Threats to Biodiversity

What are the biggest threats to our oceans?
Answered by Julie Packard, Sylvia Earle and 2 others
  • Julie Packard

    Julie Packard

  • Sylvia Earle

    Sylvia Earle

  • John O'Sullivan

    John O'Sullivan

  • Bruce Robison

    Bruce Robison

  1. Julie Packard Executive Director, Monterey Bay Aquarium


    Well, there are many threats to our global ocean. Probably the biggest one is global climate change, not surprisingly. I think the thing about global climate change is mainly people have been hearing about the land-based stories. In terms of the biggest looming threat that already today is causing changes in the ocean, it really is about global climate change, both sea level rise, ocean warming, and the acidification that's happening as erosions are absorbing vast amounts of CO2.

    In many of our climate prediction models until recently, the role of the ocean really wasn't captured accurately. We need to do a lot more science to incorporate the ocean picture, because, again, the oceans are such a piece of our global systems.

    Global climate change is the biggest long-term threat that we really need to work on. Even today, the thing about it is with acidification, these aren't hypothetical things happening in the future. Acidification can be measured right now, and the source of it can be measured right now. It's happening in very tangible ways. Oyster famers up in the Pacific Northwest are seeing changes in their farming activities, so these things are happening right now.

    I would say, though, next to the global climate change issue, which is sort of the mother of all issues for everything having to do with the future of our planet's ecosystem, fishing is really the most immediate thing. I've dedicated a lot of my time and interest to that issue because I believe it's the most immediate thing we can do something about.

    When you think about the human connection with ocean wildlife, what more basic relationship do we have beyond catching and eating fish? We've been doing it since the dawn of humanity, but we're no longer small bands of hunters and foragers. There are over six billion of us, and we're fishing at an industrial scale and often times in ways that are very damaging to habitats.

    So a lot of these issues -- there have been a lot of really great science done to really reveal what the situation is, how bad it is, over the past decade. But the public really often doesn't think that much about the impact of their seafood choices, so that nexus, that's what we've really been focusing on a lot, both through the Packard Foundation, on whose board I serve, but also here at the aquarium through programs like Seafood Watch.

    More answers from Julie Packard »

  2. Sylvia Earle Founder and President, The Sylvia Earle Alliance


    It's easy to think about what we're putting in -- all the carbon dioxide, the flow from the land, what we deliberately dump into the ocean, the plastics. What we're taking out of the ocean -- the magnitude of the disruption of the fabric of life in the sea, the food chains. But far and away, the most important problem is ignorance. It's lack of concern that people have about what we're doing to the ocean. We can solve these problems. And there is time -- not a lot -- if not to fix things in a way that they might have been, had we started 50 or 100 years ago.

    But we can certainly make things better than they are today, if we get busy and really address it, face up to it; understand the consequences to our economy, to our health, to our security, most fundamentally, to the existence of life itself. Nothing else matters more than taking care of the natural systems that make our life possible.

    More answers from Sylvia Earle »

  3. John O'Sullivan Curator of Field Operations, Monterey Bay Aquarium


    Not understanding the long term effects that we've already placed on the ocean, from the temperature and how it's affecting weather, to the pollutants, to understanding the trends that are happening in international places -- that we don't really understand how they're affecting our fisheries. You can do so much to protect white sharks along the eastern Pacific, and that can be eradicated because of global warming.

    It's some of these big things that are really the driver, they're really the snowball coming down the hill, and we're trying to plant trees, and that snowball, when it comes, that avalanche is going to take out all the good that people have spent lifetimes trying to build. The trouble is with those avalanches, they seem so hard for us as the general public to really champion and get engaged and have an effect, and so we find it almost overbearing where we lose hope.

    I think the other most important thing is for people not to lose hope because that's when -- I think that's our greatest fear: people giving up.

    More answers from John O'Sullivan »

  4. Bruce Robison Senior Scientist, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)


    Well, the litany is becoming pretty familiar, now. The ocean's warming up. That's changing the way that animals are distributed in the geographical sense and also in a vertical sense, in the water column. The ocean's becoming more acidic, which has a profound impact on the physiology of animals and on the deposition of coral reefs and on the ability of animals to form hard shells and all sorts of physiological processes going on in their bodies.

    The warmer the ocean gets, the less oxygen it can contain, and in addition to the oxygen problems caused by increasing temperature, we're seeing an expansion of regions called "oxygen minimum zones" in the oceanic water column. Oxygen minimum zones are regions between the surface and the deep sea floor -- sometimes narrow, sometimes pretty broad -- that have a very low level of oxygen.

    In recent years, those levels have been expanding vertically. The top and the bottom of them have been moving away from each other creating larger zones. The oxygen concentration at the core of these oxygen minimum zones is getting lower. It's approaching almost no oxygen at all. And in places like Oregon and in Mexico and in other parts of the world, these oxygen minimum zones that had been out in relatively deep water are impinging on the coastline, running up the continental shelf and occasionally coming inshore.

    More answers from Bruce Robison »

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