Global Health Center

The ocean is struggling to stay afloat

Written by David Rosene, MPH candidate at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, and a Summer Pediatric Research in Global Health Translation (SPRIGHT) Scholar in the 2022 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

The Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track held a seminar on July 7 and featuring a talk by Michael Wysession, PhD, professor of earth and planetary sciences. As a world leader in seismology and earth studies, and to educate the public about the earth’s surface, Wysession has authored and co-authored more than 100 scientific articles and school textbooks. His current textbooks include scenarios pertaining to the Anthropocene—the geological age of extensive human activity—including greenhouse gas emissions, carbon isotope data from fossil fuel production, and icecap temperatures.

Photo: Unsplash

In Wysession’s seminar discussion, he highlighted the ocean as a crucial resource that needs to be protected under the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. The ocean has been negatively impacted by the Anthropocene, including issues related to fish consumption, plastic production, and fertilizer runoff.

The atmosphere is not the only place where carbon dioxide can reside. In fact, the air is experiencing a less intense increase in temperature due to the uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide into the ocean. However, this comes with a cost. To the detriment of calcium carbonate coral and other ocean creatures, the earth’s equatorial waters are becoming more and more acidic. As the ocean takes in more carbon dioxide, the acid chips away at these creatures’ shells, resulting in coral bleaching.

In the 1950s, only 15% of ocean fisheries were utilized to their fullest potential for sustainable human consumption, whereas 85% of ocean fisheries were underutilized or not utilized at all. In the 2000s, all ocean fisheries have some form of utilization. None remain underutilized, 29% are utilized to their fullest sustainable potential, 39% are overutilized, and 32% have completely collapsed. Essentially, fisheries are not producing enough added harvest to support the world’s current population. The growth of the aquaculture business, something that virtually didn’t exist a few decades ago, has grown exponentially to make up for this deficit.

Plastic production is quite a monster on its own, but mismanagement of plastic waste—most of it made of single use plastics—has caused an influx of eight million tons of plastic to infiltrate the ocean per year; most of which free floats around in ocean currents until taken into giant ocean gyres. The most famous of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In addition, current in-ground food production levels have encouraged utilization of vast amounts of fertilizer to increase crop yield. When the fertilizer runs off into nearby rivers and coasts, algae can out-compete most of the other ocean life and uses the free space. This creates vast amounts of algae in one spot, consuming much of the dissolved oxygen in the water. Depleted and dissolved oxygen chokes out other ocean creatures, killing them off. Overall, the Anthropocene has changed the earth’s surface and the conditions of the ocean at an unprecedented rate. These contemporary issues have caused quite the uphill battle to save the ocean and abide by the initiatives set in SDG 14.