Saturday, July 29, 2006

A Primeval Tide of Toxins

In many places — the atolls of the Pacific, the shrimp beds of the Eastern Seaboard, the fiords of Norway — some of the most advanced forms of ocean life are struggling to survive while the most primitive are thriving and spreading.

Fish, corals and marine mammals are dying while algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing unchecked.

Where this pattern is most pronounced, scientists evoke a scenario of evolution running in reverse, returning to the primeval seas of hundreds of millions of years ago.

Jeremy B.C. Jackson, a marine ecologist and paleontologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, says we are witnessing "the rise of slime."

For many years, it was assumed that the oceans were too vast for humanity to damage in any lasting way. "Man marks the Earth with ruin," wrote the 19th century poet Lord Byron. "His control stops with the shore."

Even in modern times, when oil spills, chemical discharges and other industrial accidents heightened awareness of man's capacity to injure sea life, the damage was often regarded as temporary.

But over time, the accumulation of environmental pressures has altered the basic chemistry of the seas.

The causes are varied, but collectively they have made the ocean more hospitable to primitive organisms by putting too much food into the water.

Industrial society is overdosing the oceans with basic nutrients — the nitrogen, carbon, iron and phosphorous compounds that curl out of smokestacks and tailpipes, wash into the sea from fertilized lawns and cropland, seep out of septic tanks and gush from sewer pipes.

Modern industry and agriculture produce more fixed nitrogen — fertilizer, essentially — than all the Earth's natural processes. Million of tons of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, produced by burning fossil fuels, enter the ocean every day.

These pollutants feed excessive growth of harmful algae and bacteria.

At the same time, overfishing and destruction of wetlands have diminished the competing sea life and natural buffers that once held the microbes and weeds in check.

The consequences are evident worldwide.