Australia’s wetlands are home to a huge range of stunning flora and fauna, with large snakes often at the top of the food chain.
Many wetlands are located near urban areas. This makes them particularly susceptible to contamination as stormwater, urban drainage and groundwater can wash metals — such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury — into the delicate ecosystem.
We know many metals can travel up the food chain when they’re present in the environment. So to assess contamination levels, we caught highly venomous tiger snakes across wetlands in Perth, and repurposed laser technology to measure the metals they accumulated.
In our new paper, we show metal contamination in wild wetland tiger snakes is chronic, and highest in human-disturbed wetlands. This suggests all other plants and animals in these wetlands are likely contaminated as well.
Urban growth and landscape modification often introduces metals into the surrounding environment, such as mining, landfill and waste dumps, vehicles and roadworks, and agriculture.
When they reach wetlands, sediments collect and store these metals for hundreds of years. And if a wetland’s natural water levels are lowered, from agricultural draining for example, sediments can become exposed and erode. This releases the metals they’ve been storing into the ecosystem.
This is what we suspect happened in Yanchep National Park’s wetland, which was supposed to be our “clean” comparison site to more urban wetlands. But in a 2020 study looking at sediment contamination, we found this wetland had higher levels of selenium, mercury, chromium and cadmium compared to urban wetlands we tested.
And at Herdsman Lake, our most urban wetland five minutes from the Perth city centre, we found concentrations of arsenic, lead, copper and zinc in sediment up to four times higher than government guidelines.
In our new study on tiger snake scales, we compared the metal concentrations in wild wetland tiger snakes to the concentrations that naturally occurs in captive-bred tiger snakes, and to the sediment in the previous study.
We found arsenic was 20-34 times higher in wild snakes from Herdsman Lake and Yanchep National Park’s wetland. And snakes from Herdsman Lake had, on average, eight times the amount of uranium in their scales compared to their captive-bred counterparts.
Tiger snakes usually prey on frogs, so our results suggest frogs at these lakes are equally as contaminated.
We know for many organisms, exposure to a high concentration of metals is fatally toxic. And when contamination is chronic, it can be “neurotoxic”. This can, for example, change an organism’s behaviour so they eat less, or don’t want to breed. It can also interfere with their normal cellular function, compromising immune systems, DNA repair or reproductive processes, to name a few.
Snakes in general appear relatively resistant to the toxic effects of metal contamination, but we’re currently investigating what these levels of contamination are doing to tiger snakes’ health and well-being.
Snakes can be a great indicator of environmental contamination because they generally live for a long time (over 10 years) and don’t travel too far from home. So by measuring metals in older snakes, we can assess the contamination history of the area they were collected from.
Typically, scientists use liver tissue to measure biological contamination since it acts like a filter and retains a substantial amount of the contaminants an animal is exposed to.
But a big problem with testing the liver is the animal usually has to be sacrificed. This is often not possible when studying threatened species, monitoring populations or working with top predators.
In more recent years, studies have taken to measuring metals in external “keratin” tissues instead, which include bird feathers, mammal hair and nails, and reptile scales. As it grows, keratin can accumulate metals from inside the body, and scientists can measure this without needing to kill the animal.
Our research used “laser ablation” analysis, which involves firing a focused laser beam at a solid sample to create a small crater or trench. Material is excavated from the crater and sent to a mass spectrometer (analytical machine) where all the elements are measured.
This technology was originally designed for geologists to analyse rocks, but we’re among the first researchers applying it to snake scales.
Laser ablation atomises the keratin of snake scales, and allowed us to accurately measure 19 contaminants from each tiger snake caught over three years around different wetlands.
Our research has confirmed snake scales are a good indicator of environmental contamination, but this is only the first step.
Further research could allow us to better use laser ablation as a cost-effective technology to measure a larger suite of metals in different parts of the ecosystem, such as in different animals at varying levels in the food chain.
This could map how metals move throughout the ecosystem and help determine whether the health of snakes (and other top predators) is actually at risk by these metal levels, or if they just passively record the metal concentrations in their environment.
It’s difficult to prevent contaminants from washing into urban wetlands, but there are a number of things that can help minimise pollution.
This includes industries developing strict spill management requirements, and local and state governments deploying storm-water filters to catch urban waste. Likewise, thick vegetation buffer zones around the wetlands can filter incoming water.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.
The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.
The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.
Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.
First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe.
This is largely because academics tend to specialise in one discipline, which means they’re in many cases unfamiliar with the complex system in which planetary-scale problems — and their potential solutions — exist.
More broadly, the human optimism bias – thinking bad things are more likely to befall others than yourself – means many people underestimate the environmental crisis.
Our research also reviewed the current state of the global environment. While the problems are too numerous to cover in full here, they include:
About 1,300 documented species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more unrecorded. More broadly, population sizes of animal species have declined by more than two-thirds over the last 50 years, suggesting more extinctions are imminent
about one million plant and animal species globally threatened with extinction. The combined mass of wild mammals today is less than one-quarter the mass before humans started colonising the planet. Insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions
a halving of live coral cover on reefs in less than 200 years and a decrease in seagrass extent by 10% per decade over the last century. About 40% of kelp forests have declined in abundance, and the number of large predatory fishes is fewer than 30% of that a century ago.
The human population has reached 7.8 billion – double what it was in 1970 – and is set to reach about 10 billion by 2050. More people equals more food insecurity, soil degradation, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss.
High population densities make pandemics more likely. They also drive overcrowding, unemployment, housing shortages and deteriorating infrastructure, and can spark conflicts leading to insurrections, terrorism, and war.
High-consuming countries like Australia, Canada and the US use multiple units of fossil-fuel energy to produce one energy unit of food. Energy consumption will therefore increase in the near future, especially as the global middle class grows.
Then there’s climate change. Humanity has already exceeded global warming of 1°C this century, and will almost assuredly exceed 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052. Even if all nations party to the Paris Agreement ratify their commitments, warming would still reach between 2.6°C and 3.1°C by 2100.
Our paper found global policymaking falls far short of addressing these existential threats. Securing Earth’s future requires prudent, long-term decisions. However this is impeded by short-term interests, and an economic system that concentrates wealth among a few individuals.
Right-wing populist leaders with anti-environment agendas are on the rise, and in many countries, environmental protest groups have been labelled “terrorists”. Environmentalism has become weaponised as a political ideology, rather than properly viewed as a universal mode of self-preservation.
Financed disinformation campaigns against climate action and forest protection, for example, protect short-term profits and claim meaningful environmental action is too costly – while ignoring the broader cost of not acting. By and large, it appears unlikely business investments will shift at sufficient scale to avoid environmental catastrophe.
Fundamental change is required to avoid this ghastly future. Specifically, we and many others suggest:
abolishing the goal of perpetual economic growth
revealing the true cost of products and activities by forcing those who damage the environment to pay for its restoration, such as through carbon pricing
rapidly eliminating fossil fuels
regulating markets by curtailing monopolisation and limiting undue corporate influence on policy
reigning in corporate lobbying of political representatives
educating and empowering women across the globe, including giving them control over family planning.
Many organisations and individuals are devoted to achieving these aims. However their messages have not sufficiently penetrated the policy, economic, political and academic realms to make much difference.
Failing to acknowledge the magnitude and gravity of problems facing humanity is not just naïve, it’s dangerous. And science has a big role to play here.
Scientists must not sugarcoat the overwhelming challenges ahead. Instead, they should tell it like it is. Anything else is at best misleading, and at worst potentially lethal for the human enterprise.
Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, President, Center for Conservation Biology, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University
To limit the spread of disease and reduce environmental pollution, human waste (excreta) needs to be safely contained and effectively treated. Yet 4.2 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, lack access to safe sanitation.
In developing countries, each person produces, on average, six litres of toilet wastewater each day. Based on the number of people who don’t have access to safe sanitation, that equates to nearly 14 billion litres of untreated faecally contaminated wastewater created each day. That’s the same as 5,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
This untreated wastewater directly contributes to increased diarrhoeal diseases, such as cholera, typhoid fever and rotavirus. Diseases such as these are responsible for 297,000 deaths per year of children under five years old, or 800 children every day.
The highest rates of diarrhoea-attributable child deaths are experienced by the poorest communities in countries including Afghanistan, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Given the global scale of this problem, it’s surprising sanitation practitioners still don’t know where exactly all the human excreta flows or leaches to, due to absent or unreliable data.
Inadequate sanitation is not only a human health issue, it’s also bad for the environment. An estimated 80% of wastewater from developed and developing countries flows untreated into environments around the world.
If an excess of nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorous) are released into the environment from untreated wastewater, it can foul natural ecosystems and disrupt aquatic life.
This is especially the case for coral reefs. Many of the worlds most diverse coral reefs are located in tropical developing countries.
And overwhelmingly, developing countries have very limited human excreta management, leading to large quantities of raw wastewater being released directly onto coral reefs. In countries with high populations such as Indonesia and the Philippines, this is particularly evident.
The damage raw wastewater inflicts on corals is severe. Raw wastewater carries solids, endocrine disrupters (chemicals that interfere with hormones), inorganic nutrients, heavy metals and pathogens directly to corals. This stunts coral growth, causes more coral diseases and reduces their reproduction rates.
The challenges of climate change will exacerbate our sanitation crisis, as increased rain and flooding will inundate sanitation systems and cause them to overflow. Pacific Island nations are particularly vulnerable, because of the compounding impacts of rising sea levels and more frequent, extreme tropical cyclones.
Meanwhile, increased drought and severe water scarcity in other parts of the world will render some sanitation systems, such as sewer systems, inoperable. One example is the mismanagement of government-operated water supplies in Harare, Zimbabwe leading to the failure of the sewerage system and placing millions at risk of waterborne diseases.
Even in more developed countries like Australia, increased frequency of extreme weather events and disasters, including bushfires, will damage some sanitation infrastructure beyond repair.
Improving clean water and sanitation have clear global targets. Goal 6 of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals is to, by 2030, achieve adequate and equitable sanitation for all and to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater.
Achieving this target will be difficult, given there is an absence of reliable data on the exact numbers of sanitation systems that are safely managed or not, particularly in developing countries.
Individual studies in countries such as Tanzania provide small amounts of information on whether some sanitation systems are safely managed. But these studies are not yet at the size needed to extrapolate to national scales.
A big reason behind the missing data is the large range of sanitation systems and their complex classifications.
For example, in developing countries, most people are serviced by on-site sanitation such as septic tanks (a concrete tank) or pit latrines (hole dug into the ground). But a lack of adherence to construction standards in nearly all developing countries, means most septic tanks are not built to standard and do not safely contain or treat faecal sludge.
A common example seen with septic tank construction is there are a lot of incentives to build “non-standard” septic tanks that are much cheaper. From my current research in rural Fiji, I’ve seen reduced tank sizes and the use of alternative materials (old plastic water tanks) to save space and money in material costs.
These don’t allow for adequate containment or treatment. Instead, excreta can leach freely into the surrounding environment.
A standard septic tank is designed to be desludged periodically, where the settled solids at the bottom of the tanks are removed by large vacuum trucks and disposed of safely. So, having a non-standard septic tank is further incentivised as the lack of sealed chambers reduces the accumulation of sludge, delaying costly emptying fees.
Another key challenge with data collection is how to determine if the sanitation infrastructure if functioning correctly. Even if the original design was built to a quality standard, in many circumstances there are significant deficiencies in operational and maintenance activities that lead to the system not working properly.
What’s more, terminology is a constant point of confusion. Households — when surveyed for UN’s Sustainable Development Goal data collection on sanitation — will say they do have a septic tank. But in reality, they’re unaware they have a non-standard septic tank functioning as a leach-pit, and not safely treating or containing their excreta.
Achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 6 requires nationally representative data sets. The following important questions must be answered, at national scales in developing countries:
for every toilet, where does the excreta go? Is it safely contained, treated on site, or transported for treatment?
if the excreta is not contained or treated properly after it leaves the toilet, then how far does it travel through the ground or waterways?
when excreta is removed from the pit or septic tank of a full on-site latrine, where is it taken? Is it dumped in the environment or safely treated?
are sewer systems intact and connected to functioning wastewater treatment plants that releases effluent (treated waste) of a safe quality?
Presently, the sanitation data collection tools the UN uses for its Sustainable Development Goals don’t answer in full these critical questions. More robust surveys and sampling programs need to be designed, along with resource allocation for government sanitation departments for a more thorough data collection strategy.
And importantly, we need a co-ordinated investment in sustainable sanitation solutions from all stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and the private sector. This is essential to both protect the health of our own species and all other living things.
How do we save whales and other marine animals from plastic in the ocean? Our new review shows reducing plastic pollution can prevent the deaths of beloved marine species. Over 700 marine species, including half of the world’s cetaceans (such as whales and dolphins), all of its sea turtles and a third of its seabirds, are known to ingest plastic.
When animals eat plastic, it can block their digestive system, causing a long, slow death from starvation. Sharp pieces of plastic can also pierce the gut wall, causing infection and sometimes death. As little as one piece of ingested plastic can kill an animal.
About eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year, so solving the problem may seem overwhelming. How do we reduce harm to whales and other marine animals from that much plastic?
Like a hospital overwhelmed with patients, we triage. By identifying the items that are deadly to the most vulnerable species, we can apply solutions that target these most deadly items.
In 2016, experts identified four main items they considered to be most deadly to wildlife: fishing debris, plastic bags, balloons and plastic utensils.
We tested these expert predictions by assessing data from 76 published research papers incorporating 1,328 marine animals (132 cetaceans, 20 seals and sea lions, 515 sea turtles and 658 seabirds) from 80 species.
We examined which items caused the greatest number of deaths in each group, and also the “lethality” of each item (how many deaths per interaction). We found the experts got it right for three of four items.
Flexible plastics, such as plastic sheets, bags and packaging, can cause gut blockage and were responsible for the greatest number of deaths over all animal groups. These film plastics caused the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles. Fishing debris, such as nets, lines and tackle, caused fatalities in larger animals, particularly seals and sea lions.
Turtles and whales that eat debris can have difficulty swimming, which may increase the risk of being struck by ships or boats. In contrast, seals and sea lions don’t eat much plastic, but can die from eating fishing debris.
Balloons, ropes and rubber, meanwhile, were deadly for smaller fauna. And hard plastics caused the most deaths among seabirds. Rubber, fishing debris, metal and latex (including balloons) were the most lethal for birds, with the highest chance of causing death per recorded ingestion.
The most cost-efficient way to reduce marine megafauna deaths from plastic ingestion is to target the most lethal items and prioritise their reduction in the environment.
Targeting big plastic items is also smart, as they can break down into smaller pieces. Small debris fragments such as microplastics and fibres are a lower management priority, as they cause significantly fewer deaths to megafauna and are more difficult to manage.
Flexible film-like plastics, including plastic bags and packaging, rank among the ten most common items in marine debris surveys globally. Plastic bag bans and fees for bags have already been shown to reduce bags littered into the environment. Improving local disposal and engineering solutions to enable recycling and improve the life span of plastics may also help reduce littering.
Lost fishing gear is particularly lethal. Fisheries have high gear loss rates: 5.7% of all nets and 29% of all lines are lost annually in commercial fisheries. The introduction of minimum standards of loss-resistant or higher quality gear can reduce loss.
Other steps can help, too, including
incentivising gear repairs and port disposal of damaged nets
penalising or prohibiting high-risk fishing activities where snags or gear loss are likely
and enforcing penalties associated with dumping.
Outreach and education to recreational fishers to highlight the harmful effects of fishing gear could also have benefit.
Balloons, latex and rubber are rare in the marine environment, but are disproportionately lethal, particularly to sea turtles and seabirds. Preventing intentional balloon releases and accidental release during events and celebrations would require legislation and a shift in public will.
The combination of policy change with behaviour change campaigns are known to be the most effective at reducing coastal litter across Australia.
Reducing film-like plastics, fishing debris and latex/balloons entering the environment would likely have the best outcome in directly reducing mortality of marine megafauna.
Lauren Roman, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmospheres, CSIRO
Jodie L. Rummer, James Cook University; Bridie JM Allan, University of Otago; Charitha Pattiaratchi, University of Western Australia; Ian A. Bouyoucos, James Cook University; Irfan Yulianto, IPB University, and Mirjam van der Mheen, University of Western Australia
The Pacific Ocean is the deepest, largest ocean on Earth, covering about a third of the globe’s surface. An ocean that vast may seem invincible. Yet across its reach – from Antarctica in the south to the Arctic in the north, and from Asia to Australia to the Americas – the Pacific Ocean’s delicate ecology is under threat.
In most cases, human activity is to blame. We have systematically pillaged the Pacific of fish. We have used it as a rubbish tip – garbage has been found even in the deepest point on Earth, in the Mariana Trench 11,000 metres below sea level.
And as we pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the Pacific, like other oceans, is becoming more acidic. It means fish are losing their sense of sight and smell, and sea organisms are struggling to build their shells.
Oceans produce most of the oxygen we breathe. They regulate the weather, provide food, and give an income to millions of people. They are places of fun and recreation, solace and spiritual connection. So, healthy, vibrant oceans benefit us all. And by better understanding the threats to the precious Pacific, we can start the long road to protecting it.
This article is part of the Oceans 21 series
The series opens with five profiles delving into ancient Indian Ocean trade networks, Pacific plastic pollution, Arctic light and life, Atlantic fisheries and the Southern Ocean’s impact on global climate. It’s brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.
The problem of ocean plastic was scientifically recognised in the 1960s after two scientists saw albatross carcasses littering the beaches of the northwest Hawaiian Islands in the northern Pacific. Almost three in four albatross chicks, who died before they could fledge, had plastic in their stomachs.
Now, plastic debris is found in all major marine habitats around the world, in sizes ranging from nanometers to meters. A small portion of this accumulates into giant floating “garbage patches”, and the Pacific Ocean is famously home to the largest of them all.
Most plastic debris from land is transported into the ocean through rivers. Just 20 rivers contribute two-thirds of the global plastic input into the sea, and ten of these discharge into the northern Pacific Ocean. Each year, for example, the Yangtze River in China – which flows through Shanghai – sends about 1.5 million metric tonnes of debris into the Pacific’s Yellow Sea.
Plastic debris in the oceans presents innumerable hazards for marine life. Animals can get tangled in debris such as discarded fishing nets, causing them to be injured or drown.
Some organisms, such as microscopic algae and invertebrates, can also hitch a ride on floating debris, travelling large distances across the oceans. This means they can be dispersed out of their natural range, and can colonise other regions as invasive species.
And of course, wildlife can be badly harmed by ingesting debris, such as microplastics less than five millimetres in size. This plastic can obstruct an animal’s mouth or accumulate in its stomach. Often, the animal dies a slow, painful death.
Seabirds, in particular, often mistake floating plastics for food. A 2019 study found there was a 20% chance seabirds would die after ingesting a single item, rising to 100% after consuming 93 items.
Plastic is extremely durable, and can float vast distances across the ocean. In 2011, 5 million tonnes of debris entered the Pacific during the Japan tsunami. Some crossed the entire ocean basin, ending up on North American coastlines.
And since floating plastics in the open ocean are transported mainly by ocean surface currents and winds, plastic debris accumulates on island coastlines along their path. Kamilo Beach, on the south-eastern tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, is considered one of the world’s worst for plastic pollution. Up to 20 tonnes of debris wash onto the beach each year.
Similarly, on uninhabited Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairn Island chain in the south Pacific, 18 tonnes of plastic have accumulated on a beach just 2.5km long. Several thousand pieces of plastic wash up each day.
Plastic waste can have different fates in the ocean: some sink, some wash up on beaches and some float on the ocean surface, transported by currents, wind and waves.
Around 1% of plastic waste accumulates in five subtropical “garbage patches” in the open ocean. They’re formed as a result of ocean circulation, driven by the changing wind fields and the Earth’s rotation.
There are two subtropical garbage patches in the Pacific: one in the northern and one in the southern hemisphere.
The northern accumulation region is separated into an eastern patch between California and Hawaii, and a western patch, which extends eastwards from Japan.
First discovered by Captain Charles Moore in the early 2000s, the eastern patch is better known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch because it’s the largest by both size (around 1.6 million square kilometers) and amount of plastic. By weight, this garbage patch can hold more than 100 kilograms per square kilometre.
The garbage patch in the southern Pacific is located off Valparaiso, Chile, extending to the west. It has lower concentrations compared to its giant counterpart in the northeast.
Discarded fishing nets make up around 45% of the total plastic weight in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Waste from the 2011 Japan tsunami is also a major contributor, making up an estimated 20% of the patch.
With time, larger plastic debris degrades into microplastics. Microplastics form only 8% of the total weight of plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but make up 94% of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic there. In high concentrations, they can make the water “cloudy”.
Each year, up to 15 million tonnes of plastic waste are estimated to make their way into the ocean from coastlines and rivers. This amount is expected to double by 2025 as plastic production continues to increase.
We must act urgently to stem the flow. This includes developing plans to collect and remove the plastics and, vitally, stop producing so much in the first place.
As the largest and deepest sea on Earth, the Pacific supports some of the world’s biggest fisheries. For thousands of years, people have relied on these fisheries for their food and livelihoods.
But, around the world, including in the Pacific, fishing operations are depleting fish populations faster than they can recover. This overfishing is considered one of the most serious threats to the world’s oceans.
Humans take about 80 million tonnes of wildlife from the sea each year. In 2019, the world’s leading scientists said of all threats to marine biodiversity over the past 50 years, fishing has caused the most harm. They said 33% of fish species were overexploited, 60% were being fished to the maximum level, and just 7% were underfished.
The decline in fish populations is not just a problem for humans. Fish play an important role in marine ecosystems and are a crucial link in the ocean’s complex food webs.
Overfishing happens when humans extract fish resources beyond the maximum level, known as the “maximum sustainable yield”. Fishing beyond this causes global fish stocks to decline, disrupts food chains, degrades habitats, and creates food scarcity for humans.
The Pacific Ocean is home to huge tuna fisheries, which provide almost 65% of the global tuna catch each year. But the long-term survival of many tuna populations is at risk.
For example, a study released in 2013 found numbers of bluefin tuna – a prized fish used to make sushi – had declined by more than 96% in the Northern Pacific Ocean.
Along Canada’s west coast, Pacific salmon populations have declined rapidly since the early 1990s, partly due to overfishing. And Japan was recently heavily criticised for a proposal to increase quotas on Pacific bluefin tuna, a species reportedly at just 4.5% of its historic population size.
Experts say overfishing is also a problem in Australia. For example, research in 2018 showed large fish species were rapidly declining around the nation due to excessive fishing pressure. In areas open to fishing, exploited populations fell by an average of 33% in the decade to 2015.
There are many reasons why overfishing occurs and why it is goes unchecked. The evidence points to:
poverty among fishers in developing nations
weak compliance with fishing regulations due to shortfalls in local government capacity.
Let’s take Indonesia as an example. Indonesia lies between the Pacific and Indian oceans and is the world’s third-biggest producer of wild-capture ﬁsh after China and Peru. Some 60% of the catch is made by small-scale ﬁshers. Many hail from poor coastal communities.
Overfishing was first reported in Indonesia in the 1970s. It prompted a presidential decree in 1980, banning trawling off the islands of Java and Sumatra. But overfishing continued into the 1990s, and it persists today. Target species include reef fishes, lobster, prawn, crab, and squid.
Indonesia’s experience shows how there is no easy fix to the overfishing problem. In 2017, the Indonesian government issued a decree that was supposed to keep fishing to a sustainable level – 12.5 million tonnes per year. Yet, in may places, the practice continued – largely because the rules were not clear and local enforcement was inadequate.
Implementation was complicated by the fact that almost all Indonesia’s smaller fishing boats come under the control of provincial governments. This reveals the need for better cooperation between levels of government in cracking down on overfishing.
To prevent overfishing, governments should address the issue of poverty and poor education in small fishing communities. This may involve finding them a new source of income. For example in the town of Oslob in the Philippines, former fishermen and women have turned to tourism – feeding whale sharks tiny amounts of krill to draw them closer to shore so tourists can snorkel or dive with them.
Tackling overfishing in the Pacific will also require cooperation among nations to monitor fishing practices and enforce the rules.
And the world’s network of marine protected areas should be expanded and strengthened to conserve marine life. Currently, less than 3% of the world’s oceans are highly protected “no take” zones. In Australia, many marine reserves are small and located in areas of little value to commercial fishers.
The collapse of fisheries around the world shows just how vulnerable our marine life is. It’s clear that humans are exploiting the oceans beyond sustainable levels. Billions of people rely on seafood for protein and for their livelihoods. But by allowing overfishing to continue, we harm not just the oceans, but ourselves.
The tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific Ocean are home to more than 75% of the world’s coral reefs. These include the Great Barrier Reef and more remote reefs in the Coral Triangle, such as those in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
Coral reefs are bearing the brunt of climate change. We hear a lot about how coral bleaching is damaging coral ecosystems. But another insidious process, ocean acidification, is also threatening reef survival.
Ocean acidification particularly affects shallow waters, and the subarctic Pacific region is particularly vulnerable.
Coral reefs cover less than 0.5% of Earth’s surface, but house an estimated 25% of all marine species. Due to ocean acidification and other threats, these incredibly diverse “underwater rainforests” are among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet.
Ocean acidification involves a decrease in the pH of seawater as it absorbs carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere.
Oceans absorb up to 30% of atmospheric CO₂, setting off a chemical reaction in which concentrations of carbonate ions fall, and hydrogen ion concentrations increase. That change makes the seawater more acidic.
Since the Industrial Revolution, ocean pH has decreased by 0.1 units. This may not seem like much, but it actually means the oceans are now about 28% more acidic than since the mid-1800s. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the rate of acidification is accelerating.
Carbonate ions are the building blocks for coral structures and organisms that build shells. So a fall in the concentrations of carbonate ions can spell bad news for marine life.
In more acidic waters, molluscs have been shown to have trouble making and repairing their shells. They also exhibit impaired growth, metabolism, reproduction, immune function, and altered behaviours. For example, researchers exposed sea hares (a type of sea slug) in French Polynesia to simulated ocean acidification and found they had less foraging success and made poorer decisions.
Ocean acidification is also a problem for the fishes. Many studies have revealed elevated CO₂ can disrupt their sense of smell, vision and hearing. It can also impair survival traits, such as a fish’s ability to learn, avoid predators, and select suitable habitat.
Of the seven oceans, the Pacific and Indian Oceans have been acidifying at the fastest rates since 1991. This suggests their marine life may also be more vulnerable.
However, ocean acidification does not affect all marine species in the same way, and the effects can vary over the organism’s lifetime. So, more research to predict the future winners and losers is crucial.
This can be done by identifying inherited traits that can increase an organism’s survival and reproductive success under more acidic conditions. Winner populations may start to adapt, while loser populations should be targets for conservation and management.
One such winner may be the epaulette shark, a shallow water reef species endemic to the Great Barrier Reef. Research suggests simulated ocean acidification conditions do not impact early growth, development, and survival of embryos and neonates, nor do they affect foraging behaviours or metabolic performance of adults.
But ocean acidification is also likely to create losers on the Great Barrier Reef. For example, researchers studying the orange clownfish – a species made famous by Disney’s animated Nemo character – found they suffered multiple sensory impairments under simulated ocean acidification conditions. These ranged from difficulties smelling and hearing their way home, to distinguishing friend from foe.
More than half a billion people depend on coral reefs for food, income, and protection from storms and coastal erosion. Reefs provide jobs – such as in tourism and fishing – and places for recreation. Globally, coral reefs represent an industry worth US$11.9 trillion per year. And importantly, they’re a place of deep cultural and spiritual connection for Indigenous people around the world.
Ocean acidification is not the only threat to coral reefs. Under climate change, the rate of ocean warming has doubled since the 1990s. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, has warmed by 0.8℃ since the Industrial Revolution. Over the past five years this has caused devastating back-to-back coral bleaching events. The effects of warmer seas are magnified by ocean acidification.
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions must become a global mission. COVID-19 has slowed our movements across the planet, showing it’s possible to radically slash our production of CO₂. If the world meets the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement and keeps global temperature increases below 1.5℃, the Pacific will experience far less severe decreases in oceanic pH.
We will, however, have to curb emissions by a lot more – 45% over the next decade – to keep global warming below 1.5℃. This would give some hope that coral reefs in the Pacific, and worldwide, are not completely lost.
Clearly, the decisions we make today will affect what our oceans look like tomorrow.
Jodie L. Rummer, Associate Professor & Principal Research Fellow, James Cook University; Bridie JM Allan, Lecturer/researcher, University of Otago; Charitha Pattiaratchi, Professor of Coastal Oceanography, University of Western Australia; Ian A. Bouyoucos, Postdoctoral fellow, James Cook University; Irfan Yulianto, Lecturer of Fisheries Resources Utilization, IPB University, and Mirjam van der Mheen, Fellow, University of Western Australia
In my career as a marine biologist, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some of the most remote islands in the world. These beautiful places continue to remind me why I have this job in the first place, but they also bring home the pervasive influence of human societies. Uninhabited bird colonies on the Canadian West Coast, remote tropical Japanese islands, and tiny bits of land in South East Asia all have one thing in common: plastic waste on the beach.
When at home in Sweden, I regularly swim and sail in the Baltic Sea. But agricultural fertilisers and other types of pollution have created dead zones where fish either leave or suffocate. Meanwhile, offshore fisheries and aquaculture farms in many parts of the world overharvest and pollute the water. We know what proper management of these activities could look like, but political will has so far not been equal to the challenge.
That may be about to change. A recent agreement between 14 heads of state – together representing 40% of the world’s coastline – promised to end overfishing, restore fish stocks and halt the flow of plastic pollution into the ocean within a decade.
Pollution, plastics and unsustainable seafood may look like isolated problems, but they influence each other. As nutrients run off farmland and into the sea, they affect the conditions fish need to thrive. Pollution makes our seafood less healthy and overfishing is pushing some fish stocks beyond their capacity to renew themselves.
All of these stresses are amplified by global warming. The ocean has been acting as a sink for CO₂ emissions and excess heat for decades, but there is only so much that marine ecosystems can take before collapsing. And we shouldn’t think these problems won’t affect us – stronger storms, fuelled by warmer ocean waters, are happening more often.
It’s in everyone’s interests to protect the ocean. Clean seas would be more profitable and research suggests that better managed fisheries could generate six times more food than they do currently. The exclusive economic zones of coastal states would be more productive if every country agreed to protect the high seas. And sailing in the Baltic Sea would be much nicer if the boat didn’t have to plough a thick, green sludge.
So how can the world make progress – and what’s holding us back?
As part of the recent agreement between 14 heads of state, the participating countries – Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Palau and Portugal – committed to a number of goals within their national waters, including investment in zero-emission shipping, eliminating waste and ensuring fisheries are sustainable. The aim is to ensure all activity within these exclusive economic zones is sustainable by 2025.
The countries agreed to fast-track their plan for action, rather than work through the UN. Their combined national waters roughly equal the size of Africa. They each have clear stakes in the continued functioning of ocean ecosystems and economies, so this pragmatic approach makes sense. That’s a sentiment that businesses could no doubt respect. After all, there are no economic opportunities in a dead ocean.
The agreement is an encouraging message from political leaders, and these states can leverage vast sums of money and resources to effect change. But the ocean is home to a dozen global industries, and around 50,000 vessels traverse it at any one time. Clearly, we need more than governments to deliver on this ambitious agenda.
My scientific colleagues and I have been developing a global coalition of businesses concerned with sustainable seafood. Our strategy is to find “keystone actors” within the private sector – companies with a disproportionate ability to influence change due to their size and strength.
The seafood industry is vast, and includes some of the largest companies in the world – from entire fisheries, to aquaculture farms and feed processors. After four years of working together, change within the participating companies is accelerating. For example, Nissui, the world’s second-largest seafood company, has evaluated their entire production portfolio for sustainability challenges.
Collaboration between scientists and businesses is vital to delivering commitments made by governments. Scientists can help define the problems, and business can develop, pilot and scale solutions. For instance, we’re developing software that can automatically detect which species of fish are caught on vessels, to radically improve the transparency of seafood production.
The ocean has been a source of inspiration, imagination and adventure since the beginning of time. It has fed us and generated livelihoods for billions. Politicians have stood serenely on the sidelines for some time now, content to be passive observers of deteriorating ecosystems. But the era of passive observation may finally be coming to an end.