Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Possible Ocean Extinctions

The Washington Post has an article regarding possible new extinctions in our oceans. Many marine biologists believe that the world is about to witness a major wave of extinctions among fish, marine mammals, pelagic birds, and other creatures. Several factors are involved, from a rise in ocean temperatures to loss of coastal habitat:

But nothing has pushed marine life to the edge of extinction more than aggressive fishing. Aided by technology -- industrial trawlers and factory ships deploy radar and sonar to scour the seas with precision and drag nets the size of jumbo jets along the sea floor -- ocean fish catches tripled between 1950 and 1992.

In some cases, fishermen have intentionally exploited species until they died out, such as the New Zealand grayling fish and the Caribbean monk seal; other species have been accidental victims of long lines or nets intended for other catches. Over the past two decades, accidental bycatch alone accounted for an 89 percent decline in hammerhead sharks in the Northeast Atlantic.

The loss of fish, of course, affects the rest of the underwater ecosystem as well. Sharks also are in major, again in part because of overhunting. But it seems unlikely that the threatened species will receive protection anytime soon:

Despite scientists' warnings, American and international authorities have been slow to protect marine species. The only U.S. saltwater fish to make the protected list is a ray, the smalltooth sawfish, which was added in 2003.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service is charged with protecting 61 threatened or endangered marine species. Director Bill Hogarth said his agency focuses on protecting vulnerable populations so they will not have to be listed.

"That's our job -- to make sure species don't wind up on the endangered species list," he said.

But conservationists said NOAA officials are reluctant to classify fish as endangered because doing so conflicts with the agency's mission of promoting commercial fishing.

Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist at the advocacy group Oceana, said he has repeatedly seen government officials provide shifting estimates of how many threatened or endangered sea turtles can acceptably die each year in eastern scallop fisheries.

"You never get an answer to the question how many turtles would have to be killed before you would say, 'That's not okay,' " he said.

The prediction of a new wave of extinctions may not come to fruition, and I hope that it does not. But even if it does not, I fear that we may be headed towards a situation in which populations have dwindled to such an extent that species cannot support themselves without aggressive protection. And that type of situation would not be good for either the animals or for humans.