15Oct Emptying the Seas of Life – Seán McDonagh SSC


In the run-up  to the UN Conference on Biodiversity which will take place this year in the city of Nagoya, Japan from October 18th to the 29th 2010, I have been writing a number of articles on how humankind is destroying God’s creation at an unprecedented and extraordinary rate.  In this article, I will turn my attention to what is happening in the planet’s oceans.

The book, Our Common Future was the fruit of a four year long consultation conducted during the 1980s. It was chaired  by a  United Nation Commission the then Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland and was focused on understanding the delicate balance between human development and the pressure that puts on other species and and the carrying capacity of various ecosystems, and the biosphere as a whole. The authors wrote that:  “In Earth’s wheel of life, the oceans  provide the balance. Covering over 70 percent of the planet’s surface, they play a critical role in maintaining its life-support systems, in moderating its climate, and in sustaining animal and plant life, including minute oxygen producing phytoplankton. They provide protein, transportation, energy, employment, recreation, social and cultural activities.”[1]

The oceans have a very special place in the history of planet earth and of life itself. They emerged more than 4 billion years ago as the planet cooled and water vapour was transformed into liquid water. Ice-bearing commets in what is called the Late Bombardment Period also helped to fill the oceans. Water vapour and ice are  found on other planets and comets, but the earth is the only place as far as we know where there is liquid water and oceans.

Furthermore, the oceans are the womb of life. Gradually, with the passage of time, more complex elements, including amino acids and proteins began to synthesized  in the  oceans.  Then suddenly, about 3.8 billion years ago, a simple cell capable of reproducing itself emerged. This is the beginning of life.  The microscopic  multicellular organisms which emerged in the ocean are called phytoplankton. These organisms developed the ability to use the energy from the sun to split the hydrogen and oxygen in the water molecule and then to combine them with carbon dioxide in order to create the organic compounds on which life depends. This awe inspiring technology is called photosynthesis.   In recent decades scientists have discovered that the phytoplankton in the ocean removes as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as all the land-based plants and trees.[2]

That the universe should burst forth into life in the oceans of planet earth is an extraordinary reality. It means that every species that walked on the earth, swam in the oceans and rivers, or flew through the sky owes its existence to the single cell organism that emerged in the oceans. Yet, in recent decades, humankind have treated the earth’s rivers, lakes and oceans in a most destructive way.

Current levels of overfishing could empty the oceans of most fish species by 2050. There has been an enormous increase in the annual fish catch over the past two centuries and, especially in recent decades. For example, in 1800 the annual global catch of fish, crustaceans, molluscs was 10 million tons.  By 1950 the figure had jumped to 35 million tons, but by 2009 the catch reached the incredible amount of 150 million tons.[3] The increase is mainly due to the development of more intrusive and destructive fishing technology. Factory fishing got underway in the 1950, a decade after World War II ended. These boats allowed crews to operate far from the home base for months on end.  Sonar technology began to be used extensively in the 1960s. This allowed fishermen to hunt fish shoals with pin point accuracy.  Sonar technology has played a major role in the destruction of the blue fin tuna in the eastern Atlantic ocean.  Since the 1980s, many fishing fleets have deployed nets and lines sometimes up  to 40 miles long. This kind of fishing is most destructive.  Not alone does it strip life from huge swathes of the oceans, it also damages coral reefs which are fish nurseries.

Many commentators believe that unless policies and treaties to reduce fish catches are enacted and policed globally during the next few years that many species ranging from herring to cod and tuna will suffer disastrous and irreversible population crashes within the next few decades. [4]


[1] Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, Oxford University Press.

[2] William Reville, “How the world’s oceans cool us down,” Irish Times, May 22nd 2003, page 13

[3] Jonathan Leake, “Fish stocks eaten to extinction by 2050,” The Sunday Times, July 11th 2010,  page 7

[4] ibid

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