Importance of Natural Resources

Ocean Evolution Today: The Impact of Human Activities on the Evolution of Marine Organisms


Well, good afternoon, everyone. Thank you all for
being here tonight. Welcome to our last,
but by no means least, lecture on this series
on Evolution Matters. I’m curious, how many of
you have attended all four of these? Oh, yeah. Excellent. I guess me, too. Three. Two? How many of you spoke? [LAUGHTER] Excellent. It is my great pleasure to
welcome you all here tonight and to be the host and
facilitator of what will undoubtedly
be an exhilarating discussion on the impacts of
human activities on the ecology and evolution of our
ocean and its organisms. First, I’m going to
very briefly introduce our speakers, who
will in a few moments also introduce themselves
and their work, showing you a couple
of slides each. With us tonight,
on the end there, is Dr. Samantha Joye from
the University of Georgia. Next to her is Dr. Bruce Robison
from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. And next to Bruce is Dr. Randi
Rotjan from Boston University. Their research interests
span from the deep sea floor through the immense water column
and up into the coral reefs. And today, they will be
sharing their perspectives on the state of our ocean
and the extent to which our activities are shaping
the evolution of ocean species and, frankly, the
ecosystem as a whole. Before we get started, I
wanted to share a few thoughts with you basically to put
us all in the ocean mindset, so to speak. There’s nothing that sticks
more in people’s minds than facts that could
be useful in trivia. 99% of our Earth’s
habitable volume is ocean. The top 10 feet of our
ocean holds as much heat as the entire atmosphere. The largest animal ever to roam
in the ocean is the blue whale. That includes all the dinosaurs. This is the largest
animal ever and his heart is the size of a small car. Microbes abound in the ocean. There’s about 10 to
the twenty-seventh in total in our ocean. And if you put them end-on-end,
like a string of pearls, 10 to the twenty-seventh
microns of microbes would span the Milky Way galaxy. It’s a 105,000 light
years in length. The Great Barrier Reef is
the largest living structure on Earth, could be
seen from the moon. And seafood, of course, is one
of humankind’s most important sources of protein. Today 80% of the
world’s population lives within 60
miles of the coast. And yet over the past decade,
600,000 barrels of oil have been spilled
each year from ships. This isn’t big Deepwater
Horizon-type oil spills. This is from ships. Plastic kills about a million
seabirds and about 100,000 mammals each year. 60% of the world’s reefs
are at significant risk of being lost in the
next three decades. Commercially
valuable fish stocks have declined by as much as
90% in the last half century. And if you care little about
the animals and creatures of the ocean, which is
entirely in your prerogative, death and disease caused
by polluted coastal waters costs the US about
$13 billion a year. And the annual economic
impact of hepatitis alone from tainted seafood
is about $7 billion a year. OK. We’ve gone from interesting
facts to depressing ones. But rather than sit
here and just ruminate on these tidbits of
information, we’re excited to tackle
four questions, or to rather address and
focus on these four questions that you see in front of
you, as our talking points. I’m going to end up asking
each of the panelists to respond to each of these
questions in a few minutes, about three minutes an answer. And during that Q&A
session, if you’ve got a quick, short question,
please raise your hand and ask it. If you want something clarified
or you’re a little bit confused, please chime in. But our hope is to get
through the four questions so you all have an idea of
what their perspectives are and to leave some
time at the end to allow for a more
fruitful dialogue with you all, the audience,
so that you can ask more long-form
questions and we can really get into a discussion about
the state of our ocean today. So without any
further ado, I’m going to turn the microphone
over to Dr. Joye, who will start off by telling
us a bit about herself. Unless Mandy, you want to sit
there and I’ll do your slides. Either way. Because you’re on a mic. Your mic’s right there. I’ll do it from here. All right. Very well. There you go. Hi. First of all, I’d
like to thank Pete for inviting me to
be with you tonight. My name is Mandy Joye. I’m from the
University of Georgia. I’m a microbiologist
by training, but I also am a little
bit of a chemist. And I work on
perturbations in the ocean. And I’ve worked on
perturbations of various types throughout my career. I started off looking
at eutrophication in coastal systems, so
pollution in coastal systems. And then I started working on
oil and gas about 15 years ago. And the image up here in the
top left-hand part of the slide is the comparison
of a natural oil well, oil seep on the
seabed on the left panel, to the Deepwater
Horizon wellhead. The Deepwater Horizon,
actually today is the seventh anniversary
of the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout. 11 men died when
that rigged exploded. And over the course
of the next 84 days, around 200 million
gallons of oil were released into the ocean,
and around 500,000 metric tons of methane were
released in the ocean. That’s a massive,
massive perturbation, something unlike– nothing like that’s ever been
seen in the oceans before. And when we started working
on this particular problem, we were interested in how the
microbial community responded to the Deepwater Horizon
oil well blow out. And the thread of
my work is really how microbial populations,
the little worker bees that drive elemental
cycling on the globe, on land and in sea, are
affected by human perturbations. And I just put one little slide
on the bottom here that shows you sort of a species
transition diagram over time, going from before
the oil spill– we actually had a long-term time
series site about 10 miles away from the oil spill that we
sampled a month to the day before the well blew out– and the comparison of
one type of organism, cycloclasticus, which is an
oil degrading microorganism, and how the species distribution
changed throughout the oil spill. And what’s interesting
about this figure is that the little
light blue bars are the cycloclasticus that were
dominant before the oil spill. And they were able
to tolerate the oil infusion pretty effectively. They didn’t get replaced until
after the oil well was capped and the other parts of
the community had shifted, and the cycloclasticus
then shifted. And the normal
ecotype that we see, the little light blue bars, the
only place that we see them now are at natural seeps. We don’t see them anywhere
around the wellhead anymore. That population
has been replaced. And six years later, that
population is still the same. Now the other two
slides that I show– the other two
components of the slide, I’m not going to spend
a lot of time on– but the other two things that
we work pretty aggressively on is looking at habitat
destruction and species loss, mainly in the subtropics,
in Panama and Belize. Mangrove habitat destruction
is a huge problem in the subtropics. They do it for producing shrimp. They grow shrimp in
these fish ponds. They clear cut the mangroves. It has all kinds of implications
that we might have a chance to touch on later. And the final aspect
to my work that’s similar to the work we
do in the Gulf of Mexico, this is a picture
from the Arctic. And this is a time
series starting in 2005, on the top left. And you can see the
little white bars that I’ve spliced
the images together. These are in the same
region, and what you can see is that the red lines are
methane flares coming out of the sea floor. So this is a 10-year
record of increased methane flux in the Arctic that
you can see visually. So over the course of
10 years at one site, methane efflux from the
seabed is increasing. And that’s because
temperatures are warming and gas flux from the
bottom is increasing. And the question is, how does
the ocean respond to that? Can the organisms that live in
the ocean buffer the atmosphere and consume that gas
before it gets out? So I’ll stop there and
move it on to Bruce. Thanks, Mandy. Bruce, your slide’s up. Thanks. And I’m Bruce Robison. And I want to thank you
for bringing us together for this discussion. I call myself a
deep sea ecologist, but I’m just a Southern
California beach kid who kept going out
further and deeper. The deep ocean habitat,
that vast living space between the surface of the ocean
and the bottom, the deep sea floor, on a global average
is four kilometers deep. It is far and away the
largest living space on earth. And as a consequence, it’s
home to the largest animal communities and the largest
ecosystems on the planet. The greatest number of
animals on this planet live in that vast ecosystem. And it’s hugely important in
the entire biome, the living elements of our Earth,
because of its huge size, because of the
tremendous biomass of creatures that live there. And yet, because it is
inaccessible to us terrestrial air-breathing creatures,
it is largely unknown. And think about it,
in some respects, what must be the most
important, in terms of numbers of animals and biomass and size,
the most important ecosystems on the planet are
almost unknown. Because it’s very difficult to
be able to enter that habitat and to study it. We’ve been sampling the deep
sea for more than a century. But for the most part, we’ve
sampled it from the surface. Scientists on ships
reach down with nets, groping more or less
blindly, hauling up what they could catch and trying
to understand what was going on down in that immense
habitat, based on what they could haul up. If a forest ecologist
or desert ecologist were to presume to tell
you how forest or desert ecosystems work
without ever having visited the forest
or the desert, you might have reason to
be a little skeptical. And it was very dissatisfying
to be a deep sea ecologist without ever having
the chance to enter that realm. Well, a few years ago, we
were able to use technology to make the switch. The deep sea floor
had been accessible through submersibles,
like Alvin, for decades. But to work in the oceanic water
column, that huge living space, was really out of reach. So in the last 30
years, I’ve been using manned submersibles,
human occupied vehicles, like that little one-person
deep rubber submersible, and robotic vehicles, like this
ROV, remotely operated vehicle, Tiburon, to explore the
oceanic water column down beyond the depths where any
scuba diver could hope to go. We’ve made tremendous
discoveries about how the ocean works. Many of them have
surprised us tremendously. For example, while we had been
accustomed to the animals we could catch in nets– and
many of them are represented in the upper left there– hardbodied creatures,
like fishes and squids and crustaceans– many of those animals
were well known to us. But when we entered
the habitat and began to see it with our own eyes
and with high resolution video camera, we realized that the
nets had only been telling us part of the story. Gelatinous animals,
for example, are hugely important in the
economy and the ecology of this vast living space. And yet, because they’re
very fragile, soft bodied and delicate, our nets
had, for the most part, been destroying them. Many of us believed that
we had underestimated the total biomass of the
ocean by as much as a quarter, because we had biased
sampling methods that didn’t let us understand
everyone who lived there. Well, our ability
to enter the habitat and see things with
our own eyes and now to conduct manipulative
experimental research has radically changed
our perception of how the deep ocean works. We’re beginning to
understand patterns like animal behavior patterns. We can see the interactions
between species. We can measure
physiological processes in the natural habitat. The work that we’ve been doing
in Monterey Bay, where my home base is, is the only
place on the planet where this kind of research is being
conducted in a routine fashion. And yet, the kinds of
things we’re learning there have applications globally. And the purpose
of our institution is to combine science
and engineering to develop the kinds
of technology that will allow us to answer
questions that previously could not have been answered because
we lacked the technology to do it. And I’ll stop there. Randi? So I’m sensing a theme
a little bit, already, which is how hard it is to work
in some of the inaccessible places of the ocean. And I have it easy
by comparison. I work in shallow,
tropical coral reefs, which are scuba dive-able
depth, and in most places, many of you in the room
have probably been to one. How many people have
already snorkeled or seen a reef with their own eyes? Yeah, right. So you know how beautiful
and, to some extent, how accessible they can be. And of course, I couldn’t
keep it easy for myself. I had to take the hard
route and spin the globe and go to the other side,
the most inaccessible coral reef on the planet. And so I have the honor of
being the chief scientist of the Phoenix Islands
Protected Area, which is a place where the
International Date Line roughly meets the equator. So I call it X marks the spot. And it’s owned and operated
by a country that many of you have probably never heard of. But it’s the Republic
of “Kiribas,” spelled Kiribati on this map. It’s how it’s spelled. And they own more ocean area
than almost any other country. But yet, they have some
of the smallest land area. They’re a least
developed country, but they own these
three archipelagos. And you can see,
there are three– oop, we’re on the wrong
slide, there we go, that one– you can sort of
see where they are. And the Phoenix
Islands Protected Area, in this teal box in the
center, is roughly the size of California, for a sense
of scale and perspective. Or another way to phrase it
is all the New England states smushed together. So it’s a very large
ocean area and it’s an uninhabited archipelago,
which offers us an opportunity to take a look at
what’s happening without human
influence in a place that’s really
important globally, because it’s where the
hot spots in the Pacific form during El Nino events. And if you click, there should
be an animation that comes up. So this is sort of a
close up of the box, taking a look at what
happened right before and right after the closure. So if you take a
look on the left, you’ll see that each one
of those little lights represents a fishing
boat that was fishing for tuna in
the protected area prior to its closure. And on the right is the
same six-month period post full closure, showing
how effective this was. And so this is a really
important protected area, not only because of where
it sits geographically, but because it’s
actually protecting a place that needs protection. It is remote, but it
was heavily impacted. And so now, if you click
to the next slide, I hope– maybe the previous one, I don’t
know why they’re out of order. That one? Nope. The close-up, the very
first one where you were. Ah, sorry. Yep. That one. You should be able to see
that this is actually– this box represents not
just eight islands which have shallow tropical coral
reefs, where I’ve been spending most of my attention,
but it also has underwater mountain chains. On the left side, you can this
deep series of sea mounts. And it has a whole
lot of that open ocean habitat, that large living
space that Bruce was just talking about. And so it’s an opportunity
to take a look at what’s happening on a global
scale, using this as a natural laboratory
to look across all these habitats in a space
where humans are not having the same level
of local human impact. Again, in this area
the size of California, there are 24 people total
living on one island. And so this is really
a vast ocean area that I have been really
lucky to be a part of. And I’ve been working with
my colleagues across all of these different ecosystems
to try to stitch together the story of what’s been
happening over time and really what does the best case
scenario look like, meaning if every
space is protected, what can we learn from
the Phoenix Islands? So I’ll stop there,
just to keep it quick. Thank you, Randi. So let’s go ahead and get
started then with our questions here. We’ll start this one
off with Randi again. So the first question is, during
the course of your career, what are some of the biggest
changes, good and bad, you’ve seen firsthand
in marine ecosystems? So I’m going to give you the
coral reef perspective here. And I’ll give you the bad
first and the good second, so we can get the depressing
news out of the way. Of course, what I’ve
seen in my career to date has been the decline of
coral reef ecosystems. And this has been really global. So for example, even
just this year, 2017, you’ve seen the demise of
the Great Barrier Reef, the second third of it go. Whereas the first
third went last year. And so in a short
two-year period, we’ve seen a 2/3 decline
of the largest coral reef system on the planet. We have seen, even in the
Phoenix Islands Protected Areas, bleaching and
mortality on a scale that even if we look back
through collaborators and our collaborative
team, we’ve looked through coral cores. And in centuries, we
don’t think there’s ever been this scale of mortality
that we’ve seen happen in the last 10 to 15 years. And we’ve seen the demise
of the Belizean barrier. Everywhere I’ve worked,
it’s been the same story. There’s been a
decline and demise, and in different ways
and different spaces. It’s typically been because
of a mix of factors, which is really complicated. It’s usually– do
you know the phrase, luck favors the prepared? It’s kind of the opposite of
that, where these systems were primed for demise. They were already
being put up with or dealing with local pollution
and sedimentation stress and stress from– I mean these days now,
sunscreens and plastics and everything else that
we can possibly think of. And then there was a
single catalytic event, a major disease, a hurricane,
a bleaching event that really sort of caused a demise. And we lost what’s
called resilience of the system, where it was
harder for it to bounce back. So we’ve seen all that. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve helped to document it. And it’s awful. On the plus side,
what I have seen is I’ve seen some
spaces resist and I’ve seen some spaces recover. And in some cases, recover
more quickly than we ever could have imagined. And the Phoenix
Islands Protected Area is really one of
those cases where we saw one site go from 100%
coral cover to 100% mortality, and in a mere
six-year period bounce almost all the way back and
then resist the next bleaching event, suggesting that there are
mechanisms in play that where protection and remoteness
and potentially evolution, which we’re still
hoping to document, give these systems a chance
to recover and surprise us. And that has been really
hopeful and is a message that I’m holding on to. Well, just to be contrary,
I’ll start with the good first. Recently, we’ve
seen the development of marine sanctuaries. The Monterey Bay
National Marine Sanctuary is a huge swath of oceanic
water and coastline that has been established
and has played a large role in preserving and helping the
local ecosystem to recover. We’ve also seen proper
fishery regulation help the return of
commercial fishery stocks, like sardines and
salmon off California. There are successful recoveries. And the restoration of
commercial fisheries stocks and sustainable fisheries
is a good example of how we can make a difference
and how good changes are still taking place. On the other side, a lot of
organisms, a lot of animals are disappearing
from waters that we used to be able to
see them and fish them and where they
occurred in abundance. Back when I was a kid,
there were abundant abalone off the coast
of Southern California. Same for Pacific lobsters. They’re pretty much gone now. And those sorts of things are
not part of the community. Another problem
that we’re seeing that has more of an
impact on the deep ocean is invasive species. In the case of the
waters off California, we’ve seen invasions of a very
large, aggressive, pugnacious squid, the Humboldt
squid, or the jumbo squid. These animals ordinarily live
in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. And yet in recent
years, we’ve seen pulses of them moving north
into California waters, occasionally as far
north as Alaska. We ferreted out
the reasons that we believe that this has taken
place, and they are as follows. These animals evolved
to compete successfully in warm tropical waters with
relatively low oxygen content. We altered the
situation in waters that they didn’t
ordinarily inhabit. We’ve made the ocean warmer. We’ve reduced the
oxygen content. In addition, these
squid compete for food with animals like big tuna. And large pelagic
fishes, like tuna, also feed on the young squid. So we’ve altered the
situation off California to make that
environment far more appropriate to the
characteristics of this species of squid. So we’ve made it warmer. We’ve reduced the
oxygen. Physiologically, they are well adapted to
succeed in those conditions. Plus we’ve reduced
competition for food and reduced predation
on their young. And as a consequence,
there has been an explosion in that population. They’ve moved north
into California waters. It turns out that they’ve
also occupied comparable parts of the Southern hemisphere. And so one of the
risks we run is what we’ve seen when an
invasive species like dosidicus, the Humboldt squid,
expands its population. When they moved into California,
they virtually knocked off the commercial hake fishery. Because the jumbo squid
ate all of the hake. They also clobbered the
local market squid fishery. And there has been a lasting
impact from this invasion. So that’s a very large
change that we’ve been able to witness and to document,
along with what we think are the causes. And we’re also
seeing big changes in the overall composition
of communities, not as a result
of a single cause, like the expansion of
the squid population, but also subtle
changes that occur throughout entire communities. Big changes are taking
place, and in many cases, whether we realize
it or not, we are responsible for those changes. Well, they’ve touched on a lot
of the big issues, coral reefs, invasive species. This is a tough question,
because there are so many five-alarm fires
in the ocean today. I think that personally
for me, the biggest changes that I’ve seen that
have shocked me has been in the Arctic Ocean. Reductions in ice
cover and warming have led to not
only loss of habitat for charismatic fauna
like polar bears, but the entire food
web in the Arctic is shifting because
of the loss of ice. A lot of the phytoplankton,
the trees that produce oxygen in
the ocean, if you want to think about
it that way, they live associated with
ice in the Arctic. And when you take that ice
away, those ice algae disappear, so the entire food
web is compromised. And the Arctic ecosystem
is an incredibly special and amazingly beautiful
place that just in the 10 years that we’ve
been working up there has changed dramatically
and extensively and will only
continue to change. Because it’s warming
at a pace that’s significantly more rapid than
the majority of the ocean habitats. So that’s the bad. And I could go on and talk about
oil spills and eutrophication and red tides and
things like that. But I want to talk a
minute about the good. And Bruce mentioned marine
protected areas, MPAs. And I think that one of the
biggest challenges facing the oceans is overfishing. We’ve taken out a
lot of the big tuna, a lot of the big
commercial fish, whales. It’s really hard to
get an idea of what the whale populations were
like pre-human intervention. But you can almost
count on the fact that they were markedly
larger and more expansive than they are now. And it leads one to wonder,
what were the oceans like when you had these big charismatic
animals diving to depths of 1,000 meters and
pooping and recycling nutrients and transferring
materials top to bottom in ways that we can’t even fathom
today, because there’s such a tiny number of
these animals left. But the good is these
marine protected areas. And there’s a huge initiative
that the United Nations is pushing called the High
Seas Alliance, the High Seas Initiative, to essentially
help recover the ocean’s biomass in the high seas. And the high seas
are the areas that aren’t in the 200 nautical
mile EZs of country, the exclusive economic
zones of countries. So I think the High Seas
Alliance and the work that they’re doing to
basically restore ocean– open ocean habitats and increase
biodiversity in those habitats. We’ll probably never get back
to a pre-human condition, but anything we can do is
better than the situation now. And the results
that have occurred in places like the
Phoenix Islands and other of these
large MPAs suggest that these sorts of efforts
are so, so worth it. And not only do you see
effects within the MPAs, but it bleeds out across
the edges of the MPA. So you get a increased
habitat health coefficient, or however you want
to think about it, even outside the boundaries
of the protected areas. So it’s something that’s
a global movement. I think that most countries
have bought into it and are pursuing it, especially
the Pacific Island nations. I think they’re
the most aggressive in terms of pushing out
policies towards improving health of the open ocean. But I think it’s something
that gives me a lot of hope for the future of the health of
the ocean is that we’re putting so much effort into doing this. But I think to really
make a difference, we’re going to have to hit
a point of 20% or 30% MPA within the next decade to really
prevent catastrophic damage to the system. Can you, in one sentence–
we’ll start with Mandy– what’s one way in which the ocean
supports humankind that most people might not think of? Make it two sentences,
if you have to. [CHUCKLING] What’s one way in which
it supports humankind? So the oceans, I
think of the oceans as sort of a
planetary thermometer. And most people– I cannot do this
in two sentences. It’s impossible. So you think about
all the things the ocean gives us, oxygen,
seafood, aesthetic pleasure. We cruise around and
we see blue water. Water is intoxicating to humans. It’s just comforting and
it gives us pleasure. And we feel safe and
happy when we’re out on the water, most people. And I think that if
I had to say the one thing that the ocean gives us
that people don’t think of, it’s the– I would say the kidney function,
the cleansing function. The oceans recycle materials. They remove toxins
like fertilizers. They serve as– they’re not
just a planetary thermometer, they’re a planetary
cleansing agent. They’re vital for the
survival of not only humans, but everything
else on the planet. The microbes will be
here long past humans. But if we want to
survive, we’ve got to keep the oceans
healthy, period. A way that the
oceans influence us that most people are unaware
of concerns CO2 flux. We’re all familiar these
days with the concerns about the carbon balance, carbon
dioxide balance, atmosphere and ocean. Before it became a real issue,
a major controlling factor that brought carbon dioxide
and organic carbon out of the atmosphere and into
the ocean were the migrations, vertical migrations of
trillions of small animals, fish no bigger than this, little
shrimps no bigger than that, that take place
on a daily basis. It’s called, in our
world, the carbon pump. There are uncountable
numbers of animals that live in the oceanic water column. And a great percentage of them,
perhaps at least half of them, spend the daytime hours
in deep, dark water, hiding from visually
cued predators. At night, when
the sun goes down, they move up into the surface
layers to feed in the darkness. This daily shift of biomass up
and down in the water column, covering 500, 600, 700 meters,
is the largest mass migration on earth. And by animals moving up
into the surface layers, feeding, moving down to depth
during the day and pooping, they bring carbon,
organic carbon, out of the surface
waters and down into the mid waters and
then helping to sequester it on the sea floor. This carbon pump
is a basic feature, a global feature of this
planet, that I think most people are unaware of. I’m so sorry I’m going
last on this question, because I fully agree with
what both of you said. So I think what
I’m going to do is answer this question by creating
a placeholder for the unknown. So I think a lot
of the major things that the ocean has done for
us are things that really are discoveries that
have taken place in just the past few decades. And I think that the ocean
is a vast ecosystem which has so many undiscovered
species, or at least in the process of discovery,
and many, many more which we haven’t even begun to touch. We don’t fully understand
the microbial world. We don’t fully understand
the large portions of the ocean which have yet
never even been seen by humans. And so I want to leave a
placeholder for the things that the oceans might do
for us that we don’t even discover yet, or haven’t
even discovered yet. And I think that
that’s really important to leave a place
for that discovery, because oceans are probably
doing more than we can even recognize to this date. Yeah, yeah. That’s great. And just to provide an
example of what Randi was just alluding to,
hydrothermal vents were discovered in the late 1970s. And since then,
we’ve viewed them as these really interesting
and exotic hot spots, literally and metaphorically. You have communities of
animals there that we had not expected and so on. But studies of the
emissions from these vents in recent years
suggests that they are significant in providing
the ocean with some of the trace metals that
is essential for all life. So let me put it another way. Hydrothermal vents are kind of
like the ocean’s multi-vitamin. So they are releasing
metals, like iron and so on, that are critical for
a lot of the plankton that Penny spoke about in
our first lecture series, for example, that produce
half the oxygen you breathe. And that’s what
Randi is alluding to. There are these processes, as
we continue our exploration and study of the ocean,
we begin to realize that, in fact, the things
that we most relate to, whether it’s a tuna
or a coral reef, are inextricably linked
to the processes that are even happening in the
deepest, darkest ocean. And we, of course,
are linked to them. So there’s no escape, folks. We’re all part of this. It’s true. Thanks. Those are great. To give you all a
chance to ask questions, and just keeping an eye on the
time, question number three was about assuming that
we don’t do anything to reduce atmospheric CO2, what
other measures can we take? I’d like to suggest we skip
that and kind of roll it into some of the answers or
questions you may all ask. And let’s just hop to
the fourth question, after which we hear
from our panelists, we’ll turn it over to you all. And this one is, we talk a lot
about the impact of climate change and its impact on
species and ecosystems. But just to be clear, it’s
not likely to wipe out all life in the ocean. What we’re talking
about is that it’s going to really drastically
change our biosphere. So if humankind simply
continues on its current path for the next 150 or
more years, the question I have for the panel
is, how will marine life evolve in response to this
new world ocean, as it were? What kinds of animals
might we expect to see and which ones are at
risk of being gone? So why don’t we
do something fun? Let’s start from the middle
this time, with Bruce, and then we’ll go to
Mandy and then Randi. OK. Nasty prediction time. If we don’t do something
about the way we’re heading, we’re going to see massive
changes in the composition and structure of these
vast oceanic ecosystems that I’m talking about. The jumbo squid that I talk
about as an invasive species moving into
California and in Peru are an example of a species that
is able to reproduce rapidly, grow quickly, has a
very large brood size and a short reproductive cycle. Lots of animals
like that are poised to move into
ecological niches that are being vacated by animals
that we overfish or drive out because of pollution or for
any number of other factors. And chief among the threats
are gelatinous animals. I mentioned briefly, the
scope of gelatinous animals out there in the deep
ocean is incredible. All sorts of different
kinds of animals, carnivorous predatory
animals, as well as grazing animals that feed
on phytoplankton and small particles. If we continue to alter the
composition and structure of these oceanic ecosystems,
what we’re going to see is that opportunistic
species, like jellies, jellies of all kinds– I can say the names,
they won’t make much of a difference– but
Medusa, Tinafor, siphonophores, larvaceans, salps, doleolids,
all of these gelatinous animals have the ability to move into
niches previously occupied by fishes, squids, shrimps,
and other long lived, slowly reproducing animals
and displace them and then hold onto those niches such
that the entire structure of these communities is changed. So one of the big threats
that we can anticipate, we can predict, but
without any great authority about what’s going to
happen where and when, is that these
opportunistic species are going to move
in and take over the ecological roles
of other species that we influence through
our anthropogenic activities. I’ll just add a
couple of thoughts, because that’s spot on. I think that one of the big
changes that’s happening even now is that as the oceans
are pushed and pressed and stressed, the heat content
of the ocean has increased. If it weren’t for the
oceans, the heat content in the atmosphere would be
so much more than it is now. Most of the heat
that has accumulated through global warming
is held in the oceans. And that heat is causing
increased stratification. It’s causing lower oxygen levels
and all kinds of other effects. And that leads to what
Bruce was talking about, these changes in
habitat quality which removes species that were living
in what was an optimized habit, but no longer is, and the
invasion of these opportunists. But along those
same lines, there will be some habitats
that are essentially uninhabitable for most organisms
other than microorganisms. So even jellyfish need oxygen.
So the low oxygen, anoxic, you’ve all, I’m sure, heard
about these dead zones that occur globally. There’s a huge one
in the Gulf of Mexico that’s about the size
of two Rhode Islands. And it has been expanding rather
consistently over the past 20 years or so. And we’ve been working there
for the past six years. And what we’ve seen
has just blown me away. Because when you go there in
the summer and it’s stratified and it’s anoxic, you
see phytoplankton in a thin layer in
the top meter or two. But then below that,
it’s all microorganisms. There’s just nothing except
microbes in that water. There’s no copepods. There’s no shrimp. There’s no fish. When you go to the bottom,
there’s no worms in the seabed. It’s just been abandoned. It’s like an abandoned building
in the worst part of New York City. And it’s uninhabitable to
anything except microorganisms. And like I said before, the
microbes will outlast us all, because they can adapt. There are microbes that can live
in just about any condition. But when you think about
the quality of life in the ocean for organisms,
it’s being degraded at a rate that I don’t think most
people can’t even fathom. And if you haven’t
seen it firsthand, it’s hard to believe
when someone tells you. Like when someone says, oh,
the Arctic can’t be that bad. Well, if you see
it, is that bad. But if you don’t
see it and you just see a picture of a polar bear
on a little teeny iceberg, you feel bad for the polar bear. But when you realize
that that’s what’s happening throughout the Arctic,
then it’s a really bad thing. So I think we’re moving towards
an ocean dominated by smaller organisms, like microbes,
and by these taxa that can– sort of the
cockroaches, if you will. I hate to call– I love jellyfish. But they’re kind of
like cockroaches. They’ll survive a
nuclear holocaust. And they can do
just about anything. But they don’t serve
that vital function that fish serve in the ocean. So changing the
functionality is going to change the ocean, as Randi
alluded to earlier, in ways that we can imagine,
but in trajectories that we certainly can’t predict. I think the thing
to add to that– I’d agree with both of you,
it’s completely spot on– is two things. One, alluding to what
your comment earlier, I love that analogy of the
kidney function of the ocean, the cleansing of the ocean,
is that right now there’s a lot of invertebrates, a lot
of animals who are constantly feeding and moving particles,
moving organic matter and nutrients through the water. And as we get replacement
by jellies and by bacteria in some of these more oceanic
habitats and coral reefs, in particular, we’re going
to see a rise in seaweeds. And those are
fundamentally different. They’re plant material, as
opposed to animal material. And we’re going to see a
loss of ecosystem function, as these– there’s a really
famous paper out there that coined this phrase the
slippery slope to slime. And we’re going to start– I think that’s
kind of what we’re all sort of describing
in various ways, in seaweeds and in jellies. And we’re going to see
a lot more of that. And it’s not just the loss
of these beautiful animals that we love, but
it’s, of course, the loss of all of that
ecosystem functioning and all of those
important processes that we just discussed earlier. And one of the
things to me that’s the scariest about these changes
is that some of these changes might still be beautiful. And so you might jump in the
water and see a sea of jellies and say, oh, my
god, it’s gorgeous, look how much
lives in the ocean. Or you might jump on a coral
reef, a former coral reef, and say, look, there’s
still a coral there, and look at all these
beautiful seaweeds, and look, I see a fish. Isn’t this great? And I’m a mother and I
worry that my children are going to jump in
the ocean and not know what they lost
because they’re going to still see something
that is reminiscent of what it used to be. And that concept is
called shifting baselines, and it’s something that I think
is genuinely scary because it is hard to get under the water. Many of you have snorkeled
the reef, and bravo, I’m so glad that you have. And I would kill to have seen
a reef 50 years ago, or 80 years ago or 100 years
ago or 500 years ago. And I wonder 150 years
from now, if people will want to see it
just 150 years ago and not know what it would have
even been like before that. And so this change in ocean
ecosystems in some ways to us is so dramatic. But I worry that
in other ways, it may be perceived
as subtle or minor. And I don’t know, that’s– I hope that– I think we are going to
see a change in organisms, and I hope we’re smart
enough to recognize it. And just to bring it
all back to humankind, for the sake of those who
may not be as in love with the ocean and its
critters as we are– although I’d be surprised if
there are any of you in this audience– it is important to remember
that humankind really does depend on the ocean. And when you– and
I don’t just mean so that you can go fishing
and eat something, although that is a huge
part of humankind’s protein, on the whole,
comes from seafood. Some estimates put it at about
80%, as I showed earlier. But it’s also
important to remember that going back to the unknowns
that Randi had referred to before, I would suggest
that it’s important for us to recognize that while we
may not understand everything in the ocean, that
is no excuse to not exhibit a degree of concern. And by analogy, I often like
to think of this as insurance on your car. Paying for car insurance
seems like a waste of time until you need it. And it’s easy to think, well,
you know, this might not happen or that might not happen. And we tend to have
those arguments a lot. What if climate change isn’t
as bad as we think it is? For those of us who look at the
data, that’s hard to believe, but there is that what if. And I think, to me, thinking
about the future of the ocean, being incredibly mindful of
the value that we know that it plays and being mindful of the
fact that it may very well be doing a lot more than
we realize and that we may be in a really bad way
if we let things get too far, is a very rational approach
to mitigating risk for people, again, if nothing else. And I think that’s
something that we should keep in the back of our minds.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *