Celebrating Marine Diversity on World Oceans Day

Did you know that Canada has the longest coastline of any nation? Over 200,000 km stretching over the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans? Today is World Oceans day. A time to celebrate every kind of marine life—trillions of plankton, billions of fish, millions of seabirds, thousands of whales, and myriad other creatures great and small! In the following is an excerpt from More Good News, David Suzuki talks about the huge variation of marine organisms, and what we can do to help preserve this great diversity.

It might not mean less fishing, but it does mean you don’t fish everywhere.
Bill Henwood, Parks Canada

For centuries, “the deep blue sea” beyond the continental shelves was considered almost devoid of life, while huge sections of ocean out in areas once called “the doldrums” were viewed as complete deserts. Now we know that life is merely layered below, or that it may take a form we did not recognize. For example, sailors have routinely avoided a region in the North Atlantic Ocean known as the Sargasso Sea, part of a windless gyre filled with floating seaweeds and surrounded by four major currents, including the Gulf Stream. Besides being key to the survival of European and American eels and young loggerhead turtles, it turns out to be filled with huge gelatinous organisms called salps, which can be six feet across. Salps are filter feeders—so efficient at filtering nutrients from water that their organs can be used to filter viruses! They live on nanoplankton barely larger than a molecule, but the waste they excrete after consuming their invisible meals is the size of a mouse turd. Filmmaker and marine biologist Blad Hansen says that means the carbon in the plankton that these creatures have gathered from the surface of the ocean is being sequestered into the deep sea, and at enormous rates. They are performing a key ecosystem service, and over the past few years we’ve only scratched the surface of their activities.

We know so little about the creatures that comprise so much of the biomass of the sea because their watery bodies collapse when we bring them up from the depths and out into the air. Now that we can film them in their natural habitats, we’re beginning to appreciate the huge part they play in supporting ocean life, rather as if we were ancient people stumbling upon the buffalo herds of the Great Plains after years of seeing only birds and ground squirrels. Salps and jellies are just one group we’re learning about. For example, most of us grew up thinking of octopi as gray or black with pinkish tentacles. But now we know that there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties: purple, pink, and striped ones; small, ringed, or polka-dotted charmers that are extremely poisonous; even the (no other word but “adorable” will do) “Dumbo octopus,” a deep-sea variety with a pair of fins that protrude near the head like giant elephant ears.

Besides the extremophile life-forms living near undersea volcanic vents; bacteria; tiny white crabs; and incredibly beautiful, feathery tubeworms, there are “gulper eels,” which can unhinge their jaws to engulf prey several times their size; monsters that seem to be nothing but nightmares of teeth; and a plethora of jelly beings festooned with colored lights and flashers that are too weird and wonderful to be believed. Even familiar species we’ve eaten for years, like rockfish and red snapper, we’re learning can live to be 120 years old and have been genetically selected to occupy certain levels of the ocean. That means when a community is fished out, it cannot be recruited and reformed from outside. Usually we don’t know enough about the basic biology of any ocean species to be able to manage it.

Fortunately, however alien-looking the life-forms, this is still Earth, and the same general physical laws and conservation policies that work on land apply to the oceans. The 4cs of Chapter 2—Cores, Corridors, Carnivores, and Communities—work as well underwater as in a boreal forest. Despite scientific recognition of this fact, however, the number of national and international preserves in the seas, or Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), is still less than 0.7 percent of the oceans’ area. This paltry effort at conservation must increase immediately. That can happen with political push and citizen pressure, but the most immediate action we can all take is at the grocery store, using guides put out by online fish providers like Eco-Fish, standards organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council, FishWise, and Seafood Safe, which also tests for the buildup of toxins like mercury. Organizations like Greenpeace International, the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club of Canada, and even the Monterey Bay Aquarium also offer consumer guides.

One challenge, of course, is to understand the oceans well enough to know which parts to protect. Besides the well-known marine habitats like reefs, kelp forests, and mangroves, there are muddy lagoons, sea-grass beds, river estuaries, sand bars, islands, inter-reef gardens, and the saline-to-brackish-to-freshwater marshes that line many coasts. They’re all part of the ocean’s nurseries. Many marine species, like salmon and striped bass, require several places to live out their life cycle; preserving one area because adults live there is not going to ensure that the fry have their own habitat in which to grow, and vice versa. For example, red emperor fish larvae hatch from eggs laid along outer reefs; they drift in with the tides to inshore nurseries and only return to the outer reefs as adults. Jon Day, director of conservation, biodiversity, and world heritage for the marine park authority of the Great Barrier Reef in northeastern Australia, says, “A lot of these bioregions are not sexy, but if we don’t protect them, then we’re just kidding ourselves that we’re looking after the coral reefs.”

You can read more about Marine Protected Areas, Cores, Corridors, and Communities, as well as what you can do to help protect marine wildlife on the David Suzuki site, or in David’s book, More Good News.

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