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'Shocking' State of Seas Threatens Mass Extinction, Say Marine Experts

Fish, sharks, whales and other marine species are in imminent danger of an "unprecedented" and catastrophic extinction event at the hands of humankind, and are disappearing at a far faster rate than anyone had predicted, a study of the world's oceans has found.

Mass extinction of species will be "inevitable" if current trends continue, researchers said.

Overfishing, pollution, run-off of fertilizers from farming and the acidification of the seas caused by increasing carbon dioxide emissions are combining to put marine creatures in extreme danger, according to the report from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO), prepared at the first international workshop to consider all of the cumulative stresses affecting the oceans at Oxford University.

The international panel of marine experts said there was a "high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history." They said the challenges facing the oceans created "the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth's history."

"The findings are shocking," said Alex Rogers, scientific director of IPSO. "As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the ocean, the implications became far worse than we had individually realized. This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level. We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime, and worse, our children's and generations beyond that."

The flow of soil nutrients into the oceans is creating huge "dead zones", where anoxia -- the absence of oxygen -- and hypoxia -- low oxygen levels -- mean fish and other marine life are unable to survive there.

Hypoxia and anoxia, warming and acidification are factors present in every mass extinction event in the oceans over the Earth's history, according to scientific research. About 55 million years ago, as much as half of some species of deep-sea creatures were wiped out when atmospheric changes created similar conditions.

In recent years, human effects on the oceans have increased significantly. Overfishing has cut some fish populations by more than 90 percent. Pollutants, including flame-retardant chemicals and detergents are absorbed into particles of plastic waste in the sea, which are then ingested by marine creatures. Millions of fish, birds and other forms of life are choked or suffer internal ruptures from ingesting plastic waste.

During 1998, record high temperatures wiped out about 16 percent of the world's tropical coral reefs.

The scientists called on the United Nations and governments to bring in measures to conserve marine ecosystems. Dan Laffoley, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said: "The world's leading experts on oceans are surprised by the rate and magnitude of changes we are seeing. The challenges for the future of the oceans are vast, but unlike previous generations we know what now needs to happen. The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now, today and urgent."

This story originally appeared in the Guardian. OnEarth is part of the Guardian Environment Network.

image of Fiona Harvey
Fiona Harvey is an environment correspondent for the Guardian.
Love is like Oxygen. Or more importantly Ozone. The sooner we replenish our world with it,put collection grates on every discharge,run off water, the sooner the garbage and plastic waste and run off could be captured and prevented from entering our waterways and ocean. A massive round up of ships could then ply the worlds oceans to constantly collect plastic scourges that are being caught up in the Earth's own whirlpool and eddies. They would be "scooped up" to reduce this plastic wasteland in our oceans. Ozone ships would Oxygenate the air and water to heal the Earth with giant airstones. Organic farming would stop the chemical run off also. Before it is too late!!!
Even as our oceans are increasingly depleted and people are beginning to recognize the dire situation we are putting ourselves in, the demand for fish has been growing due to recently lauded health benefits. I wonder, would fish farming relieve the impacts of fishing on our oceans? Of course, at this point and time, fish farming is not at all to a point where it could replace traditional fishing and trawling. The massive extinctions going on in our seas are indicative of the Sixth Great Extinction. Izilwane, an online conservation magazine, has a great article about it.