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Good News: The Ocean Isn't Dying

It’s April 22, 2015, the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, when events in 192 countries celebrate environmental protection.

Because oceans cover 71 percent of our planet and contain 99 percent of the space where life exists, Arthur C. Clark famously observed, ‘How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.’  So a message about the oceans on Earth Day seems appropriate despite the designation of World Oceans Day, celebrated annually on June 8. 

But we couldn’t wait until June to share some good news: THE OCEAN IS NOT DYING! Who knew? Apparently not many, judging from the constant stream of people who ask, “Is the ocean dying?” or “Is there any hope for the ocean?” 

Where did such grave opinions of the ocean’s condition come from? We’ll start with the big picture and then see how human psychology influences our perception of the ocean’s future—and pretty much everything else. 

The Ocean Doesn't Die

For starters, the ocean doesn’t die—though it sure can change. Earth’s oceans formed 3.8 billion years ago (BYA) and by 3.5 BYA bacteria and photosynthesis had already evolved. Cells with nuclei and organelles first appeared 2BYA followed after a long time by the first simple animals approximately 600 million years ago (MYA). Things accelerated 550 MYA when the huge variety of species we see today began to evolve--but it hasn’t been smooth sailing. Catastrophic events caused the abrupt mass extinction of at least 50% of marine species on five separate occasions. The first (Permian Extinction) 250 MYA extinguished 90% of all marine species. The Cretaceous Extinction 65 MYA, famous for killing the dinosaurs, also caused widespread loss of marine species in tropical reef communities and elsewhere. Around 55 MYA (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum) temperatures soared and ocean acidification caused mass extinctions of shell building organisms (Zachos et al., 2005).

Was the ocean unhealthy during those cataclysmic times? There is no answer. The ocean simply was, and plants and animals died if they could not adapt or did not live in places that provided refuge. Those that survived formed the foundation of today’s biodiversity. 

The point is, the ocean didn’t ‘die’ then and it won’t ‘die’ now. For a billion or more years to come, it will still slosh around the planet and support marine organisms.   

But something is different now. Conscious organisms—us---now ask ‘Is the ocean dying?’ and ‘Is the there any hope for the ocean?’ when what  they really mean is ‘Will the future ocean look (or function) as we hope?’ or ‘Will   ________   (insert whales, penguins, coral reefs, or whatever you care about) survive?’ The values and experiences we bring to such questions determine what answers we will get.       

Figure 1. Global map showing total extent and geographic variation of human impacts on marine ecosystems. Fig. 1A in Halpern et al. (2008).   

Marine animals and habitats also send a range of messages in the form of population trend, body condition, reproductive output, habitat extent, percentage of reefs covered by live coral and many others.  Listen to nature speaking here.

Marine organisms can only tell us how things are for them now, because few, if any, can (or need to) compare their present condition to what it was or might be.

But even if they could, their tales would differ.  Some would be encouraging.  For example, 50 years ago whales seemed headed for extinction as industrial scale purse seining for tuna killed millions each year as bycatch.  That has changed, thanks to treaties, legislation and industry improvements.  

Figure 2. Tourists pet gray whale, San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, Mexico.  The Eastern Pacific stock of gray whales successfully recovered from near extinction and is the focus of a thriving ecotourism industry. It has been removed from the U.S. list of endangered species and is categorized by IUCN as  ‘Least Concern’ for risk of extinction. The Western Pacific stock remains Critically Endangered.  Photo: Pachico Ecotours

Others messages, perhaps from vaquita or Amsterdam albatross—both Critically Endangered--would be dispirited or even hopeless.  

Figure 3. Vaquita (Phoecinus sinus), a Critically Endangered species with a population of 500-600 animals found only in the upper Gulf of California. Bycatch in gill nets used to catch sea bass may kill up to 15% per year.  Photo: ©Paula Olson (NOAA Contractor), taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08) from the Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government

Figure 4. Amsterdam albatross (Diomedea amsterdamensis) in flight showing 10 ft. wingspan. This Critically Endangered species breeds only on one plateau of Amsterdam Island, French Southern Territories, Indian Ocean. Disturbance by cattle and people; predation by introduced rats, cats and mice; bycatch in longline fisheries and several avian diseases have reduced the population to about 170 birds. Information: Birdlife International.  Photo: ©Vincent Legendre, Commons GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2

For species with broad distributions, such as the gray whale, each geographic population has its own tale to tell that reflects its local situation or conditions encountered during larval drift or migrations.  

We gather these messages by studying populations and habitats over time and the mix of messages we detect adds another element of confusion to discussing the state of the ocean.

Conflicting Value Systems

Also confusing are the disparate values we bring to the discussion. Should we use nature or leave it alone? Should we catch seafood or let it swim in peace? Should we strive for a pristine ocean or one in balance with human needs? 

Figure 5. Pristine ocean at Cocos Island National Park and Protected Area, Costa Rica, which holds the highest fish biomass in the world’s tropics. Photo credit: © Conservation International/photo by Ana Gloria Guzmán Ana Gloria Guzmán, July 16, 2013. Conservation International Vault  68822924.

What should our frame of reference be for the whole system? What do we think a healthy ocean looks like?  Should we compare today’s conditions to a time when people affected the ocean much less, say 1000 years ago or before the industrial revolution? If so, should we try to restore the ocean to that state? 

A Pragmatic Approach

Recovering the ocean to a pristine condition has emotional appeal, but could not be done in the foreseeable future.  Moreover, doing it would neglect a very important species---us! Like it or not, people---lots of people---will be here for a long time to come. Our lives and needs are inextricably coupled with the ocean’s natural functions. We need the ocean even if it doesn’t need us.

Including people as legitimate participants in ocean systems means that the status of every population, stock, species and habitat includes us in the picture not only as recipients of ocean benefits and sources of deleterious pressures, but also sources of restorative actions. 

An Inclusive Definition of Ocean Health

The health of a non-pristine ocean can only be described pragmatically. The definition developed by the Ocean Health Index is:  ‘a healthy ocean sustainably delivers a range of benefits to people now and in the future’. While people-centered, this definition requires that marine populations and habitats be sufficiently healthy to serve their ecological functions and provide the benefits that people expect. 

Figure 6.  A healthy ocean sustainably provides benefits to people. Malagasy fishermen unload their catch, January 21, 2009. ©Cristina Mittermeier. 

A New Way to Assess Ocean Health

Answering questions like “Is the ocean dying?” or “Is there any hope for the ocean?” requires both a general awareness that conditions differ spatially and scientific data from studies relevant to ocean health. The Ocean Health Index (Halpern et al. 2012) uses ecologic, sociologic and economic data and SMART (specific, measurable, ambitious, realistic and time-bound) reference points to evaluate how successfully and sustainably humans are interacting with the ocean. 

How Healthy is the Ocean?

The 2014 Ocean Health Index scored the health of the global ocean as 67 out of 100.  Waters (out to 200 nm) from the world’s 220 coastal countries and territories also scored 67. 

Figure 7. Map of Ocean Health Index scores for 2013 illustrating variation among 220 coastal nations and territories.  A score of 100 is not perfect. It only indicates that a system is sustainably delivering the maximum benefits possible given the reference points used.  Halpern et al. 2015 Creative Commons Attribution License.  

Figure 7. Map of Ocean Health Index scores for 2013 illustrating variation among 220 coastal nations and territories. A score of 100 is not perfect. It only indicates that a system is sustainably delivering the maximum benefits possible given the reference points used.  Halpern et al. 2015 Creative Commons Attribution License.  

Waters beyond national jurisdiction (‘High Seas’) scored 67 (range 53-79); Antarctica and the Southern Ocean scored 72; In all cases the likely future state is slightly higher than the current status, suggesting that conditions may improve slightly in the coming five years.

A score of 100 is not perfect. It only indicates that a system is sustainably delivering the maximum benefits possible given the reference points used. The global ocean score of 67 indicates that better practices could give us considerably more benefits with less damage to the system.

Figure 8. Ocean Health Index scores for 2014, courtesy Melanie Frazier, NCEAS

Those results and other Ocean Health Index assessments (see www.oceanhealthindex.org and www.ohi-science.org) show that the ocean is not dying, but that the human-ocean system is not doing as well as it must to support our growing human population as well as the marine populations on which we, and much of the rest of life, depend. 

Why is it hard for a measured message like this to penetrate the steady flow of bad news barraging us? That’s where human psychology comes in.   

Bad News Sells

Bad news” appears in the media up to 17 times as often as ‘good news.’  People are attentive to news of dramatic, negative events, perhaps because our brains react more strongly to danger and fear than to non-threatening events. Based on interviews of 200,000 Americans, five categories of news stories attracted above-average attention between 1986 and 2007: U.S.-linked War/Terrorism, Bad Weather, Manmade Disasters, Natural Disasters and Money. The five categories attracting below-average attention were Science and Technology, U.S. Foreign Policy, Other Nations, Personalities & Entertainment and Celebrity Scandal. In general, people were most attentive to information about potential dangers and the ‘closer to home’ the article, the more attention it gained. 

Figure 9. Categories of news stories that attracted above-average attention (above) and below-average attention (below), based on interviews with 200,000 readers in the United States.  Credit:  Michael J. Robinson and Pew Research Organization

The Guardian newspaper put it this way:  “Peoples' interest in news is much more intense when there is a perceived threat to their way of life,” concluding that “the regular calls for papers to publish ‘good news’ rather than bad is largely a waste of time. People are stimulated to read by the latter. They want to know what has gone wrong rather than what has gone right.”

Scientific News May Not Be Much Different

While acknowledging the seriousness of anthropogenic pressures on the ocean, Duarte et al. (2014) chastised the scientific community for “contributing to perpetuating the perception of ocean calamities in the absence of robust evidence.”  Even though intended to gain attention and stimulate remedial action, communicating overly negative messages may convey “… the hopeless notion to managers and the public that we are confronted with an insurmountable environmental crisis of gigantic proportions...or the belief that the ocean is beyond restoration.”

A recent high-profile article in Science by McCauley et al. (2015), ‘Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean’ exemplifies the problem.  The article provided a balanced account of declines in species and populations caused by fisheries, habitat degradation and likely effects of climate change and suggested that losses will rapidly intensify, especially from habitat degradation, as human use of the ocean industrializes.

But it also noted that humans have “…demonstrated a powerful capacity to reverse some of the most severe impacts that we have had on ocean fauna, and many marine wildlife populations demonstrate immense potential for resilience,” and that “…the oceans remain relatively full of the raw faunal ingredients and still contain a sufficient degree of resilient capacity so that the goal of reversing the current crisis of marine defaunation remains within reach.”   

Media headlines about the article ranged from disastrous to circumspect:

Communicating with Wary People in an Uncertain World

Disaster commands attention. Progress does not.  In a 2003 interview, President George W. Bush was asked how he got his news. Noting that he was briefed by aides, he said, “I glance at the headlines just to kind of (get) a flavor of what's moving. I rarely read the stories.” The President was a decade ahead of the times. In the new world of Tweets, Instagrams and other social media, headlines are all that most people get. There are enough calamities at various scales to dominate such messaging. 

Finding ways to acknowledge problems without implying that they are universal and irreversible would give people a more realistic and actionable perspective. 

However, our thought processes evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and they are not likely to change quickly. Heightened attention to potential dangers helped our ancestors survive and will likely help us too. The price of that wariness may be seeing the world as more threatening--and threatened--than it really is.  If those responses breed despair and cynicism that prevent actions to improve conditions, emotions that once served us so well will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The ocean and most of its inhabitants are reasonably resilient and will survive, and even thrive, if we manage our ocean interactions more effectively and sustainably. There is time to rectify most ocean problems if resolute actions are taken--but they must be taken soon to avoid long term calamities, including climate change caused by excessive emissions of carbon.

The ocean is not dying and it may have a little more patience with us than we credit, but we need to have a lot less patience with ourselves.


Which article will you open?

Our Oceans Are Dying: Mobilizing an Indifferent Public to Confront This Crisis

Dying Fish, Dying Oceans, Are We Next?

The Oceans are Dying: Oxygen is Depleting, Acidity Rising at Fastest Rate in 300,000,000 Years

The ocean is broken

Ocean 'dead zones' a growing disaster for fish

Jellyfish are taking over the seas, and it might be too late to stop them

The Pacific Ocean Is Dying

Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction, Broad Study Says

Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean

Sixth Extinction Proves Slower at Sea

Massive starfish die-off in Pacific Ocean linked to mystery virus

People Living Near the Sea May Be Healthier

Intraterrestrials: Life Thrives in Ocean Floor

An index to assess the health and benefits of the global ocean

Global change and the future ocean: a grand challenge for marine sciences

Healthy, thriving oceans: An issue we can agree on

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