Archive for July, 2010

The letter

July 1, 2010

A letter has been sitting on my desk for a couple of days now while I stare at the envelope in bewilderment and anger

In the middle of the Deepwater oil disaster how can anyone have the gall to claim they are “making real progress protecting Earth’s oceans”. Of course Deepwater will probably be fixed in another 6 weeks, if the relief wells work, or at worst 4 years or so when the reservoir of oil and gas diminishes sufficiently. But then BP is currently talking to Brazil about drilling off their coast at twice the depth of Deepwater. Tell me, Nature Conservancy, are you making significant progress toward preventing that?

Eventually Deepwater will no longer be an issue (and perhaps there won’t be a disaster in Brazil), but there are long term threats to our ocean’s health and I can’t see how the Nature Conservancy (or anyone else) is making progress on them. We throw gunk into the oceans at an alarming rate, fertilizers, heavy metals, hormones, plastics, etc. We are over-fishing the oceans and soon there will be nothing significant left. And finally the twinned problems of climate change and water acidification are destroying ocean habitats.

Fertilizer runs off our fields into the rivers and into the ocean. This causes the algae to flourish (“bloom”). Now that sounds fine. Everyone knows that plant growth is a good thing and should be encouraged. Unfortunately, in the water, there are limits. If there are a lot of plants in the water they produce a lot of oxygen by day, but at night they consume a lot of oxygen. The result is a large diurnal swing in the concentration of oxygen in the water and this can be fatal to animals. Finally, of course, the algae die back, they stop producing oxygen and start decomposing. This, again, removes oxygen from the water. The result is that we have large dead (anoxic) areas off our coasts.

Santa Barbara’s streams have too small a catchment area to draw enough fertilizer to produce a “bloom”, instead, during storms, our runoff is full of fecal matter (human, dog, horse, etc.) that has accumulated in our creeks. This sweeps out to sea and produces conditions where any attempt to surf or swim will be met with sickness.

Ocean mercury concentrations are increasing, and it accumulates in fat in fishes, and the further up the food chain the higher the concentration of mercury in the fish. We’ve all heard warnings how eating too much mercury can cause brain damage in infants and advising us to reduce our fish consumption. Ocean fish have no choice. They must consume other fish with high mercury content.

Birth control pills are full of hormones and so is the water which flushes from our toilets. Chemicals used in plastic synthesis (BPA) look enough like hormones to cause problems. And all this stuff ends up in our rivers and, eventually, in the oceans. There have already been studies showing the life cycle of fresh water fish is disrupted by these hormone-like chemicals.

The plastics we throw out do not degrade but float out to sea where they are not only unsightly but can also cause death in animals which smoother, strangle, or eat them by mistake until their stomachs contain nothing but plastic and they die.

The UNEP predicts that if current trends continue all fisheries in the world will be overfished by 2050. Currently 30% of traditional fisheries have already collapsed.

Finally there is global warming. A simple temperature rise can destroy a species. Fish are already migrating out of their traditional ranges moving into cooler water. But not everything is mobile and the coral reeves are dying. But simple heat is not the only problem, as the water warms it can hold more CO2. When CO2 dissolves in water it produces a mild acid. So as the oceans warm they become more acidic. Not by much, true, but it turns out the change does not need to be great to have nasty effects. The shells of many animals start to dissolve if the acidity increases even slightly, and some of these animals are at the base of the foodweb, their death leads to the death of the animals which feed on them. It doesn’t matter what the IWC decides if the plankton the whales feed on dies.

Now the Nature Conservancy mostly buys land which it protects from the ravages of development. And that is useful. But it is not in any position to solve any of the global challenges destroying our ocean ecosystems.

So, tell me, Nature Conservancy, how can you claim to be making “significant progress” on all these fronts? On most, if not all, the situation continues to deteriorate. I think you are lying to me, and I am angry.