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Evaggelos Vallianatos Headshot

Chaos in the Oceans

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I was born into a family that owned a few acres of land. Indeed, I believe the ownership of tiny to small property is beneficial to individual and public well-being.

But I still don't understand how American farmers can own, sometimes, hundreds of thousands of acres of land. I was astonished when I "discovered" that one could even own mountains in the United States.

It's this misuse of the idea of personal power and its imposition on things that humans never made or can make -- air, land, water and the natural world -- which is partly responsible for our existential crisis.

The orgy of the "private" has all but crushed the public good: that working together and sharing provide the cornerstones of democracy and civilization.

Capitalists see the natural world as a mine for plunder. This is particularly true in the vast oceans where armies of pirates (companies, individuals, and governments) invade them daily and grab "resources."

Petroleum companies drill the ocean floor for oil and natural gas, leaving behind them deleterious pollution; commercial fishing factories scoop fish like they are endless, spreading death and destruction; countless "pleasure" yachts leave a trail of toxic chemicals in the water; governments even use the oceans for dumping hazardous wastes; and rivers disgorge fertilizers, pesticides and other poisonous wastes into the seas and oceans.

The result of this criminal behavior is fueling large dead zones in the water and risking life in the seas and oceans. Indeed, the human cannibalism of the oceans is setting a deleterious chain reaction with no end in sight.

Anthropogenic global warming is one of the drivers of this process, making it more deadly.

First, the human poisoning and exploitation of our water world is consuming myriads of species of fish and other wildlife, altering the chemistry and biology of what makes life possible not merely within the oceans but on the rest of the Earth.

A symptom of this tragic human impact on the life of the oceans is the reemergence from obscurity of the jellyfish as a dominant species, a position it occupied half a billion years ago before the existence of fish, mammals and turtles.

The Australian jellyfish expert, Lisa-ann Gershwin, tells the story of jellyfish and human plunder of the oceans in Stung! (University of Chicago Press, 2013). Stung! evokes the danger of jellyfish blooms but, even more fundamentally, it is about the real stung effect of the collapsing oceans. "Stung!" is extremely important, well written and well documented.

Gershwin gives voice to the best scientists speaking about their life-long concerns on the fate of the oceans, quoting them on the dreadful effects of industrialized fishing, mining of the seas, global warming, and pollution: how "economic" activities since 1960 have reduced the fish by 90 percent, disrupt ecosystems, making the future of coral reefs bleak, and raising the temperature of the seas to the point that phytoplankton, the basic stuff of like in the oceans, favors the jellyfish over the fish.

The health of the oceans is fundamental to the health of all living beings on the planet. The oceans produce most of the oxygen in the atmosphere, absorb huge amounts of the Earth-warming gases, moderate the whether, climate and temperature, and fix planetary chemistry. They are also home to a tremendous variety of animals and plants.

"If the ocean is in trouble - and it is - we are in trouble.," wrote the distinguished planetary scientist, Sylvia Earle, in the foreword of Stung!

Stung! shows the oceans are in deep trouble. In addition to polluters, the other beneficiaries of the human poisoning of the oceans are the jellyfish. They "decimate fisheries and alter ecosystems," Gershwin wrote. She documents why the jellyfish are the harbingers of marine chaos: thriving in warmer waters, slowly taking over the oceans.

"As seas become stressed, the jellyfish are there, like an eagle to an injured lamb... We are increasingly fishing out their predators and competitors, and we are altering the physical properties of the seabed and chemical properties of the oceans to favor the jellyfish," wrote Gershwin.

In contrast to Earle who says humans can "restore and protect the ocean systems vital to our survival and well-being," Gershwin says "its too late." The oceans, she writes, are like people with terminal cancer.

Gershwin's conclusion is wrong. It is not based on the science she used in writing her book. The oceans are too large and too complex to declare them dead. The oceans don't have cancer. Humans degrade the oceans and humans can let them heal themselves.

Saying "it's too late" sends the polluters an unspoken message to continue with their deadly work. That is unacceptable.

A telling message should be to stop trashing the oceans. Bring to an end the violence, enormous take, and waste of industrialized fishing. Gershwin cites the Canadian scientist Daniel Pauly who equates industrialized fishing to a war of extermination. Such behavior ought to be outlawed.

Second, control pollution. Given time without the violence of human intrusion, the oceans will recover.

Let the public good and nature triumph over private greed.

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