Timeline of animal loss

Article: New York Times on the health of the ocean

Humans began adjusting ecosystems on land thousands of years before they were able to do significant damage to the ocean, but in the last five hundred years or so we have been catching up in the marine environment. If you think that five hundred years of significant human impact on the oceans sounds too long and the number should be more like 50 years, read Callum Roberts’s book Ocean of Life – in fact, do that anyway.

In this vein, Carl Zimmer wrote for the New York Times about a recent paper (paywalled on Science) about extinctions and reduction in numbers of animals in the world’s oceans. The article received a large amount of attention and was featured prominently, which is great for science and for the ocean.

When writing about conservation issues it is a challenge to maintain an air of hopefulness, in order to spur the reader on to positive action rather than smothering them in despair. Many books about the health of the world’s oceans struggle to walk this line. Authors sometimes appear unnaturally chirpy about terrible subjects, or to change their minds three quarters of the way through the book, becoming a cheerleader after seven chapters of doom and gloom. Unusually, Zimmer’s article (and, by extension the paper it stems from) are genuinely hopeful, because the paper’s authors sincerely believe there is something that can be done.

(The timeline below is from the paper; click on the image to go to the original on the Science website.)

Timeline of animal loss
Timeline of animal loss

While the paper sounds a warning that “today’s low rates of marine extinction may be the prelude to a major extinction pulse, similar to that observed on land during the industrial revolution, as the footprint of human ocean use widens” and “the terrestrial experience and current trends in ocean use suggest that habitat destruction is likely to become an increasingly dominant threat to ocean wildlife over the next 150 years”, the authors are convinced that prompt and decisive action can make a significant difference. The action would need to be primarily in the form of massive marine protected areas, strategically located, as well as a decrease in carbon emissions.

Zimmer’s full article can be read here. One of the authors of the paper he reviews is Stephen Palumbi, whose Extreme Life of the Sea is an excellent introduction to the entire ocean ecosystem, written in bite sized chunks with the flair of the Guinness Book of Records (but more academic prowess, obviously).



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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.