21 Apr 2015
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.
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.
Others messages, perhaps from vaquita or Amsterdam albatross—both Critically
Endangered--would be dispirited or even hopeless.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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