Shout out for the Sea, Part III: Pacific Problems

Shout out for the Sea, Part III: Pacific Problems

Meera Subramanian: Pacific Problems

First we basked with whales, then we explored the aquatic food chain, from the micro to the mouthwatering. In the final part of this mini-series on the state of the sea, let?s turn our gaze to the Pacific Ocean, where coral reefs are tumbling into oblivion, plastic is taking on the form of large land masses, and rampaging rubber duckies are on the loose. There?s some good news too.

Coral reefs are the oases of the oceans, the ?rainforests of the sea,? sustaining a quarter of all marine species though they occupy less than 0.1 percent of the world’s watery surface. They are living structures formed by colonies of small creatures that exude calcium carbonate as an exoskeleton, creating masses that are underwater havens of life.

But they?re picky buggers, worse than that prima donna Goldilocks. Most corals demand a temperature within a limited eleven-degree range, between 73 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit, a salinity of 32 to 42 parts per thousand, and a pH level of 8.0 to 8.3, if you please.

We don?t please. The carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere translates into more carbon dioxide in the ocean, which leads to increased bleaching and acidity in the water. Corals maintain their vibrant colors through a symbiotic relationship with tiny photosynthetic critters called zooxanthellae. But when the corals get stressed out, they act like a temperamental landlord, ousting the zooxanthellae and becoming a bit lifeless in the process.

Ocean acidification is the osteoporosis of the ocean, causing the calcium that holds coral reefs, shellfish, and many other marine species together to leach, disintegrate, or not even form in the first place. To see it in action, and for everything else you ever wanted to know about ocean acidification but were afraid to ask, watch this NOAA video with Jane Lubchenco.

Reefs are also threatened by overfishing, damage from trawling, oil spills, harvesting of aquarium species, pollutants (especially nitrates and phosphates), and commercial exploitation. And then there?s poop. Human feces cause white pox disease on some corals in the Caribbean. (That coral reefs are possibly the most threatened ecosystem on earth is not a bunch of crap.)

People like Margaret Wertheim, an Australian mathematician and writer, are trying to get us to think more about the threats to coral reefs. A few years back she spoke at the American Museum of Natural History about how crocheting in a deliberately random pattern creates a physical representation of hyperbolic space?an undulating, coral-like form. That got Wertheim thinking about the threats to the Great Barrier Reef near her homeland Down Under, which?while well-protected from tourism and fishing?is especially vulnerable to human pollutants in the region and to global climate change. The idea has now spun off into its own conservation project, encouraging ?crochet-ins? worldwide and a traveling exhibition, all to raise awareness about ocean acidification and the importance of coral reefs. More recently, they?ve supplemented yarn with materials like plastic.

And it is plastic that is increasingly showing up in our oceans, especially the North Pacific, where cruise ship trash, derelict fishing lines, chemical sludge, shipping spills, and oodles of nurdles (plastic pellets used in manufacturing) gather to live out eternity in the ever-expanding and spiraling Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Studies have shown that the concentration of plastics in the ocean was seven times greater than the concentration of zooplankton. One million birds may die annually from entanglement and ingestion of plastics, according to NOAA, which is just one reason why you should bring your own damn bag to the store. The permanence of plastic is the focus of the incredible short film Plastic Bag, with Werner Herzog narrating the lead role as Bag. With glowing cinematography, we follow the long, long life of Bag, a quest for love and communion, until he finds himself in the North Pacific Gyre, pleading with the universe, ?I wish you had created me so I could die.?

Some companies, at least, are trying to close the loop, in a way, by harvesting from the Garbage Patch?s floating fields. Electrolux is making vacuum cleaners and other appliances out of the flotsam, and Method is packaging its eco-cleaners in bottles made from plastics harvested from Hawaiian beaches.

The Pacific is the site of another plastic spill of epic proportions, which revealed both the inner workings of ocean currents and the obsessions of beachcombers. On January 10, 1992, thousands of plastic toys broke free from their cargo ship and set off on their own adventures, as recounted in Donovan Hohn?s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. It?s a rollicking ride across the seas with Hohn and his rubber duckies as our guides, showing us how connected it all is.

Except for the atmosphere that encapsulates our little planet, making it just right for those who currently inhabit it, nothing connects us as much as the ocean and seas that surround us. Without fins, it?s easy to forget, but we shouldn?t.