Changing Oceans Facts, Problems anD SOlutions

Human activities have caused changes in the global climate system. These activities have affected the world's oceans and their ability to support life.

Phytoplankton are microscopic marine plants that live on the surface layers of the ocean. They are a key species in the marine ecosystem and are the primary food source for zooplankton. Together, these two species - phytoplankton and zooplankton - are the base of the ocean's food web; serving as a food source for a wide range of sea creatures from the smallest fish and invertebrates all the way up to the biggest whales. The importance of phytoplankton cannot be over-estimated. Phytoplankton are primary producers; absorbing energy from the sun and using CO2 dissolved in water to make their own food through photosynthesis. It is estimated that phytoplankton produce between 50-85% of the world's oxygen through this process and have controlled the CO2/O2 balance in the atmosphere since the Precambrian era.

Phytoplankton are responsible for most of the transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the ocean. Carbon dioxide is consumed during photosynthesis, and the carbon is incorporated in the phytoplankton. (Illustration adapted from A New Wave of Ocean Science, U.S. JGOFS.)
More than 80 percent of the planet’s living biomass is found in the oceans.

Unfortunately, this balance has been disrupted in recent years. In fact, current atmospheric CO2 concentrations are estimated to be as much 40% higher than pre-industrial levels. While there have been fluctuations in the past, the increased burning of fossil fuels, rate of deforestation, and changing land use since the Industrial Revolution has resulted in a rapidly shifting CO2/O2 balance as more CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Since approximately 30% of the CO2 in the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean, changes in the atmosphere lead to changes in the ocean. The world's oceans are becoming more acidic as a result of this increased influx of CO2; negatively impacting and ultimately threatening an abundance of marine life. The chemistry associated with ocean acidification - a decrease in the pH of the ocean over a long period of time due to rising CO2 levels - is outlined in the infographic below.

The effects of ocean acidification are many. Chemical reactions resulting in increased levels of hydrogen ions, and therefore increased acidity, occur when CO2 is absorbed by seawater. This in turn leads to decreased numbers of available carbonate ions; the building blocks for calcium carbonate structures. The decrease in pH is significant to calcifying species like coral reefs, oysters and other shelled marine organisms such as shrimp which use carbonate ions to build and maintain their skeletons and shells. The tendency of carbonate ions to combine chemically with the excess hydrogen ions in the sea water results in the formation of bicarbonate ions. While this is good in one way; it removes some hydrogen ions from the water and thereby mitigates some of the increased acidity produced by dissolved carbon dioxide. It is bad in another; when the water surrounding calcifying organisms is low with respect to carbonate concentration, the usually insoluble calcium carbonate that makes up their shells starts to dissolve.

This close-up image is evidence that pteropods from the natural environment along the U.S. West Coast are showing signs that their shells are dissolving.

The rate at which the CO2 levels are rising, along with the associated decrease in carbonate availability and related mineral dissolution, is occurring so rapidly that it is difficult for marine organisms to adequately adapt on an evolutionary scale. The impact on the populations of some of the more vulnerable species such as pteropods; small calcifying (or shelled) organisms that live as zooplankton in the water column and are an important prey species for many fish, is becoming increasingly evident. Changes in ocean chemistry thus ultimately put the entire marine food web at risk.

Increased ocean acidity also affects marine chemical communication; however, the implications for the marine species affected is unclear at this point in time.

Recent scientific research has also found a strong correlation between rising ocean temperatures associated with global warming and the effect this is having on fish populations. Forced mass fish migrations have started occurring with cold-water species on the move, seeking cooler, deeper, and higher-latitude waters and warm-water species moving to places formerly too cold for their survival. For example, more species of sharks are being found off the BC coast as they move further north with the warming water temperatures - Great White, Thrashers and Makos among them. The presence of these sharks in local waters is a clear sign of change. Although the oceans have warmed and cooled many times throughout the Earth's history, these fluctuations occurred over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. The current trend in increasing ocean temperatures is happening far too rapidly for the sea life to adjust. The effect of these forced mass migrations on the sustainability of ocean ecosystems will be substantial and wide-reaching as population dynamics shift and species move out of some areas and into others; once again disrupting the marine food web.

Additional consequences of cumulative CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution include altered regional weather patterns, rising sea levels and changed nutrient loads as a result of altered ocean circulation. These changes are affecting marine biological processes from cells to ecosysytems. Since ocean currents redistribute heat around the planet, changes in ocean circulation result in fundamental physical changes, with related biological ramifications for many of the ocean's species.

Illustration depicting the circulation of the global ocean. Throughout the Atlantic Ocean, the circulation carries warm waters (red arrows) northward near the surface and cold deep waters (blue arrows) southward.
There are so many issues in and around our oceans which require discussion that it would be next to impossible to address them all; however, the conversation must start somewhere.

Local Issues

Salmon are the main species of fish British Columbia is known for, and for good reason; however, there are also many other key species in the oceans off our coast. Combined, these species play a large fish part in sports fishing, commercial fishing and the ocean food chain.

  • Spawning Habitat Loss: Streams are diverted due to the development of housing and roadways and water is drained from these same streams and rivers in the summer so that farmers can water their fields. In addition, estuaries are destroyed for farm land and hydroelectric dams are placed at the heads of the province's larger rivers. All of these factors serve to contribute towards loss of spawning habitat for the salmon and feeding areas for the fry. It's too late to fix what we have done but it's not too late to make a difference. We should invest in more river and stream restoration projects to make new spawning areas and create structures in the rivers to allow young fish to conceal themselves from predators. The government should also buy more river and creek drainages from the local logging companies. Large stands of trees are important in areas like creek drainages to hold water in the ground so that the creeks and streams keep water flowing all summer.
  • Increased Water Temperature: Doesn't that water look nice and warm... Yes, it does but the warm water temperatures are killing all the salmon fry. This is the Puntledge River in the summer and although it looks inviting to us, it is a death trap to young salmon. The water temperature is far too warm and that kills them. Why is the water so warm? The Comox lake dam only releases the surface water from the lake - and that's the warmest water - it also reduces flows in the Puntledge River. If they put some money into the Comox dam, it would have a positive impact on everyone. If BC hydro redesigned the dam to release water from the bottom it would be much cooler allowing the young salmon, trout and other creatures in the river to survive better through the warm summer months. At the same time they could sink the water intake deeper into the lake and that would fix the constant boil water advisories we get through the winter. The cost to affect ratios is certainly in favour of sinking the pipe, so why what's stopping us from doing so?
  • Sports Fishing Regulation Flaws: Over the last few years I have noticed several regulations that should be changed because they are damaging to fish stocks.
  • .1. Keeping the biggest fish you can catch. Many people want to go out and catch the biggest fish they can. This would be fine if they didn't want to keep them. Take a picture and release them. The biggest fish when it comes to bottom fish are most often females and breeders; the ones you want to stay in the ocean. They are also the worst to eat, so why keep them? There should be over size limits on fish just like how they have undersize limits.
  • 2. Americans fishing in our waters. The American summer fishing fleet is great for coastal business and the economy but is terribly damaging to the fish stocks. Not all, but many of them take advantage of what we have and they keep as many fish as they can and don't have anything resembling conservation in mind. I've also noticed more and more of them "taking their friends out for money" also know as self guiding. Of course it would be difficult to prove but it's obvious to the local fishermen. These big American boats come up all summer and fish in our waters, taking income away from the local guiding business. I believe we should reduce the limits on the fish they can keep and increase the cost of their Canadian fishing license. Another option would be to not allow them to fish unless guided by local guiding groups. This would create much more business for the local guides and the money lost because of the new rules would be gained back through the local guiding groups on our coast.
  • 3. Many of the DFO, also known as "fish cops," are incompetent in their jobs and don't understand how to identify fish! All 3 times I've being checked they either told me I've kept the wrong species of fish or gone over my limit. All three times they were wrong, I couldn't believe it. I had ten other guys cleaning their fish on the dock come over and explain to them that the fish was a Coho not an undersized Spring salmon. I've been fishing my whole life and know how to identify fish but what I don't understand is why we have people who can't tell a Coho from a Spring salmon out there regulating our fisheries. I also had them tell me I'd kept too many Coho so I pulled out the regulations and showed them the limit. They walked away without apologizing for their mistake. This has also happened to many of my friends as well as to my father multiple times. Many of the DFO simply don't know the rules or how to identify fish properly. You'd think that someone who's job is to make sure you aren't keeping the wrong fish or keeping more than your limit should be able to tell what kind of fish you have in your boat. Why aren't they trained better. I think it's embarrassing to see that the people who enforce the rules don't know them or don't know how to identify the fish.
Yellow eye or Red Snapper commonly live to the ages of 110 to 120 with the oldest of them lived to 150! They also almost always spend their entire life on one rock pile. These fish are one of the longest lived species of fish on earth and also one of the slowest to mature and grow therefore they are easily over fished.

The Canadian government needs to start thinking about long term sustainability not short term cash flow. If we put the fish first it would best for everyone. We need to review and change many things in our local fishing regulations. Ever wonder why the Americans come to fish in Canada? It's not because the fish we have off Vancouver island don't live south of the border, it's because they over fished and dramatically depleted the fish stocks down there so now they have to come here to fish. We don't want to make that same mistake. If the government puts some money into this area it will have a great positive impact on ourlocal fish and local fishermen alike.

  • Politics: Science in Canada often plays a secondary role in policy surrounding fisheries. In the past it was like this in the US but now they have changed things, realizing the need to make smarter decisions about the fishing regulations. Now science often lies at the centre of fish related decisions in the US, which is the way it should be. We should have local fishing councils who make the decisions not someone behind a desk who has never gone fishing in his or her life. Their only perspective on fishing is money, not the importance of sustainability or the health of our oceans. If councils were formed, we could get the best of both worlds, keeping commercial fishing sustainable and sports fishing regulations up to date. This would be ideal for everyone, having people who understand our oceans and see both sides of the issues at hand. If the Canadian government did this it would be a win-win situation.
  • Pollution: Locally we have a few noticeable problems with respect to ocean pollution. It is estimated that as much as 8 million metric tons of trash enter the sea from land every year. Plastic makes up the majority of the marine debris as a result of its heavy use in packaging and consumer products. Marine animals frequently become entangled in large pieces of debris and can be injured, drowned or slowed down from dragging the extra weight; moreover habitats can be damaged. Everything in the ocean is connected, what one person puts in the ocean another will find months to years later in a different part of the world. As a population we need to work together to stop polluting our oceans. The visualization below shows the ocean's garbage islands. According scientists these are the largest plastic dumps on Earth; much larger than waste dumps on land. Plastic is not biodegradable, instead as it ages in the sun it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. This tiny plastic confetti, along with larger pieces of floating plastic, creates a big problem. Small fish and filter feeders that strain food out of the water may mistake plastic for plankton, fish eggs, or other food. These smaller fish feed the bigger ones and it just accumulates in larger and larger amounts as it moves up the food chain. Not only does this plastic contaminate the pelagic food web, it comes right back to us when we eat the contaminated fish.

Unfortunately, given that it's already in the ocean we have to come up with creative and cost effective ways to remove it. The links below show a potential solution and the approximate cost of clean up.

We must give voice to the issues in our oceans

If we don't fix the current regulations in and around our water systems, they will become regulations for fish that no longer live in an area due to faulty rules allowing destructive activities in critical habitats and associated overfishing. All of this comes down to politics sadly, which means it's very difficult to move forward with any efficiency. By the time policies make it through to the decision makers its generally be too late. We must stand up and voice our concerns loudly to show the government their wrong in their approach towards our local fisheries and fishing in general across the world.

How we choose to react to what's happening in our oceans will drastically change the lives of countless species living in it.

Make the right choice

Oceans are worth protecting!

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Created with images by Unsplash - "jellyfish underwater ocean" • oliver.dodd - "15166-fish swarm through the kelp forest" • Gellinger - "shrimp coral plankton" • Lucy Rickards - "P2115227" • alexgoodey - "Sea otter"

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