Loading the ocean economy to collapse


As far as I could tell, I was the only one on the block who got through the winter without a snow blower or a contract with a plow-truck owner.

Sure, my shoveling saved some fossil fuel but I couldn’t resist checking out the online classifieds for plow-trucks. And I found one that looked pretty good. It was on Campobello. So I set up a time to see it. The truck was less than I’d expected, but the owner was a nice guy, a fisherman.

He talked about fishing. He was shrimping now, he said, but wasn’t much money in it. He’d only made 500 bucks this year—though last year’s lobster season had been good. Without unemployment insurance he didn’t know how he would have made it.

Good for him, I thought, that our provincial political rep is also a fisherman from nearby Campobello Island. But then again, politicians don’t grow fish. Or do they?

On the way back I tuned the radio to David Suzuki and the young Canadian movie star Ellen Page, who played the lead in the hit movie Juno. One of her comments caught my attention. She said, “The oceans today have more acidity than in the last 20 million years.” Could that be true, I wondered.

So I did a quick search on the Net to see if she got her fact straight. Turns out she did. A 2009 National Geographic report quoted Thomas Lovejoy (the former chief biodiversity advisor to the World Bank), who said, “the acidity of the oceans will more than double in the next 40 years. This rate is 100 times faster than any changes in ocean acidity in the last 20 million years, making it unlikely that marine life can somehow adapt to the changes.”

Oh-oh. Sounds a bit ominous. And it is. Because it turns out we’re causing it. As we cough out more carbon dioxide through our collective smokestacks and tailpipes, the world’s oceans absorb more than 25 percent of all the CO2 we generate. It does this through the magic of biological and solubility pumps.

But thanks to fossil fuel we’re pushing out more CO2 than the ocean can absorb.

And our total output of CO2 is somewhere north of 30 billion tonnes a year. All that CO2 upsets the natural chemical balance of the ocean, creating—acidity.

Here’s what good old Wikipedia has to say about the effects: “research from the University of Bristol, published in the journal Nature Geoscience in February 2010, compared current rates of ocean acidification with the greenhouse event at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, about 55 million years ago when surface ocean temperatures rose by 5-6 degrees Celsius, during which time no catastrophe is seen in surface ecosystems, yet bottom-dwelling organisms in the deep ocean experienced a major extinction.”

That isn’t all. The Wiki page went on to say, “the current acidification is on path to reach levels higher than any seen in the last 65 million years. The study also found that the current rate of acidification is “ten times the rate that preceded the mass extinction 55 million years ago,” and Ridgwell [prof., U of B] commented that the present rate "is an almost unprecedented geological event.” A National Research Council study released in April 2010 likewise concluded that “the level of acid in the oceans is increasing at an unprecedented rate.”

This projection seems to jibe with an earlier report from Dalhousie’s Dr. Boris Worm, who was pilloried for his prediction a few years ago that the world’s fishery would collapse by 2048.

This isn’t the first time human technology will have wiped out a fishery (though it would certainly be the most catastrophic).

From 1960 to 1990 the world’s high-tech factory trawler fleet wiped out the Atlantic cod fishery. Instead of heeding the advice of local in-shore fisherman who foresaw the collapse in their declining catches in the early 1980s, the Canadian government and its Department of Fisheries and Oceans kept the industry going until 1992 before declaring a total moratorium. By that time, as we all know, it was too late. And the cod stocks have yet to recover.

Turns out that a quicker response by Canadian politicians may have resulted in a lot more fish today.

Instead, some 12,000 to 20,000 people lost their livelihoods and the federal government spent an estimated $2 billion in social welfare to offset the economic carnage.

Well, here we are, 20 years into the future, and it’s déjà vu all over again. And it’s not just the fishery we’re going to lose this time. CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change will disrupt just about everything we do on the planet. If ever there was a time for politicians to take action, it’s now. But it’s clear they won’t, at least not in time.

The collective environmental problem seems just too big for politicians to wrap their tiny heads around. How could our local politician, the fisherman, possibly convince his esteemed colleagues that New Brunswick has to completely reinvent itself to build a new post-climate change, post-fossil fuel economy?

Not that I’d discourage him trying. In fact I’d gladly roll up my sleeves and help. And I’d bet there are a few unemployed fishermen who might, too. Before it’s too late.


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