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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#400: The Un-Whole Water Planet

This week's column raises the total to 400 in my effort to increase awareness of the uniqueness of the critters and ecosystems found in our incredible kelp forests off Catalina and the rest of southern California. I've spent the past 41 years here on the island educating people about the wonders in our waters, starting with teaching marine biology on SCUBA at the former Catalina Island School, Toyon Bay. Other efforts have included my work with Jean-Michel Cousteau and his father, The Captain, beginning in the mid 70s; consulting for the SCICo on information for its tour operations in the 1980s; and my "Dive Dry with Dr, Bill" cable TV shows the past two decades.

These efforts are important to me despite the very minimal financial rewards. I have always sought out work I could believe in rather than make me rich (other than in experiences). One of the things that has pleased me the most is when a non-diving local store owner, checker at Vons, fisherman, or visitor to our island tells me how much they enjoy the columns. It is reaching these non-divers that is my primary goal since they do not generally see the wonders first hand. Jacques Yves Cousteau often used a quote that originated in a 1968 speech by the Senegalese poet and environmentalist Baba Dioum before the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Dioum said "In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will only understand what we are taught." My mind could not come up with a better statement of my "porpoise" in life. I thought I'd repeat it here just for the halibut.

Within a few decades, my time on this Earth will be over and I'll head to that "great dive site in the sky..." or become food for other critters. The recent birth of my grand daughter Allison gives me a new reason to work harder towards the goal of helping people understand the tremendous pressures we have placed on our life support system, the Water Planet. I do this in hopes that more people will become informed about the effect of these stressors on our natural ecosystems, and work towards relieving them and restoring health and balance to our oceans (and the measly 29% of the planet that is "land"). I watched the movie "Avatar" twice recently, and find it to be a good allegory intended to open our eyes to the deterioration of our own planet. Hmmm... Neytiri was pretty easy on the eyes, too. Maybe I was born into the wrong species.

I arrived on Catalina August 24, 1969, aboard the dive boat Golden Doubloon. That was just over a month after Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, and pictures of the "whole Earth" became even more popular (although the one many use was taken three years later in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17). Stewart Brand had published the Whole Earth Catalogue the previous fall, and environmentalists like myself began gearing up for the first Earth Day the following spring. It was a time of optimism due to the growing awareness of the environmental issues facing our planet. In our youth, my generation was activist in nature, both in politics and the environment. We had the sense that great things could be achieved through education, awareness and action. Unfortunately, most of us "grew up" after we turned the dreaded 30.

I recently attended Scott Cassell's talk on the Humboldt squid, environmental issues facing the oceans, and "Expedition Catalina" (http://www.underseavoyagerproject.org/) to occur this fall around our island. This talk was arranged by the Conservancy, and the "Expedition Catalina" project has other primary supporters in the SCICo and the Catalina Chamber of Commerce. Scott made an important point with which I concur. It is largely my generation which, instead of fixing these problems, further exacerbated them by turning, out of economic necessity or self indulgence with material possessions, away from our former altruistic goals. And it is upon the current generation of youth that the mantle will fall and with it the responsibility of addressing the wrongs of my generation.

The economic disasters of the previous two years (I prefer to think the last three decades) have taken center stage in most of our lives because they directly, and often very seriously, affect us. Economic systems are human constructs... we devised them, and yet we cannot even control them. Too often our ultimate support systems, those of the natural world, take second place because we do not see the connection between our lives and that world. That's especially hard to do when so many are cooped up on cement cities and get their food in cans, boxes or wrapped in cellophane. Believe me, it is there... in the air that we breathe, in the food that we eat and in the water that we drink. Whether we realize it or not, these things depend to a very large extent on the health of our oceans.

Scott raised many interesting points. His focus was on the Humboldt squid, a formerly southern species that has entered our waters and has expanded its range as far north as Alaska in recent years. However, he also used this "invasion" as a metaphor for the problems our seas are experiencing. Both Scott and I remember the days when sharks were very abundant off the southern California coast. Now it is a rarity to see a blue or a mako. Scott believes that the demise of the sharks as predators opened up an ecological niche for another predator, the squid, to enter our waters. These animals are already believed to have devastating impacts on fish populations and fisheries along the West Coast. This is an example of what marine scientists like myself call "ecological replacement."

Scott also talked about the increase in the acidity of the oceans due to the absorption of increased carbon dioxide, likely from human industrial and domestic sources. While many "poo poo" the concept of global warming (or, more accurately, global climate change), there is pretty overwhelming evidence from a wide variety of scientific studies that it indeed is occurring. The media sometimes state that the scientific community debates this, but our "verdict" overwhelmingly supports it... if you discount those "scientists" employed or funded by the energy industry. Reminds me of the tobacco "scientists" who claimed cigarettes weren't addicting or carcinogenic.

Why should we care about ocean acidification? Coral reefs are like marquee species, beloved by many who see their beauty, even by non-divers who only experience them through film footage. An ocean that is increasingly acidic affects the ability of corals to produce their calcium carbonate homes and therefore the reefs. Other critters with hard shells such as oysters, clams and possibly lobster may similarly be impacted, thus affecting food sources for other marine life... and us. You reply "We can eat pigs and chickens and cattle..." but did you realize that many of the food sources used to raise them domestically actually come from the sea? If that doesn't concern you, acidification also affects certain plant plankton which may be responsible for producing as much as 71% of Earth's oxygen. Take a deep breath now... how long can you hold it?

Scientists are well aware that human impacts have triggered an exponentially increasing rate of extinction among many life forms in the sea and on land. Some previous major extinction events have also involved very short-term, catastrophic events like the impact of a meteor that brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs. However, the normal background rate at which species go extinct over time is far lower than the observed rate over the last 150 years. We need this biodiversity to help ensure the stability of the Water Planet's ecosystems... and therefore us. As we diminish biodiversity, we reduce the effectiveness of the food webs we are a part of. There are many who disagree, but scientific facts substantiate that we have over-hunted and over-fished our planet with devastating effects, bringing a number of species like the blue fin tuna to near extinction... while others have already vanished down that slippery slope

Human transportation systems such as commercial jets and cargo ships or oil tankers have also brought about the invasion of species from areas where they are native to areas where the existing plant and animal life may have no natural defenses against them. A classic example of this were the feral pigs and goats that populated our island, impacting its indigenous species and food webs. These animals are not even native to the western hemisphere, but were brought to the New World from Europe as early as Columbus' time. Another example is the rapid invasion of Catalina waters by the Japanese seaweed Sargassum horneri (= filicinum). This species arrived on a ship that left a Japanese port about 2003 headed for Long Beach, and began invading Catalina two years later. It now dominates the nearshore waters less than 80 feet deep during the colder months and even out competes our native giant kelp.

As if those problems weren't enough, the recent Gulf oil "spill" has refocused our attention on the harmful chemicals introduced into our waters by human activity. Not only is oil, and associated chemicals like benzene, deadly to marine life (and humans!), the chemical dispersants used to fight the oil are far more toxic than our government was willing to admit early on. We will be assessing the impacts of this spill for decades. Current reports do seem to suggest things are clearing up more quickly than expected which is good news. Even seemingly "innocent" chemicals like fertilizer (and pesticides) used in agriculture drain from the entire center of the country, are carried down the Mississippi River, and spill out into the Gulf off Louisiana ultimately creating "dead zones" of very low oxygen on the bottom where few marine critters can survive.

Areas of the ocean the size of Texas are composed largely of small fragments of degraded plastics captured in oceanic gyres, with critters consuming the small particles in the belief they are food... and often dying as a result. Jon Council pointed this out earlier in a column he wrote. Even off the southern California coast, according to Algalita small particles of degraded plastics outnumber animal plankton by a factor of 6:1 although others dispute this ratio. Whatever the actual ratio, the real point is that plastics shouldn't be there at all. Think about that next time you buy products packaged in plastic and put them in a plastic bag to carry home. I'm guilty of this myself although I recycle the vast majority of the plastic I buy.

If you don't believe we've tinkered with the chemistry of the oceans, how does the fact that lethal dioxins and PCBs are found in animal tissues even in the planet's polar regions? They are thought to affect the reproduction of fish, marine mammals... and even you and me! Add to this chemical soup flame retardants (PBDEs) found all along the West Coast with levels doubling in fish from San Francisco Bay between 1997 and 2003. PCBs were banned way back in 1977, yet they are persistent and are present not only in bottom sediments... but in wild and farmed fish. Arsenic and mercury are both released by certain energy related and other industrial processes and discharged in wastewater. We may have banned DDT in the States, but companies that produce it still sell it to Third World countries to use.

When are we going to really wake up? Unfortunately it may be too late for my generation to address this... unless many of us in our retirement days take up the idealism and optimism of our youth. It is our children and grandchildren who have the best opportunity to remedy these serious impacts. And it is towards that end that people like Scott, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Oceanic Defense and many others including myself have dedicated our lives. At breakfast Scott joked about people like us not having large 401(k) plans (does anybody these days?). I won't die with many toys, but I believe my time on this Water Planet may have made a small difference. I prefer a "porpoise driven" life to one focused only on my own material needs and wants (well, a new video camera and lights would be nice). But next week I'll turn the humor back on as I write the 401st column in this series.

© 2010 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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The Whole Water Planet (er, "Earth") as depicted by the Apollo 17 astronauts

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2010 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia