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It's Not All Bad News For Earth's Oceans


A recent report on the health of the oceans includes some welcome good news. Ocean habitats seem to be in pretty good shape, at least compared to things on land. Douglas McCauley is an ecologist at UC Santa Barbara and a lead author of the study.

DOUGLAS MCCAULEY: To put things into numbers, in the past 500 years, we've seen on land 500 animal extinctions occur. In the oceans - the same time period - only 15 marine animals have been driven extinct.

RATH: Now, having seen the whole report, I know that in spite of the good news, your message is not relax everybody, the oceans are fine.

MCCAULEY: That's right. The bad news is that there seems to be a major shift underway in the way that we're using the oceans. And this change in the way that we're using the oceans is pushing us slowly but steadily towards what appears to be a major marine extinction cliff in the sea.

RATH: You refer to something you call the marine industrial revolution. What do you mean?

MCCAULEY: So that is this change. So we first began hunting wildlife directly. We hunted them for food or for pelts. And then we switch over to hunting their homes, hunting habitats. Now, this process, as I say, happened on land.

About at the time of the terrestrial industrial revolution, we switched over to building out our cities to building factories and to impacting terrestrial habitats. And what we're seeing now in this data that we review is a switch in the way humans are using the oceans.

We have factory farms and feed lots that are going in the sea and are actually going in so rapidly that in the next 20 years we are projecting that production from farming in the oceans is going to outpace capture yields we have from wild fisheries.

We're building massive power plants under the oceans. There's even what seems to be an underwater gold rush brewing in the oceans. There's over a million square kilometers of seabed that have been licensed already for mining.

RATH: So if we are on this path to a mass extinction of ocean species, how much time is left on the clock to act and what needs to be done?

MCCAULEY: Of course, the happy news is that there is time on the clock. We catch a lot of environmental disasters far too late. We really ought to have started on climate change 50 or 100 years ago. But we're well-positioned now to actually make a difference, to use the science to change the way that we're using the oceans. We're impacting marine wildlife. We need more parks in the oceans. I think everyone appreciates and understands that on land parks are where you go to see wildlife - bear and deer thrive there. In the oceans, it works the same way, and more parks will help out avoiding this sixth mass extinction from developing in the seas.

RATH: Douglas McCauley is an ecologist at UC Santa Barbara. He's the lead author of a new study on ocean wildlife. Doug, thanks very much.

MCCAULEY: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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