A number of environmental stressors are battering an ecosystem that was once thought to be unsinkable—the ocean. Scientists believe climate change could be the tidal wave that capsizes this foundering vessel, which is why Earthjustice is working hard to reverse course on an impending environmental catastrophe.
With the emergence of giant garbage patches, marine dead zones and green algae blooms, it's clear that the world's oceans have become a dumping ground for humanity's waste.
More than 80 percent of marine pollution comes from land-based sources like untreated sewage, plastic, urban and agricultural runoff, and toxic chemicals such as DDT, herbicides and pesticides.
Scientists estimate that some eight million items of marine litter enter the sea every day. This waste threatens marine health by ensnaring and poisoning marine mammals, and threatens human health by contaminating the food chain and polluting local waterways like beaches and lakes.
A rising population and coastal development are expected to further exacerbate the problem.
Stormwater Runoff: In Seattle, Earthjustice is working to decrease Puget Sound's number one water quality problem-stormwater runoff-by plugging loopholes in Washington state building standards. A toxic brew of metals, grease, pesticides and herbicides, stormwater pollution originates from parking lots, buildings and other urban development and eventually makes its way to the ocean, harming salmon and other aquatic life.
Algae Outbreaks: In Florida, Earthjustice forced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 to set legal limits on nutrient pollution, a combination of fertilizer, animal waste and sewage pollution that covers the state's postcard-perfect blue waters with a toxic algae slime.
Cruise Ship Pollution: In Alaska, Earthjustice successfully defended Alaskans' right to rein in wastewater pollution from Alaskan cruise ships, which dump about 224 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of partially treated sewage, heavy metals and toxic chemicals like fire retardants into the state's pristine waters each year.
Polluted Waterways: And in Washington, D.C., Earthjustice is working to clean up pollution in America's largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay.
Harmful fishing practices like bottom trawling, which clear cut ocean ecosystems by dragging a heavy fishing net along the sea floor, are destroying marine habitats and fragmenting species. In fact, scientists suggest that trawling and dredging is as damaging to the sea bed as all other fishing gear combined.
But the marine ecosystem is also damaged by the destruction of aquatic plants such as kelp, as well as coastal areas like mangroves and wetlands, which have declined up to 90 percent in most regions over the past four decades. These places, which serve as breeding grounds and nurseries for many marine species, are bombarded by a slew of human activities like dredging, deforestation and even tourism.
In addition, climate change is loading the ocean with carbon dioxide, acidifying the water and bleaching coral reefs that act as biodiversity hotspots for thousands of fish species and other marine life.
Ocean Clear-Cutting: Along the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic coastlines, Earthjustice is working to limit ocean trawling—a practice so destructive to marine life that it's been compared to clear-cutting forests.
Bycatch: In New England, Earthjustice litigation has forced the National Marine Fisheries Service to strengthen and enforce laws for mid-water trawlers, giant boats that catch hundreds of thousands of pounds of mature and juvenile fish as bycatch.
Clean Water Act: Earthjustice's policy and legislation team is working to safeguard important environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, which contains protections for streams, wetlands and lakes nationwide, and the Clean Air Act, which gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the right (and responsibility) to regulate carbon dioxide pollution.
The ocean may seem like an endless bounty of food, but even this vast resource, which provides more than 2.6 billion people with at least 20 percent of their protein intake, has its limits.
Up to 80 percent of the world's primary catch species are exploited beyond or close to their harvest capacity. Bottom fishing or trawling, which uses highly destructive gear that allows fishermen to essentially clear cut the ocean floor, is one primary culprit, attributing to more than 95 percent of the damage to seamount ecosystems.
Even mid-water trawling destroys the forage base for other fish; mid-water trawlers are the most powerful ships on the east coast that are capable of catching over 100,000 pounds of fish in a single tow. Trawling also scoops up unintended bycatch, which includes thousands of sea turtles.
Bycatch also is a problem in longline fishing, which deploys miles of line and thousands of hooks that can snag turtles and seabirds.
In addition, fisheries are increasingly traveling farther out to sea in search of undepleted stocks of deepwater species, which are highly susceptible to overfishing due to traits like low production, long life and late maturity.
Groundfish: In New England, Earthjustice has been working for more than a decade to end overfishing of the region's iconic "groundfish," such as cod, haddock, and flounder, and promote healthy ocean ecosystems in one of the nation's oldest fisheries.
Earthjustice litigation helped move the New England groundfish fishery to a hard quota system for the first time and has successfully strengthened programs to reduce bycatch and the region's monitoring system. In exchange, fishermen have received more flexibility from controls on when they fished or how much they could catch per trip.
Industrial Trawlers: On both coasts, Earthjustice has recently responded to the introduction of industrial-scale herring and mackerel trawl fisheries degrading the ocean's food web by vacuuming up an excessive amount of forage fish, such as herring. Groundfish, tuna, whales and seabirds all rely upon forage fish for survival.
When it comes to climate change, oceans are taking the heat, literally. Though the public has focused mostly on warmer air temperatures, oceans are also heating up, with more than 90 percent of the warming on Earth over the past 50 years occurring in the ocean.
Oceans also serve as a major carbon sink, which cause the waters to become more acidic as carbon dioxide levels increase. Together, these two effects are contributing to potentially catastrophic consequences both in the ocean and on land, such as increased extreme weather events, sea level rise, coral bleaching, damage to shell-forming organisms and coral reefs, and changes in the distribution of marine life.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, without significant policy changes climate change may be the final coup de grace in a collapsing ecosystem.
Warming World: Climate change is already happening, which is why Earthjustice is focusing on litigation efforts designed to increase the resilience of the ocean ecosystem and provide a buffer to increased warming.
Biodiversity: In D.C. and Seattle, Earthjustice attorneys are protecting biodiversity hotspots like coral reefs by limiting overfishing and toxic pollution.
Forage Fish: On both the east and west coast, Earthjustice is ramping up efforts to protect forage fish species such as herring, mackerel, menhaden, anchovies and sardines, which serve as a primary food source for tunas, sharks, seabirds, seals and whales and form the linchpin of the ocean food web.
Arctic Ice Melt: Internationally, Earthjustice is assisting Pacific Small islands states in dealing with the loss of coral reefs and protecting the rights of Arctic indigenous peoples affected by Arctic sea ice melt.
- United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Report: In Dead Water
- International Programme on the State of the Oceans (IPSO) Report: State of the Ocean
- United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Report: Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas
Photo Credits (from left): Ocean pollution. (Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography via NOAA.) Fishing trawlers. Fishing haul. (NOAA.) The rising temperatures of oceans. (Map by Dan Pisut, based on NOAA's Merged Land-Ocean Surface Temperature Analysis.)