Once upon a time, perhaps less than a generation ago, we thought of our oceans as being so vast that they would be invulnerable to any of man’s influences from over-fishing, climate change or ceaseless pollution. With 70% of our planet covered by oceans, some as deep as our Grand Canyon, we thought even the most crass abuse of these endless waters would be absorbed by natural cycles of recovery and resiliency.
What were we thinking? Emerging scientific findings reported here in this special newspaper report and elsewhere are proving the opposite to be true. Instead of being less susceptible to man-made environmental degradation and pollution, it turns out our oceans have been taking the full brunt of climate change, new biochemical imbalances and mounting chains of ecological catastrophes and chain sequences of stressors.
There is a global crisis with the warming, acidification and pollution of all of our oceans. Much worse, there is also a very local, accelerating catastrophe taking place with our own oceanic waters — our Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin coast. We had plenty of warning signs, but they have failed to reveal the more complete story. The closing of our sport fishing abalone season, the sudden disappearance of sea stars from our rocky shores, increased toxic algae blooms and weatherman notes about about El Niños and “warm blobs,” — none of that has been enough to wake us up to what we are now calling our “Deep Trouble.”
Local marine biologists at the Bodega Marine Laboratory and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) have a different name for this ecological crisis. To them, our local ocean has been hit with a “perfect storm.” A set of large-scale ecological impacts has almost totally destroyed the undersea ecosystem previously anchored by vast kelp forests. In less than a decade the once-teeming and lush habitat is 93% gone, replaced by barren zones, overtaken by unwanted predator species, and resembling an underwater moonscape.
Imagine if our Northern California coastal redwood forests were to die off or disappear in less than a decade. This dead zone would mean a loss for nearly all companion plants and dependent forest creatures such as deer, squirrels, birds and small mammals. This nightmarish scene would confront us on our daily commute and travels. We’d be compelled to action, as we have mounted in the wake of our wildfires. The stark difference with our collapsing ocean is it lies deep under water where only few have ventured to see it.
Our reach of the Pacific Ocean has always gone through natural cycles of temperature and current flow changes, emerging or re-balancing of fisheries, invertebrate populations and predator activity. El Niños and toxic algae blooms are part of a natural cycle. But this time many of these “stressors” have occurred at the same time and many scientists are now worried that our ocean may not be able to heal itself this time. The warm water shocks of both 2014 and 2015 pushed our coastal water temperatures to record high levels. All ocean species are very sensitive to temperature changes and warmer water holds low amounts of the nutrients the kelp plants and forest habitat species require.
Already this collapse has led to socioeconomic impacts to our local sport and commercial fisheries, not the least of which is the total loss of the annual sport abalone season. CDFW monitors and volunteers are in the early stages of spreading warnings and conducting public education and awareness programs. Early experiments with replanting the bull kelp plants and eradicating the voracious purple urchin predator are just beginning. Scientists fear our ocean may be facing an extended period of uncertain recovery — and one that cannot be successful without human intervention.
In other words, our “deep troubles” may only be beginning. We urge everyone to become more informed and not allow this ecological crisis to remain invisible.