“The ocean is life itself. This life is threatened by people’s very reckless and careless activities without thinking about the impact and without considering that it is a living organism, a living system. And given the wrong inputs system can be killed.”
That says the US special envoy for climate, John Kerry. He is currently attending the Our Ocean Conference in Panama, which aims to bring the threats to the world’s oceans to the fore. Only speak to news week Ahead of the conference, the former foreign secretary warned that the impact we’re seeing now is right on our doorstep – and that includes dead zones “where nothing lives”.
As climate change worsens, dead zones are emerging across the world’s oceans. These dead zones are created when there is a lack of oxygen in the water due to nitrate loading, a phenomenon known as hypoxia. Nitrates are natural chemicals found in air, soil and water. They are also common components of fertilizers. Nitrates are essential for the growth of plants and animals. As concentrations rise, they can promote the growth of aquatic plants and algae, leading to excess dissolved oxygen uptake. The effects of this can be devastating to ecosystems and harmful to human health.
Nitrates can enter water from runoff from manure soils, landfills, sewage and city drainage. All of this can get into the oceans.
Lack of oxygen kills most marine life.
“There is a huge nitrate overload that robs the water of oxygen. That’s why there are over 400 dead zones around the world with nothing living in them,” Kerry said news week. “In our case, at the mouth of the Mississippi, there is a huge zone. Nothing lives in there. And it all comes from construction plants on land. Gas stations are overflowing, the rain is pouring into the water. Plastic, microplastics, they all create an incredible amount of pollution in the ocean that it just can’t handle.”
This dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River is in the northern Gulf of Mexico. It varies in size but can reach up to 7,000 square miles.
The largest dead zone in the world is in the lower part of the Black Sea. It occurs naturally and is not man-made. Oxygen is found only in the upper part of the sea. Dead zones have also been identified in the United States in the Pacific Northwest and along the Elizabeth River in Virginia Beach.
A 2022 study led by scientists at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science was the first to link hypoxia to red tide blooms on Florida’s west coast. Red tides are harmful algal blooms that can kill fish, birds, and other marine life.
Dead zones can occur naturally and can be due to a variety of biological and chemical factors. But human activities are likely exacerbating the problem, with nutrient pollution being the main culprit.
Climate change is causing numerous problems to the world’s oceans, dead zones are just one of them. The ocean absorbs about 90 percent of Earth’s warming. This is causing a variety of problems, including melting sea ice in the Arctic and rising sea levels.
“The effects of climate change are enormous [in the oceans] because all the chemistry of the ocean is being altered as a result of ocean warming. So are the particles from pollution, which are greenhouse gases,” Kerry said.
“When greenhouse gases pollute, they rise into the atmosphere, they travel around the planet. When it rains, they fall into the ocean. And this massive increase in acidity is literally changing the chemistry of the ocean. So you’re going to see that coral reefs are changing, you’re going to see that fishing is changing.”
When the ocean is in bad shape, life on earth suffers. About half of all oxygen on earth comes from the sea.
“My biggest concern is that human activity on a global scale is threatening the ocean. It’s an ecosystem. And that ecosystem is under total attack,” Kerry said.
Overfishing is also a big problem. Fishing brings billions of dollars to the US economy, but there are problems keeping it sustainable. Commercial fishing is one of the main causes of declining wildlife populations in the oceans, WWF previously reported.
“There are fishing vessels around the world, many of them illegal, and they are fishing illegally, unreported, in areas where you are not allowed to fish,” Kerry said. “For example, they use fishing gear like driftnets, which are prohibited, and they just go by the ocean. Two-thirds of what they pull out in their notes, they throw away, and fish stocks are seriously threatened. Planet as a result.”
Globally, around 34.2 percent of fisheries are overfished, data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) previously reported.
Overfishing can destroy marine habitats and ecosystems. When large numbers of fish are removed from habitat, food webs can be disrupted, resulting in a lack of prey for other marine species. Ocean ecosystems are delicately balanced and can change dramatically when fish are removed from the oceans faster than they can reproduce.
“There are unknowns, but there is also a vast body of information that tells us that we are ruthlessly treating the ocean with a kind of devotion that threatens our own lives and life itself.”
How can things change?
A survey reported by The economist in 2021 it showed that 83 percent of the population is concerned about the ocean, with 26 percent saying they are very concerned.
But getting people to care enough to initiate meaningful change is still a long way off.
“Engaging people is the same challenge you face today with almost any political issue,” Kerry said. “First of all, people don’t like politics. It’s understandable why. Second, many people feel they don’t have time. Third, they don’t feel like they have the power and ability to change things. I think this is a mistake. I think everyone has power. But in many cases there is only a feeling of helplessness.”
Between the war in Ukraine, gas prices, bills and “all the other things that people face on a daily basis,” Kerry said, it’s still difficult for people to feel empowered.