Impending Disaster: Marine Species Face Mass Extinction, Experts Say

Species threatened by rising temperatures, fishing.

June 21, 2011, 11:12 AM

June 22, 2011— -- Marine experts are now prophesying a perfect storm: a world where marine species could undergo unprecedented levels of extinction.

"The speed of change, particularly related to climate change is so great there simply isn't time for marine life to adapt to these new conditions," said Alex Rogers, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Oxford. "When we've seen mass extinctions in the past they've been associated with large disturbances in the carbon system of the oceans. That's what we're bringing about through our own actions today."

Earlier this year Rogers and 26 other researchers from six countries met for a three-day workshop in England to examine ocean stressors, such as overfishing. This week the panel of marine experts released a summary report from Oxford University -- and the full report is on the way. Their findings? A disturbing decline in the health of the ocean that is on track to get much worse.

Multiple factors, such as acidification of the ocean, rising ocean temperature and overfishing are contributing to the rapid decline of some species, such as reef-forming coral. Rogers, lead author of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) report, says other species, such as sharks, may follow.

"In the Mediterranean nearly 50 percent of sharks are under threat of extinction in that region," Rogers told

The significance of the scientists' meeting, Rogers explained, was to gather experts from different branches of marine biology and figure out how negative changes to the ocean are interacting with one another.

In some cases, the impacts canceled each other out, but Rogers said, "In many cases we found the impacts were negatively synergistic – this means that when the effects are taken together, the overall effect is greater than the single effect."

The best example of this, he explained, is the coral reef ecosystems. Overfishing and bleaching of the reefs, combined with the acidification that causes the corals to bleach, means the loss of "the most diverse marine ecosystems on the planet."

And one of the most valuable, Rogers pointed out. The coral reefs provide tourism, coastal protection and living environments for marine species.

But the idea that ocean stressors could lead to a new globally significant "extinction event" is not the same as a prediction, cautioned Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University in New York City.

The IPSO report, he said, is "plausibly putting together a lot of really terrible things that could happen. I don't disagree with it."

But, he said, "They don't attach probabilities to anything."

"Take the example of ocean acidification – what has actually happened is very small so far," Ausubel told "It could be a very serious problem in say 100 years -- it might be in 40 to 50 years."

The authors may be "comprehensive worriers," according to Ausubel, but he found the panel's report well-written and useful.

"I was struck that they also pointed to the renewable energy resources as a stressor on ocean life -- and they're right," he said, referring to tidal turbines and offshore windmills.

Carbon Dioxide Levels the Ocean

The latest data from the International Energy Agency indicates we're pumping 30 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year into the atmosphere and it's been increasing year after year.

The Industrial Revolution and growing human population are major factors.

About 55 million years ago, 2.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide were released annually for thousands of years and many species became extinct. Today, 2.2. gigatonnes of CO2 is now believed to be the total amount of CO2 released by deforestation alone.

Carbon dioxide eventually dissolves in seawater, and can alter fish behavior and damage calcium carbonate shells among other serious effects.

The global warming debate continues, but Rogers says there is "overwhelming evidence" at this point that increased CO2 is produced by human activity: not just from cars, but from deforestation and even the production of concrete.

How else, he said, can we explain the increased acidity of the oceans – that, he said, is a "direct result of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

Jerry Schubel, president and chief executive officer of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., and member of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Science Advisory Board, said for the past several years the aquarium has been educating the public about what he calls the "number one issue facing humanity" -- that is, "to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and to drastically reduce them as quick as you can. The only way to do that is to move off fossil fuels."

But attempts to wean the U.S. from its dependence on coal and oil have been met with several challenges. "It will be hard to change and yet we have to," he said.

Recommendations: What You Can Do To Improve Ocean Health

The IPSO report issues several recommendations including the creation of "a global body empowered to ensure compliance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea" and ways to improve the sustainability of fisheries.

Rogers says all the recommendations are important, and one in particular: "the rate of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere and the rate of change in the oceans is extraordinary -- there is a very urgent need to get that under control," he said.

Everyone can play a role in improving the ocean's health, Schubel says.

At the Aquarium of the Pacific visitors are invited to fill out a Post-It note with ways they conserve the environment. At the end of the day the aquarium collects the notes from a large display wall and will soon begin posting them on its website for the community to peruse.

"People care about the future, they want to be empowered to do things to make it a better future," Schubel said.

As for Schubel, he says he lives in a "very small" apartment and doesn't own a TV. His electric bill last month was $8.

One key to energy conservation, he says, is redefining success: "In the U.S. we define success by the size of our homes and cars … you can define success in other ways."

Rogers suggests anything from choosing the right kind of fish to eat to lobbying politicians makes a difference.

And despite the grim predictions in the IPSO report, Rogers says it is meant to spur action, not merely sound an alarm.

"This could be taken as a message of despair but it's also a message of hope," Rogers said. "We haven't actually lost many of these species just yet -- so there is time to act."

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