June 8th declared 'World Oceans Day'

June 8, 2009 7:33:09 PM PDT
70 percent of the Earth is covered with water, but the ocean environment is still one of the least explored and most threatened eco-systems on our planet. The United Nations declared June 8th "World Oceans Day."

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Healy Hamilton at the California Academy of Science says, "No matter how far you live from the world's oceans, the oceans influence some part of your life."

From the weather on your way to work, to what you eat for dinner, the ocean affects you and you affect the ocean.

"We're overexploiting the oceans. We're taking too much out. We're putting too much in the oceans in terms of pollution, plastics, chemicals and so forth," says Michael Sutton at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The dangers facing the ocean are international and cannot be solved by one country alone. So, the United Nations created "Oceans Day" to try to focus world attention on the future of our seas.

ABC7 talked to researchers at the California Academy of Sciences about the biggest threats.

"Probably, there's not a drop of water in the ocean that hasn't been affected by human behavior," says researcher John McCosker.

The number one threat is overfishing. The United Nations estimates a quarter of the world's fish stock is seriously depleted. The shark is just one example. Sharks are caught primarily for their fins and are believed to be disappearing at the rate of 100,000,000 every year.

"The sharks are there to prey on the next level in the food chain. And, if those predators are gone, then there is nothing controlling their numbers, and so the groupers and snappers are eating all the smaller fish that they feed upon until they disappear," McCosker explained.

The number two threat is pollution and includes everything from oil spills to trash dumped in the sea. And, what many people do not realize is that air pollution is also changing the chemistry of the water.

"The world's oceans have absorbed a huge percentage of the carbon dioxide that we have emitted into the atmosphere. Almost half of it has been absorbed by the world's oceans," says Hamilton.

That makes the ocean more acidic which could have deadly consequences to anything with a shell.

"It's like if your house had osteoporosis. You become more porous. Your shells are more weak. Your defenses are more weak," Hamilton explained.

That includes coral and almost all zooplankton, the microscopic creatures that form the base of the food chain.

"The whole system ultimately is collapsing and it's going to be an ocean full of jelly fish if we keep up what we are doing," says McCosker.

Threat number three is global warming. Rising temperatures are expected to change the character of the world's coldest places and the warmer ones as well.

"When ocean temperatures stay high for a long time the impact is most strongly felt on coral reefs by a phenomena known as coral bleaching, where essentially the coral skeletons kick out one of the animals that they need to survive," explained Hamilton.

Ten percent of the world's coral reefs have already been destroyed by a wide range of human activities. But, scientists believe we can reverse that trend for the reefs and the rest of the ocean.

"It's really important to be engaged and involved," says Hamilton.

The Academy of Sciences and other aquariums hope their exhibits will show people the beauty and importance of the world under water and remind visitors that it is up to all of us.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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