Oceanographer tells bleak tale of ocean's decline


BENNINGTON -- Students, faculty, and community members alike flocked to Bennington College's Center for the Advancement of Public Action on March 13 to see renowned oceanographer Dr. Jeremy Jackson give a lecture entitled "Ocean Apocalypse."

Jackson, who has worked for the Smithsonian Institution and Scripps Institution of Oceanography and received his Ph.D. from Yale University, began his talk by informing his audience of about 60 people that, "This is not going to be a fun talk," and for the most part he kept his promise. For the next 45 minutes, Jackson detailed his personal experience with disappearing ocean life, bleaching coral, and vanishing ecosystems, all the while providing a plethora of data to support his assertions. His talk covered three topics, as he described it, "What's going on in the ocean today, how bad is it, and how do we stop it."

"I got to a point when I was in my 50s," said Jackson, "when everything I had ever studied was either gone, like the Chesapeake Bay mollusk population, or so changed that it was barely recognizable."

Jackson began by speaking about overfishing, and how in 1900 about half of the world's fisheries were underfished. Today, there are no underfished fisheries remaining, and the fisheries that remain are trending steadily toward "extremely overfished."

"There is no frontier," said Jackson, "Yet, we're still fishing as if there was no tomorrow." To demonstrate this point, Jackson showed photos of the largest fish caught on the same day-fishing boat in the '70s, '80s, and today. The largest fish in the most recent photo wouldn't have even made the board in the 1970s. "We've lost all concept of what the world used to be like," said Jackson.

"The area of the ocean floor that has been scraped clean by trawling in the last 150 years is larger than the area of all the forests cut down in all of human history," said Jackson, "but what I'm going to talk about makes all this look like nothing." What he was referring to was "The rise of slime," specifically a population explosion in phytoplankton caused by a number of factors, including pollution from sewage and agricultural runoff and over-fishing of the filter-feeding fish that feed on the phytoplankton.

The phytoplankton, said Jackson, were managing to do something never before seen in nature, namely, due to increased food supplies and lack of predators -- die of old age. The dead phytoplankton form a sometimes thick layer of slime at the bottom of the affected areas, which stifles out seaweed and other plant life that fish rely on for food, creating large dead zones on the ocean floor.

"When I started giving these talks, there were around 100 dead zones. Now there are over 400," said Jackson. One such dead zone, he said, in the Gulf of Mexico, west of the Mississippi River, was larger in area than the entire state of Vermont.

He also pointed to disappearing coral beds and lobster fisheries, both of which were caused by a number of factors, including pollution, overfishing, and global warming. One example he gave was the Gulf of Maine, one of the only lobster fisheries on the east coast unaffected by a recent disease that swept through the lobster population. The reason, he said, was that the water in the Gulf of Maine was too cold for the disease. However, he showed that the water in the Gulf of Maine this past summer was three degrees warmer than it had ever been in the past, continuing a steady warming trend, which, should it continue, would allow the disease to reach the lobsters there as well.

The consequences of all this, he said, would be:

1. The ecological extinction of desirable species and ecosystems, followed by;

2. Population explosions of previously uncommon species, which he described as the cockroaches and rats of the ocean, and;

3. The stabilization of the newly established communities, due to positive feedback loops.

To sum it up, he said, big animals, such as fish and other sea creatures, and structures, such as seaweed and coral, will disappear, leaving behind primarily slime. "There's one question we're all concerned about," said Jackson, "How fast? Because it is happening."

"In a previous presidential election," said Jackson, referring to the 2000 race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, "we debated whether the models [predicting climate change] were accurate. It turns out, they were very, very wrong. They were far too conservative."

"What we're messing with is the life-support system of homo sapiens," said Jackson. However, he said, there might be ways to avoid the outcome he described. "Coral reefs are the canary in the coal mine," he said, "and the news from the coral reefs isn't all bad." He described one reef, in the Northern Line Islands, five islands north of Hawaii, two of which are territories of the United States, and three of which belong to Kiribati. These islands are protected from over-fishing by law, and have very little agriculture or industry to pollute the waters. The coral there is flourishing, said Jackson.

Jackson proposed a first step of making the fishing industry more sustainable by strengthening and enforcing laws designed to prevent overfishing, and eliminating subsidies that perpetuate fishing in overfished areas. He also suggested industrial scale fish farming, which, he said, would simply mirror the meat industry for land animals, almost none of which are wild. "That's not a popular solution in the ecological community, but it's just common sense."

Jackson said, "If you take anything away from this, it's that this isn't controversial stuff. This is basic, scientific information. We have this arrogance, that we're going to be fine, that this is just stuff tree huggers worry about."

In response to a student's question about how seriously the U.S.government was taking these problems, Jackson told an anecdote about how he recently had been invited to a conference of U.S. naval officers to discuss a worst case scenario should a category five hurricane hit Miami. Tellingly, he said, invited to speak alongside him was a Harvard historian who was an expert on the fall of the Roman empire. After the talk, which he said basically included as much doom and gloom as the one he had just given, an admiral approached him to thank him for speaking. Jackson joked that, "This is why you don't invite someone like me."

"No," said the admiral, "You don't understand. The situation is even worse than that."


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