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Ocean Health 'Inconvenient Truth' Science Primer

Thursday, June 27, 2019

We evolved from the ocean and as we kill the ocean, our end will come. ~Steve Gill, from his sailboat "Windsong," somewhere on the Pacific.

"The oceans are under tremendous stress from a multi-front war by humans. Any one threat listed below is sufficient for great concern, but when all these threats are combined into a simultaneous attack on ocean health, the outlook is extremely grim.

We must demand a full-on commitment to save our seas. If we are not successful in protecting the ocean, life as we know it will be dramatically altered in the future.

This article will cover the most significant threats. Somehow, someway, the population of the planet needs to be educated to the dangers facing life as we know it.

The Inconvenient Truth, is happening. However, as inconvenient as it is—denying it will only give false comfort while the environment’s demise pushes us inevitably to a catastrophic event. The event will create a massive population crash. In turn, this could cause the collapse of society, with additional horrible consequences.

A list of the major threats to ocean environment:

  • Ocean acidification from excessive CO2 in the atmosphere
  • Climate change and a resultant rise in sea temperature
  • Plastic pollution
  • Overfishing
  • Human polluted rivers and runoff
  • Population growth

The ocean covers seventy-one percent of the earth’s surface. The ocean is so vast, in the past we have considered it to be unaffected by mans’ endeavors. As a result—we have abused and neglected the oceans with serious consequences.

Our careless and wasteful ways, coupled with overpopulation have affected ocean life and ocean systems dramatically. Only with a massive effort will we be able to preserve the oceans as a major food source, and keep its effect on the weather within acceptable bounds.

Scientists now report ocean and climate time-related changes based on deep sea core samples, just as tree ring core samples reveal atmospheric conditions recorded over time. This same technique is useful in obtaining and analyzing Arctic ice cores as well.

For those interested in a more comprehensive explanation of each threat, references are included at the end of the article.

Ocean Acidification


Today there is much discussion about the seriousness of climate change. However, the science of the effects of CO2 are easy to understand, Climate change faces serious opposition from many Republicans, President Trump, and climate change deniers.

In the media, it seems the climate change discussions focus mostly on weather and sea rise. There is little mention of the effect on the ocean from excessive CO2 n the atmosphere.

The ocean absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, as a result of the increased carbon absorption, the pH level of the ocean water is changing and become more acidic. This is referred to as Ocean acidification, which is sometimes called “climate change’s equally evil twin,” and for good reason: it's a significant and harmful consequence of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that we don't see or feel because its effects are happening underwater.

At least one-quarter of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean. When water (H20) and CO2 mix, it forms carbonic acid (H2CO3). Carbonic acid is a weaker acid that acts slower than hydrochloric acid, but still works the same over time.

Since the beginning of the industrial era, the ocean has absorbed around 525 billion tons of CO2, presently about 22 million tons per day. Initially, scientists thought this was a good thing because it reduced the amount carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, scientists began noticing the acidic shift in the pH level of the ocean and found the ocean was absorbing more carbon dioxide than it could balance through natural means.

In the past 200 years, the ocean pH has become thirty percent more acidic. Such a large pH change over such a short time does not give marine life, which has evolved over millions of years with a relatively stable pH, time to adapt; evolution through natural selection is a slow process.

One of the major effects of ocean acidification is the effect on shelled animals, including mussels, clams, urchins, and starfish. This is due to the effect of the change in sea chemistry, which makes it more difficult to build healthy shells.

Another serious consequence of acidification is its effect on pteropods (the pelagic web-footed marine mollusks), which drift around in ocean currents, feeding on nutrient-rich plankton.

Pteropods have proven to be an important part of the oceanic food chain. Scientists have documented that more acidic seas caused by CO2 emissions are dissolving pteropods. The shells of pteropods in the Atlantic ocean have already been observed to be deteriorating.

Plankton consists of zooplankton and phytoplankton (the plants of the sea, at the bottom of the ocean food web). When the bottom of the food web is impacted, there is a damaging ripple effect up the entire food web, affecting all ocean animal life and coral.

Increased acidification makes it more difficult for corals to build their skeletons and can affect the health of coral reefs. Coral reefs play an extremely important role in supporting a healthy marine population and marine biodiversity.

Though fish do not have shells, they still feel the effects of water with a more acidic pH. A fish's cells come into balance by taking in water and balancing its internal chemical composition with the outside environment. When there is more carbonic acid in the water, it changes the pH of a fish’s blood making it more acidic, a condition called acidosis.

Although the fish will be in balance with its environment, the chemical reactions in its body can be altered. Just a small change in pH level can make a huge difference affecting such things as energy management, which in turn can affect the fish’s ability to survive by interfering with food digestion, the ability to swim rapidly to escape predators, or the ability to catch food, and reproduce.

Although scientists cannot predict the exact consequences of ocean acidification on all ocean species, they are predicting that the effects are serious and of great concern. A more acidic ocean will benefit some sea life while having a major negative impact on other forms. The ability to adapt to higher acidity will vary from species to species and what will help or hurt a given species is still unknown.

A shift in the dominant fish species due to differences in ocean acidification adaptation will affect the oceans biodiversity and its ability to serve as a human food source.

Climate Change and Rising Sea Temperatures 

Ocean currents act much like a conveyer belt, transporting warm water and precipitation from the equator toward the poles and cold water from the poles back to the tropics. Thus, currents regulate global climate, helping to counteract the uneven distribution of solar radiation reaching Earth's surface.

A rise in the ocean temperature can affect these currents and as the ocean heats up, scientists fear the rising temperatures could disrupt this conveyer belt with extremely serious consequences for the planet’s weather and productivity.

Many experts say we are already seeing the effects of higher ocean temperatures in the form of more frequent and stronger tropical storms including hurricanes and cyclones. Warmer water makes it easier for small ocean storms to escalate into larger and more powerful systems.

The rise in global temperatures over the past century accelerated by humans burning fossil fuels, has raised the global temperature

1 degree F. The ocean warms more slowly resulting in a temperature change of about .1 degree F. for the same period.

The ocean warming has occurred at the surface and to a depth of about 2,300 feet. This is the zone where most marine life thrives. Don’t let the smaller change fool you, changes which are seemly small have far reaching effects.

The organism most affected by temperature change is coral. There is evidence that coral are ejecting their symbiotic algae resulting in bleaching even in the case of a small persistent temperature rise. Coral Bleaching slows coral growth, makes them susceptible to disease, and can cause a large scale coral reef die off.

Other organisms affected by temperature change include krill, an extremely important link at the base of the food chain. Research has shown that krill reproduce in significantly smaller numbers when ocean temperatures rise. This can have a cascading effect by disrupting the life cycle of krill eaters, such as penguins and seals—which in turn causes food shortages for higher predators.

Rising seas are also a result of an increase in sea temperature.

As the sea temperature rises, water expands contributing to the inundation of coastal areas damaging coastal habitats for humans and sea life.

Warmer ocean temperatures also lead to melting from below the polar ice shelves, undermining their integrity and causing spectacular shelf collapses. The warmer earth and ocean are melting Artic sea-ice at a record pace. There is just 6.2 million square miles of sea ice on the planet as measured in 2018, which is about a million square miles less than typical this time of year during the 1990s.

Ice in the Artic reflects heat while the ocean and bare land absorbs it, therefore a reduction in sea-ice also contributes to global warming. Warmer sea temperatures are also associated with the spread of invasive species and marine diseases. The evolution of a stable marine habitat is dependent upon myriad factors, including water temperature. If an ecosystem becomes warmer, it can create an opportunity where outside species or bacteria can suddenly thrive where they were once excluded. This can lead to forced migrations and even species extinctions.

Plastic Pollution 

The world’s use of single-use plastics is creating a dangerous situation in the ocean. Plastics pollution has a direct and deadly effect on wildlife. Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in plastic debris.

We are producing over 300 million tons of plastic every year, 50 percent of which is for single-use purposes—utilized for just a few moments. However, the discarded plastic packaging or containers last 50 – 450 years before breaking down. More than eight million tons of plastic find their way into our oceans every year.

Some single use plastics include:

  • Plastic bags – 500 billion used every year.
  • Plastic packaging represents 40 percent of all plastic production.
  • There were 100.7 billion plastic beverage bottles sold in 2014, and that number is growing.
  • Unfortunately, 57 percent of the 100.7 billion plastic bottles sold, were bottled water.

In the first decade of this century, we made more plastic than all of the plastic in history, up to the year 2000. Thousands of animals, from small finches to blue whales die grisly deaths from eating and getting caught in plastic.

Fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, which can cause intestinal injury and death. As bigger fish and ocean mammals feed, plastic is transferred up the food chain and can be found in nearly all sea fish and mammals.

Sea turtles can mistake floating plastic garbage for food. They can choke, sustain internal injury and die—or starve by thinking they’re full from eating plastic. Tragically, research indicates that half of sea turtles worldwide have ingested plastic.

Hundreds of thousands of seabirds ingest plastic every year. Plastic ingestion reduces the storage volume of the stomach, causing starvation. It’s estimated that 60 percent of all seabird species have eaten pieces of plastic, with that number predicted to increase to 99 percent by 2050. 

Dead seabirds are often found with stomachs full of plastic, reflecting how the amount of garbage in our oceans has rapidly increased in the past 40 years. Recently, we have seen parents feeding small pieces of plastic to their chicks which often die as a result.

Marine mammals ingest, and get tangled up in plastic. Large amounts of plastic debris have been found in the habitat of critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals, including in areas which serve as pup nurseries.

Over time plastic in the ocean breaks down into smaller particles called micro plastics. These particles are ubiquitous in the ocean. Micro plastics have recently been discovered coexisting with plankton. Fish cannot distinguish theses small particles from plankton and, as a result, ingest the plastic particles along with the plankton.

Plankton is the base for the ocean food web.

We are not exempt from all this. As one of the top predators in the ocean food web, humans are now ingesting plastic as well. The long-term effects of this are under study. It is not unreasonable to assume it could cause an increase in cancer and other ailments.

Plastic and other large debris wash up in great volume on the shores of some islands (Midway is one), and make up part of the great pacific garbage patch along with micro plastics. Discarded fishing nets entrap whales, dolphins, sea lions, turtles and other large mammals causing them to drown. Turtles are often found entangled in plastic bags.

Recently a sperm whale washed ashore in Indonesia containing 1000 pieces of assorted plastic debris. This included 115 cups, 25 bags, four bottles and two flip-flops found inside. This is not the only case like this.

Marine scientists from the National University of Ireland (NUI) in Galway found the plastic bits in 73 percent of 233 deep-sea fish collected from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean—one of the highest micro plastic frequencies in fish ever recorded worldwide. If we keep producing plastic at current rates and fail to properly dispose or recycle them, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Plastic in the ocean is an extremely serious problem and it is getting worse not better. It adds to the stress on the ocean by poisoning the food web and causing a decline in the population of all animals and fish dependent upon the ocean for life. Reduced biodiversity and population in the sea, will have a dramatic effect on humans.



Overfishing is the act of catching / killing of wildlife from the sea at rates too high for the species to replace themselves.

Marine scientists know when widespread overfishing of the seas began. They also have a good idea if not addressed, it will end in the mid-20th century. 

The International efforts to increase the availability and affordability of protein-rich foods has, unfortunately, led to concerted government efforts to increase fishing capacity.

Favorable policies, loans, and subsidies spawned a rapid rise of big industrial fishing operations, which quickly supplanted local boatmen as the world's source of seafood.

These large, profit-seeking commercial fleets are extremely aggressive, scouring the world's oceans and developing ever more sophisticated methods and technologies for finding, extracting, and processing their target species. 

Consumers soon grew accustomed to having access to a wide selection of fish species at affordable prices. But, by 1989, when about 90 million tons (metric tons) of catch were taken from the ocean, the industry had hit its high-water mark, and yields have declined or stagnated ever since.

A study in the journal Science on catch data published in 2006 grimly predicted that if fishing rates continue unchecked, all the world's fisheries will collapse the year 2050.

In addition to massive overfishing, some of the methods used are totally non-selective catching thousands of unintended sea wildlife which die in the process. Bottom trawling is among the worst.

Bottom trawling is an industrial fishing method where a large net with heavy weights is dragged across the seafloor, scooping up everything in its path – from the targeted fish to incidentally caught, centuries-old corals. 

Bottom trawls are used in catching marine life that live on the seafloor, such as shrimp, cod, rockfish, sole and flounder. Bottom trawls are also commonly used to fish species such as orange roughy.

Bottom trawling is unselective and severely damaging to seafloor ecosystems. The net indiscriminately catches every life and object it encounters. Thus, many creatures end up mistakenly caught and are thrown overboard either dead or dying, including endangered fish and vulnerable deep-sea corals that would usually have lived for hundreds of years or more.

This collateral damage, called bycatch, can amount to 90% of a trawl’s total catch. In addition, the weight and width of a bottom trawl can destroy large areas of seafloor habitats that give marine species food and shelter. Such habitat destructions can leave the marine ecosystem permanently damaged.

In addition to overfishing, sharks are being hunted for their fins. The fins are very valuable because of a Chinese demand for Shark Fin Soup. Shark Fin Soup is a symbol of status in Chinese culture and is thought to have medicinal value that is highly sought after.

When sharks are caught for their fins, the fins are cut off and the sharks are thrown back into the sea to drown. This is a very cruel practice. However, it is not just cruel, shark finning is having a catastrophic effect on shark populations around the world.

Approximately 100 million sharks are killed globally each year. Sharks have a slow growth rate and this makes them highly venerable to extinction when the number are reduced too far. Many species of sharks are currently in danger due to shark finning, including the scalloped hammerhead, which is endangered, and the smooth hammerhead, which is vulnerable.

Between 1.3 and 2.7 million of just these two sharks are killed every year in the shark fin trade. The northwestern Atlantic population of the scalloped hammerhead declined from around 155,500 in 1981 to 26,500 in 2005.

Today, some shark populations have decreased by 60-70% due to human shark fishing. Such dramatic population plunges are not only dangerous for sharks but also for entire ecosystems. When shark populations decrease, a ripple effect can spread throughout the rest of the ecosystem. For instance, the loss of the smooth hammerhead caused their prey, rays, to increase. The larger ray population now eats more scallops, clams, and other bivalves.

This not only hurts the bivalve populations (aquatic mollusks having a compressed body enclosed within a hinged shell, such as oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops), it affects the biodiversity of the ecosystem which also harms human fisheries.

Overfishing represent an extreme danger to ocean biodiversity, a balanced ocean ecosystem, and a sustainable ocean food source. Fishing technology has advanced rapidly and makes the fishing fleets more effective than ever. The use of large nets, and electronic fish finding could conceivably allow us to hunt down and kill nearly every fish in the ocean.

In order to save the fishing stocks, the most damaging methods of fishing need to be outlawed, sustainable fishing methods used, and quotas on fish taking enforced. Fishing methods resulting in large amounts of bycatch should be banned.

Even if the international community comes together and passes more stringent regulations, international regulations are difficult to enforce and, in most cases, fishing fleets police themselves. It will take their full cooperation to make things work, which is ultimately in their best interest.

Overfishing the oceans continuously will prevent the reproduction of fish at sustainable levels, including the trawling for pelagic small fish (sardines and anchovies) used for omega-3 fish oil capsules and considered necessary by some to biochemically balance the standard American junk food diet fatty acid ratio. 

This practice will eventually leave the human race without the seafood required to sustainably feed a growing population and will destroy the ocean ecosystem.

Pollution from Human-Polluted Rivers and Runoff 

Major sources of ocean pollution are runoff from the land and waste dumping. The pollution enters the ocean directly from coastal population areas or by rivers carrying pollutants from inland locations hundreds or thousands of miles from the coast.

Although the ocean coastal shelf areas only comprise seven percent of the ocean, most marine life exists in the coastal areas. The coastal ecosystems yield 90 percent of global fisheries and almost 80 percent of known species of marine fish (13,200 species). Therefore, pollution of coastal area due to runoff and discharge of pollutants is extremely serious.

There are two classifications for sources for water pollution from land, point sources and nonpoint sources. Point sources are sources that discharge directly into water bodies while nonpoint sources are inland and are the result of runoff from the land into water bodies.

Eighty percent of pollution to the marine environment comes from the land. One of the biggest sources is nonpoint source pollution from runoff. There are many small sources, like septic tanks, cars, trucks, and boats, plus larger sources, such as farms, ranches, and forest areas. Millions of motor vehicle engines drop small amounts of oil each day onto roads and parking lots. Much of this makes its way to the sea. Nonpoint source pollution can make river and ocean water unsafe for humans and wildlife. In some areas, this pollution is so bad that it causes beaches to be closed after rainstorms.

The runoff from fertilized acreages which includes farmland and lawns is a major source of chemical pollution which carries the nitrogen from the fertilizers into water bodies as a result of runoff. Excess nitrogen from the fertilizers can cause eutrophication in the ocean, which can lead to harmful algae blooms or hypoxia — reduced levels of oxygen that create conditions in which organisms can’t survive. There are examples where nitrogen concentration in the river creates dead zones where the river flows into the ocean.

The most notorious dead zone in the country surrounds the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico, which covers an area approximately the size of Vermont, or nearly 10,000 square miles, according to research from Louisiana State University.

Some water pollution actually starts as air pollution, which settles into waterways and oceans. Dirt can be a pollutant. Top soil or silt from fields or construction sites can run off into waterways, harming fish and wildlife habitats.

Direct dumping into the ocean is also a serious problem though more harm is done by nonpoint pollution. At one time, the ocean was thought to be so vast that dumping waste into it would have no effect. Humans dumped everything into the ocean, radio-active water barrels, sewage, industrial discharge, garbage and anything convenient.

Although no complete records exist of the volumes and types of materials disposed in ocean waters in the United States prior to 1972, several reports indicate a vast magnitude of historic ocean dumping: 

  • In 1968, the National Academy of Sciences estimated annual volumes of ocean dumping by vessel or pipes:
  • Million tons of petroleum products
  • Two to four million tons of acid chemical wastes from pulp mills
  • More than one million tons of heavy metals in industrial wastes, and more than 100,000 tons of organic chemical wastes.

A 1970 Report to the US President from the Council on Environmental Quality on ocean dumping, described that the following was dumped in the ocean in 1968:

  • 38 million tons of dredged material (34 percent of which was polluted
  • 4.5 million tons of industrial wastes
  • 4.5 million tons of sewage sludge (significantly contaminated with heavy metals)
  • 0.5 Million tons of construction and demolition debris.

EPA records indicate that more than 55,000 containers of radioactive wastes were dumped at three ocean sites in the Pacific Ocean between 1946 and 1970. Almost 34,000 containers of radioactive wastes were dumped at three ocean sites off the East Coast of the United States from 1951 to 1962.

Following decades of uncontrolled dumping, some areas of the ocean became demonstrably contaminated with high concentrations of harmful pollutants including heavy metals, inorganic nutrient, and chlorinated petrochemicals. The uncontrolled ocean dumping caused severe depletion of oxygen levels in some ocean waters.

Although ocean dumping is now managed to some degree, and dumping in critical habitats and at critical times is regulated, toxins are still spread by ocean currents.

Alternatives to ocean dumping include recycling, producing less wasteful products, saving energy and changing the dangerous material into more benign waste.

Concentrations of human population in countries such as India cause unimaginable levels of pollution in major waterways. India’s Yamana River along with the Ganges are considered the most polluted in the world. Yamuna as "ecologically dead." Sewage from Delhi and other cities, chemical waste from manufacturing plants and pesticide runoff are all part of the problem.

Himanshu Thakkar, an engineer who coordinates the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People, told the Guardian, “There are already 1.5 billion liters of untreated sewage entering the river each day and 500 liters of industrial waste.”

Delhi is about a third of the way down the 855-mile Yamuna River. Its source is the Yamunotri glacier, crystal-clear water from the Himalayas. But, by the time it moves down the eastern edge of India's capital it exits as the dirtiest river in the country. It has blocks of chemical foam floating on it and you can smell the stench before you see it. Of course, all this pollution ends up the ocean.

I have tried to present the pollution of the ocean through runoff and dumping briefly while showing how serious a threat it is. The sources and wide array of pollutants from human population and industrialization into our water bodies is far too complex to be covered adequately by this brief overview, hopefully, enough is presented here to show how serious it is.

Population Growth (Over Population)

Today the population of the world is approximately 7.7 billion people. In 1950, the world population was less than half this number. The current world population growth rate is approximately 1.07 percent or about 82 million people per year (not a linear rate due to compounding).

The United Nations Population Division projects world population to reach 11.2 billion by the end of the 21st century. It is obvious that somewhere along the way, increased, massive population demands will put so much pressure on the oceans, planet, and society that there will be a major catastrophe.

We are not only exceeding environmental limits; population growth is exceeding the limits of society to handle the population densities. We are already seeing the effects of overpopulation in the news today.

Undeveloped and developing nations account for the vast majority of population growth with China and India being the two fastest growing countries. Africa has one of the highest growth rates. Many European countries have declining birth rates while the United States is still growing.

The US population is expected to grow one-third by 2050. This is due to birth rate and immigration. Immigration is raising the population by the actual immigration numbers and also due to people of Latin decent having larger families, often with 4- 5 children.

As the population grows, it is also expected that developing nations will become more industrialized. This will add even more pressure on the ocean and earth’s environment by increasing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. There will also be more industrial waste and plastic pollution with which to contend.

It is obvious that significant gains in reducing environmental threats can be overcome with increased world population, creating more toxic runoff and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Increases in carbon dioxide emissions adds to the warming of the planet and ocean acidification. Unless manufacturing changes, it also means more plastic pollution.

If population growth is not curbed, there is little hope that corrective actions taken in regards to curbing carbon dioxide emissions, reducing toxic runoff, and reducing plastic pollution can turn around the catastrophic events that loom in our future.


The human race, so far, has not responded to these issues with a coordinated plan or shown the will to enforce solutions. The world has not shown political will to educate the population to this emergency. Unfortunately, there are those in our country who still believe profit is more important than life itself.

The ocean is the life blood of the planet. The governments of the world and the population at large must take immediate steps to protect the ocean to prevent it from no longer being able to sustain itself.

If the ocean marine population drops below a sustainable level, a major food source will be lost forever. If the ocean currents change due to warming, weather, and climate will continue to change dramatically. Weather changes from a warming ocean mean more severe storms and changes in climate, which will affect food production.

Life on earth depends on the oceans we have already damaged at a near fatal level. If we continue, disaster awaits the earth and its billions of human inhabitants.

We need to sound the alarm on all these environmental threats and attack them as though we are on the edge of a nuclear war. The ocean has shown an ability to recover but it cannot recover while under such a heavy and relentless assault."

Ellen Troyer, with permission from the thoughtful author, 

Steve Gill: June 18, 2019

Steve's References: The following is a hyperlinked list of many of the articles used for research. In some cases, I extracted paragraphs verbatim, as I could not state their content any better than it was presented. If I left any reference out, it is unintentional.