Mass Extinction of Ocean Species Soon to Be ‘Inevitable’

LONDON, UK, June 21, 2011 (ENS) – The oceans are at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history, a panel of international marine experts warns in a report released today.

A deadly trio of factors – warming, acidification and lack of oxygen – is creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth’s history, the panel warned.

Sunset at Huntington Beach, California (Photo by DHN)

The combined effects of these stressors are causing degeneration in the ocean that is “far faster than anyone has predicted,” the scientists report.

The urgent warnings emerged from the first-ever interdisciplinary international workshop held April 11-13 to consider the cumulative impact of all stressors affecting the ocean.

“The findings are shocking,” said Dr. Alex Rogers, scientific director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean which convened the workshop. “As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the ocean, the implications became far worse than we had individually realized.”

“This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level,” warned Rogers, who specializes in the ecology, biodiversity and evolution of deep-sea ecosystems, with emphasis on cold-water corals, seamounts, hydrothermal vents and seeps.

Dr. Alex Rogers (Photo courtesy IPSO)

The first steps to globally significant extinction may have already begun with a rise in the extinction threat to marine species such as reef-forming corals, the scientists said, emphasizing that “the unprecedented speed of change” makes accurate assessment difficult.

“We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime, and worse, our children’s and generations beyond that,” warned Rogers.

Marine scientists from institutions around the world gathered at Oxford University under the auspices of International Programme on the State of the Ocean and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The 27 participants from 18 organizations in six countries produced a grave assessment of current threats.

The group reviewed recent research by world ocean experts and found firm evidence that the effects of climate change, coupled with other human-induced impacts such as over-fishing and nutrient run-off from farming, have already caused a dramatic decline in ocean health.

In the waters of Pulau Hantu, an island south of Singapore, ocean warming turned these corals from orange to white. (Photo by Jolene)

Dan Laffoley, marine chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas and senior ddvisor on Marine Science and Conservation for IUCN, and co-author of the report, said, “The world’s leading experts on oceans are surprised by the rate and magnitude of changes we are seeing. The challenges for the future of the ocean are vast, but unlike previous generations we know what now needs to happen. The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now, today and urgent.”

The panel urges, “Immediate reduction in CO2 emissions coupled with significantly increased measures for mitigation of atmospheric CO2 and to better manage coastal and marine carbon sinks to avoid additional emissions of greenhouse gases. It is a matter of urgency that the ocean is considered as a priority in the deliberations of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change].”

The panel members point out that the rate at which carbon is being absorbed by the ocean is already far greater now than at the time of the last globally significant extinction of marine species, some 55 million years ago, when up to 50 percent of some groups of deep sea animals were wiped out.

A single mass coral bleaching event in 1998 killed 16 percent of all the world’s tropical coral reefs, they recalled, and overfishing has reduced some commercial fish stocks and populations of by-catch species by more than 90 percent.

Gray whale carcass on Mexico’s Baha peninsula, March 2011 (Photo by Rod Chadwick)

New science indicates that pollutants such as flame retardants, fluorinated compounds and pharmaceuticals as well as synthetic musks found in detergents and personal care products have been located recently in the Canadian Arctic seas. Some are known to be endocrine disrupters or can damage immune systems.

These chemicals can be absorbed by tiny plastic particles in the ocean which are in turn ingested by marine creatures.

Meanwhile, continued releases and slow breakdown rates mean that legacy chemical pollution, such as from DDT, remains a major concern.

The marine experts agreed that adding these and other threats together means that the ocean and the ecosystems within it are unable to recover, being constantly bombarded with multiple attacks.

The report sets out a series of recommendations and calls on states, regional bodies and the United Nations to enact measures to better conserve ocean ecosystems, and in particular demands the urgent adoption of better governance of the largely unprotected high seas which make up the majority of the world’s ocean.

Time available for action is shrinking, the panel warned. “The longer the delay in reducing emissions the higher the annual reduction rate will have to be and the greater the financial cost. Delays will mean increased environmental damage with greater socioeconomic impacts and costs of mitigation and adaptation measures.”

Click here to read a summary of the panel’s full report, which will be released in the near future.

Copyright Environment News Service,ENS, 2011. All rights reserved.