Marine ecologist Douglas McCauley argues that President Obama’s move to expand offshore drilling is a part of a worrisome trend threatening the health of the oceans and raising the specter of mass extinction


Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. This week, President Obama announced he would allow offshore drilling in portions of the Atlantic seaboard, but also said he would nearly double the size of Alaska’s Arctic refuge, protecting those areas from natural oil and gas exploration. Well, our next guest is the lead author of a study about the human impact–that human impact is having on marine life and the future of the oceans. Joining us from Santa Barbara, California, is Dr. Douglas McCauley. He’s a marine ecologist, assistant professor at the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Thank you so much for joining us. DOUGLAS MCCAULEY, MARINE ECOLOGIST, ASST. PROF. AT UCSB: Thanks for having me, Jaisal. NOOR: So give us your response to these two moves by President Obama and how the findings of your recent report are related to these types of moves. MCCAULEY: Well, great questions. And the findings in our report basically plug right into these observations that we’re seeing, headlines in the news now. So what we describe in this report is sort of a status report for health of biodiversity for animal life in the oceans. And one of the things we pick up on is we’re both trying to get a sense of how healthy marine wildlife populations are now and how they’re going to be in the next century, make some predictions for what they’re going to be like going forward is that we’re changing the way that we use the oceans. And part of this change is forecasted to have some very serious impacts on marine wildlife. And the heart of the change that’s very worrisome to us is increased industrial use of the oceans, increased mining in the oceans, increased farming in the oceans, increased drilling in the oceans. So this headline of opening up a new stretch of coast along the Atlantic seaboard for mining certainly fits into these observations we’ve made from other data sources that we’re moving into the oceans with industrial strength, and that that kind of a shift could have really important impacts for the health of marine wildlife. NOOR: And talk about what these impacts could be. You call this a marine industrial revolution. MCCAULEY: Right. No. Absolutely. So this kind of growth is happening in many sectors. There is this–a lot of concern, and I think well-merited concern, about how carefully to zone and think about oil drilling, offshore oil drilling. But as I mentioned, it’s not the only form of marine industrial growth that’s sort of taking shape around us. So, historically the largest impacts we’ve had on marine wildlife is by hunting them directly. And that’s what our headlines up to now have been populated with, stories about overharvesting, overfishing, whales and fish and things like that. And what we’re worried about is we’ll start soon to see headlines about how building power plants in the oceans, mining in the oceans, and farming in the oceans all are going to shift to become much more major drivers for extinction in the oceans and negative impacts on wildlife. So the kinds of data that we summarize in this report are a bit frightening in terms of farming in the oceans, aquaculture. We predict within the next 20 years that farmed fish will actually become a larger source of protein for humanity than will wild-caught fish. In terms of mining, we project, or, looking at the numbers, we’ve already laid out in international waters over one million square kilometers of sea floor that have been zoned as areas that we might begin mining. So all of this growth is something for us very closely to keep an eye on as people that are very concerned about the future of the oceans. NOOR: And what are the concerns these impacts will have on biodiversity in the oceans and the overall health of the oceans? MCCAULEY: Right. So the nice thing about the kind of heart of the results that we contribute in this new report is that there’s actually good news, well, relatively good news for the status of sea life. So take extinction, for example. There’s a lot of talk in the headlines about this sixth mass extinction taking place all around us on land. But it seems, at least up to now, that sixth mass extinction hasn’t leaked off from land into the oceans. In the past 500 years, on land we’ve seen 500 animal species go extinct. And the oceans, same period, 500 years, only 15 animal extinctions. However, this shift that’s going on now in the oceans from hunting animals to hunting their homes to degrading their habitats with our own development is something that could turn the tide for the way that we affect marine animals. When we began at the terrestrial industrial revolution on land, we saw a major spike in extinction rates. What we’re worried about is making sure that that same sort of spike doesn’t accompany this new industrial growth in our oceans. NOOR: And you touched upon issues in international waters. We know there’s been a recent push for the UN to launch negotiations over who governs biodiversity management in international waters. Can you give us a little bit of the latest? MCCAULEY: Yeah, absolutely. So there’s lots of things that we need to be thinking about about the way that we manage this growth, we manage space in the ocean, so that it doesn’t have really catastrophic effects on our ocean life. And there are lots of good ways to do this. And this new piece of–this new announcement coming out of the end is certainly a part of a package of things that we can do in policy and management to engineer a happier future, brighter future, or avoid the same kinds of really unfortunate consequences for fauna that we see on land under the water. So this new announcement from the UN basically said there is a large part of the planet–and, in fact, the largest part of our planet is currently high-seas water outside of the exclusive economic zone of countries. So that means that there’s–it’s sort of like the Wild West of ocean ecosystems. There is not–or rather I should say, the law specifically says that there is not going to be management in these high seas areas. And that turns out to be very bad, as you can imagine, for wildlife in these spaces, these vast spaces. So it’s sort of a tragedy of common scenarios, that scenario that is developing in these high seas area, where everybody is incentivized to take more and more because if they don’t, their neighbor will. And so the UN basically recognizes this isn’t a sustainable way to manage biodiversity on the high seas. And they’ve made this statement today: we need to revisit this kind of policy, we need to start ourselves on a timeline of actually putting together more strict laws, more strict, explicitly policy statements that say, we can’t have this free-for-all on the high seas. It’s going to be catastrophic, it’s going to be very bad for biodiversity, and we need to think carefully about more intelligent ways to manage biodiversity in the high seas. So it’s a very positive first statement to be coming out, and we’ll be looking very closely to see where they take this movement. NOOR: And finally, can you give us some examples of policies and regulations that would do that, that would protect the oceans and the biodiversity within the oceans? MCCAULEY: Absolutely. So in the high seas, discussion like this is going to be really important. But there’s a lot of other small and large things that we can do to, as I say, avoid having this sixth mass extinction take hold in the oceans, capitalize on the fact that so many of the species in the oceans are still out there. They’re not extinct. They can be recovered. One of the important strategies we can adopt is putting more marine parks in place. So these discussions about placing marine wilderness that are coming out of the Obama administration are incredibly important parts of that kind of a future. So just last year, for example, President Obama used presidential proclamation to declare one of the largest marine protected areas on the planet in U.S. waters in the Pacific. Now, that’s a really important contribution for marine biodiversity. However, what was a little disappointing for some of us marine scientists was that in fact the final size of this massive marine-protected area was only half the size that Obama originally proposed. And so the reason for the halving of their size is there just hasn’t been enough discussion, dialog about how important these parks are. We know that wildlife on land, bear and wolves, thrive in parks. And the same thing happens in the oceans. So we need from sort of the top down to really encourage this kind of policy. The second, the last thing I would point to is thinking hard about climate change. When you think about the fate of coral reef fishes, climate change isn’t always what comes to mind, or the fate of oysters, for that matter, but in fact the way that we use energy, the way–you know, our commute decisions on the way to work in the morning impact the future of the oceans an important way, because climate change is impacted by these decisions. And in aggregate they all sum up to push us forward towards a hotter and more acidic future for the oceans. We need to slow that down with big policy and small changes in behavior, because ocean animals just can’t keep up with this increasing–these rapidly increasing acidity and the rapidly increasing temperatures we’re seeing in the oceans now. NOOR: Well, I want to thank so much for that update and for joining us today. MCCAULEY: Jaisal, thanks so much for having this discussion and having me join in. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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Douglas McCauley

Douglas McCauley is a marine ecologist and an Assistant Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. Prof. McCauley's research focuses on understanding how communities and ecosystems in the ocean function. He uses this information to determine how humans influence the functioning of the oceans and, in turn, how the oceans influence humans and society. Prof. McCauley and colleagues recently published a report summarizing the history and future of wildlife in the oceans in the journal Science.