on the ecology of the oceans, and what a price we paid.

Today, we don’t talk about mermaids – but we are only seeing the last vestiges of the ocean, as we knew it. Since ocean ecology does not quickly disappear, we are witness to the age of the Zombie Ocean. Dead zones, bleached corals, lost fisheries, low-energy food chains giving us jellyfish instead of tuna and salmon.

Looks a lot like the old ocean; but it’s not. But can it recover?

We have almost no ability to predict ocean ecology. We don’t know the rules.

But what’s even more dangerous, we think we know the rules. We think we can make predictions based on changes we have never had a chance to test or understand.

To paraphrase classical pianist Artur Schnabel’s comments on Mozart: Solving the ocean health problem is “too simple for children, too complex for adults.”

What we produce, ends up in the ocean. So stop the pathways and slow the release into the environment.

As the global population levels off, we will reduce the demands on the ocean. But with depleted soils and modified weather patterns (drought and flooding), we may seek even more from the ocean. We may take more because we cannot see the consequences.

The revenging of the ocean resources over the centuries has shown we can take from the ocean at a pace far faster than the ocean can replace. And the ecological hole will be filled with an unpredictable ecology.

The ocean is not resilient; it tends not to recover, but heads in a new direction – a new trajectory. The replacements are not always desirable and, usually, of lower quality.

Now, that was the running start. Here’s the leap to hope.

Oceans will always remain aloof from the hearts of most people. Humanity will be concerned about the margin waters – where we normal people swim and boat. And we will assume beyond the margin nothing damaging will be going on.

It’s too big to damage. It’s too large to care about. It’s not resilient. It will not recover; it will transform and dwindle. And it is alone.

It needs a global vision of protection. It needs the care of a global community. It is my hope the world will stand up and say it’s time to care for our wastes and adjust our demands.

We cannot ask our fragile neighbour to do what we have the ability to do ourselves.

Charles Trick is a the Beryl Ivey Chair for Ecosystem Health in the Faculty of Science.


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