Jellyfish and chips?

My childhood reeks of the sea. My father had been in the navy; we were invariably woken up by shanties – “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” was a favourite – and at mealtimes the salt was never passed, it was “given a fair breeze”. We were a nomadic family but the sea was never far away, whether we were paddling on pebbly English beaches, digging for toheroas between wintery tides in the far south of New Zealand, or falling in and out of dinghies on Sydney Harbour.
Australians have a particular love for, intimacy with and vulnerability to the ocean, which puts us in the front line as humankind struggles with a whole raft of issues that are compromising marine health; overfishing – a third of the world’s fish stocks have been exploited beyond recovery; massive extinctions, raising the very real spectre that the glorious diversity of life in the seas will be reduced to what it was millions of years ago – jellyfish; pollution from sewage, pesticides, fertiliser runoff, toxic waste dumping, oil spills, ongoing radioactive leaks from Fukushima in Japan; rising sea-levels; and the tragedy of coral reefs – cathedrals of the deep – which are dying, bleached and destroyed as climate change drives up ocean temperatures.
Two issues seem to me of particular concern.
The first is a phenomenon known as “great ocean garbage patches”. These are slow-moving gyres of rubbish, like unflushable toilets, one each in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Pacific gyre is as big as New South Wales, and every square kilometre contains 50,000 pieces of plastic waste. A 2006 United Nations report estimated that this toxic soup annually kills a million sea-birds and a hundred thousand sea mammals. Over time, drifting plastic breaks into particles that absorb toxins like mercury and pesticides, and are then eaten by small fish; the plastic concentrates its poisonous load as it moves up the food chain. This means that when we eat seafood, especially tuna or shark, we’re ingesting our own waste.
The second issue concerns the effects on the oceans of atmospheric carbon, which between 1750 and 2011 has increased by forty percent. As the oceans absorb some of this excess, they are becoming more acidic. In a process similar to osteoporosis, acidifying sea-water leaches calcium from the shells and skeletons of marine organisms, which can no longer reproduce. This is especially dire for phytoplankton – microscopic, exquisitely diverse and beautiful creatures – and hence for us, since every second breath we take is fuelled by the oxygen they generate. We are destroying an invisible matrix on which our lives depend.
If humanity is to survive, I see no option but radical, inevitable, impossible change. How do we shift from the anthropocene era to the ecozoic, begin to live in the knowledge that human wellbeing is inseparable from the health of the seven billion species with whom we share our only planet?
True wealth, safety and freedom lie in pure air, clean rivers, living forests, abundant biodiversity, rich tilth and salty-sweet oceans.

© Annie March, July 2014

Published in ‘Australian Options’, Winter 2014.


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