Death by a thousand cuts – saving the ocean and its species

Photo courtesy of Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, UBC

As June 8 marks the annual World Ocean Day, one is called to pay more attention to the sorry state of our blue planet, which is facing a cocktail of assaults from human pollution to climate change.

“The ocean is getting tired – it is not going to solve our problems, it cannot assimilate all the wastes, it is already overwhelmed,” says Juan Jose Alava, the principal investigator of the Ocean Pollution Research Unit from the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at UBC.

The ever-growing plastic problem

It isn’t news that the world has a plastic problem, and the pandemic just aggravated it further, causing even more havoc on the ocean.

“Millions of metric tons of PPE (personal protective equipment) were released into the ocean since the pandemic. Nowhere is plastic-free, even in remote areas of the world, even in the Galapagos,” says Alava, who is originally from Ecuador.

According to multiple media reports from last year, plastic waste weighing 25,900 tonnes has already leaked into the ocean since the onset of the pandemic. The pandemic hasn’t officially ended yet, and, on top of that, there is also climate change.

“It is the interactions of many pollutants and many stressors that are impacting the health of the ocean,” says Alava. “We assume the solution for pollution is dilution but that is not true. Because we know that the contaminant remains for many years and pollutants accumulate and biomagnify. Biomagnification means that the contaminant concentration increases in each trophic level of the food web. We need to look for preventive actions.”

In March, the United Nations has just signed a landmark agreement to create the world’s first-ever global plastic pollution treaty, making it the most significant environmental deal since the 2015 Paris Accords. Canada is also expected to pass country-wide legislation to ban single-use plastics sometime this year.

However, Alava believes just regulatory changes are not enough and there needs to be a bottom-up approach from society.

“There is only one planet Earth, one global ocean. We need to change our behaviours away from being plastic dependent. We need to stop using plastic bags and plastic bottles or think carefully about whether we need a new electronic item,” Alava says.

He adds that fossil fuels also need to be phased out as plastic is made from petrochemicals.

Salmon and the Indigenous community

The unhealthy state of the ocean is also impacting all the species in it.

In a recent publication in the journal Science, scientists show that under a high-emission scenario from the continuing burning of fossil fuels, many creatures could face conditions too warm and with too little oxygen to survive in the ocean, leading to a mass extinction event by the end of the century.

Closer to home, Alava points out that the stocks of a few species of salmon in B.C. such as the Chinook salmon are already being diminished.

“The salmon is the canary in the coal mine. It connects the marine life and the inland freshwater. They bring all the nutrients to all the animals, for the bear, for the wolf, and for us,” says Alava.

Andrea Reid, the principal investigator at UBC’s Centre for Indigenous Fisheries and a citizen of the Nisga’a Nation, offers more insights on the state of Salmon in B.C., given that it is also a culturally significant fish for the local Indigenous communities.

“It’s really like death by 1000 cuts,” Reid says. “So many of our fish in the ocean have been overfished to a point where they’re not at healthy levels. They’re already in a depleted state, and then they also have to contend with warming waters and contaminants and plastics. It becomes this cumulative impact situation where the whole is worse than the sum of its parts.”

According to Reid, billions of salmon smolts are being flooded into the ocean every year to encourage more to come back as adults to maintain large-scale commercial fisheries. However, because of the changing ocean conditions, just adding salmon into the system does not mean that they are going to come back.

And for the Indigenous communities, losing salmon is really a profound cultural loss, Reid states.

“Salmons are far more than food. They underpin the fishing systems that are tied to how the youth learn the language because they learn it when they’re out fishing with their parents or with their elders. They are also tied to so many important ceremonies,” she says. “Losing salmon is something so devastating for so many communities – because these are communities that identify as salmon people. It raises a large question of who are we without salmon?”

Learning from Indigenous fishery

Reid adds that Indigenous fishing practices, with their long standing history, have a lot to teach us about a better way of dealing with our environment.

“Indigenous fisheries are inherently tied to the land and the waters where they’re situated,” she explains. “They match the fish that they’re trying to target. Focusing fishing effort into areas where just a specific population is located allows for really informed decisions based on if that population is doing well. And they’ve been proven to be really effective means of fishing in ways that are sustainable.”

Sea turtles are particularly at risk of ingesting hard plastic that can rupture their internal organs, while softer plastic can cause intestinal blockages leaving them unable to feed.| Photo courtesy of Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, UBC

In comparison, she says that large-scale industrial fisheries that arrived on the heels of colonization occur where salmons are co-migrating in marine approach waters. This means it’s a challenge to selectively harvest only healthier populations that can sustain harvest, while sparing weaker populations in need of a break from fishing effort, as can be achieved through upstream Indigenous fisheries.

“This creates a big question about the need for a return to selective fishing approaches that allow us to adaptively manage our fisheries, the way that Indigenous communities have long been doing,”says Reid.