In a world with a rapidly growing human population and a finite amount of resources that are being depleted at a substantial rate, sustainability has become a popular word among those who seek to be environmentally friendly. The green movement has become increasingly popular in recent years and consumers are seeking out products labeled as clean, eco-friendly, and sustainable. The green movement has become so popular that many retailers are making a huge effort to meet the demand, and supply consumers with green labeled products.
This new trend has led to a wave of green products and has become known as green washing. Many may think that this is a winning step for environmental conservation, and in theory it is, but in reality green washing can be misleading. This new demand for sustainable products has surpassed the supply of resources that can be labeled as sustainable with certainty, which means that many of the products you see on shelves labeled sustainable have likely been pushed through the labeling process regardless to whether the product meets all the criteria of the word.
A perfect example of a rapidly depleting resource thats trending towards the sustainable market in an attempt to save the industry is seafood. Seafood is our last major wild caught food resource and based on a report by the UN in 2012 it is believed that thirty percent of wild fisheries are over exploited, and fifty seven percent are at or very close to the limit. In recent surveys it was revealed that eighty percent of people who regularly eat seafood claimed that it was important to them that the seafood they purchased was sustainable.
In general consumers try to do the right thing and purchase items that are sustainable, but many dont know or dont want to put in the research to find out what products fit the bill so they look to the label and trust what they read. Thats where companies such as Marine Stewardship Council or MSC comes in.. They rate around eight percent of the global seafood catch that ends up in our supermarkets or at our favorite restaurants. MSCs goal is to encourage the purchase of sustainable seafood by labeling products that they guarantee the manner in which the item was harvested is sustainable. MSCs labels guarantee that safe fishing practices were used, that the fishing was done in a way to support non depletion, and that it was safe to other marine life.
You might expect the Marine Stewardship Council to be a government controlled entity but you would be wrong, as explained in the article, MSC is privately owned. After the 1992 ban on cod fishing in response to low population counts it was revealed that the government had been doing a rather bad job at researching and regulating marine wildlife. The result was the ban on cod and the ramifications of the ban hit fishing communities whose economies relied on cod extremely hard. It was this realization that the government alone could not be relied upon that sparked the private sector into action. Companies such as MSC began working towards making a difference.
Many environmentalists believe that the inclusion of chain stores into the sustainable movement has been both a blessing and a curse. They believe that the exposure and popularity is a win for conservation, but that because the supply doesnt meet the demand that the sustainable cause is being compromised. An example of this is swordfish. The majority of swordfish are caught using long lines, which means using miles of line laced with hooks to catch the fish, but for every one swordfish caught there are five blue sharks caught. Generally these sharks are released but it is still unknown just how much of an impact this has on the shark population and it is thought that nearly thirty five percent of the sharks caught in these lines die shortly after being released, and a disruption in a food web such as a drop in shark population will have consequences for all other species. Standards for sustainable entail that the species of marine life in question has to be harvested in a manner that promotes the vitality of the species, but also that the method used is not a threat to other marine life, or environments. Many environmentalists are asking how swordfish can be labeled as sustainable when studies show the method for catching them is clearly having an impact on shark species. Many believe that sustainable labeling has become an incentive to change for many fisheries. One such case is that of a company in Florida. They were a fishery that harvested swordfish using long lines. They decided that it was in their best interest to become labeled when they found out that one of their top customers, Whole Foods, was making a switch to labeled seafood. In order to be labeled the company had to go through quite a process. To obtain labeling fisheries have to hire auditors to do inspections, and if they pass they can then be labeled. The fisheries also have to listen to, and respond to any criticism or objections from anyone who is interested in the proceedings. Day Boat spent over two hundred thousand dollars and over three years to finally receive their label. It was a long process not without its issues, but environmentalists consider the case as a success for the sustainable movement. The fishery took the time and spent the money to truly become a sustainable company. They listened to the criticism they received from the conservation community and made concessions such as the hooks they used, and made promises to install cameras on their boats within a period of time. These were things they didnt have to do to become labeled but they did anyway in an effort to make less of an impact on all marine life. Its cases such as this that show the impact that the sustainable movement can have on changing how we interact with marine life.
On the other hand we are seeing more frequent cases of seafood being labeled that dont fully meet criteria such as that of toothed Atlantic fish such as Chilean sea bass, or sockeye salmon. Very little is known about the life cycle of toothed Atlantic fish. Very little is known about the fish, we dont even know when or where they lay their eggs yet the harvesting of these fish was labeled sustainable despite the objections of the research community that not enough was known to determine if the harvest of these fish could be sustainable. In the case of Sockeye salmon in 2012 it was discovered that the population had somehow dropped by ten million and no one knew how or why yet MSC labeled the certain sockeye fisheries as sustainable because there are over thirty sockeye salmon species and only a few are endangered. The issue with this being that there is no way to know how many endangered sockeye are caught with the non-endangered making it impossible to truly claim the harvesting of sockeye sustainable. In cases such as these when its decided to label a fishery even when its know that not all of the requirements of sustainability are being met, or that there simply isnt enough information to make an accurate judgment it supports the claim of controversy in conservation.
Another struggle conservation is facing is pollution. There is currently a patch of garbage mostly comprised of plastics such as fishing nets, bottles, toys, crates, and micro plastics floating around the Pacific ocean. Much of the debris is believed to have been swept out to sea during the 2011 tsunami in Japan, but more still is old fishing nets. Fishing nets are made to be durable in water environments so they decompose much more slowly. The patch is anywhere from four to sixteen times larger than previously thought, and occupies a space roughly four times the size of California. The patch is 1.8 trillion tons of waste that are slowly decomposing into micro plastic particles that are consumed by fish and eventually make their way into our food chain through bioaccumulation and biomagnification which means when an organism low on the food chain ingests these plastics and chemicals it is a small dose, but when that organism is eaten by something higher up in the chain the dose is increased and as this process is repeated the dose is increased each time until you have a organism high on the food chain such as a shark that has a contamination level much higher than what is found in the water around it. It is suggested that the plastic makes up to three quarters of the diet of sea turtles in the area. It was originally believed that the garbage patch was made up of various types of materials but it was later found that 99.9% of the garbage was plastic. When the patch was first discovered in the late 90s it was believed that it was the size of an island and was even called the 8th continent. It has since been found that the patch isnt that large and rather than being massed in one area it was spread in thin layers all over the pacific. Scientist say that there is still time to clean up the plastic but its not as simple as simply picking the trashed out of the water anymore as much of it has decomposed into small pieces. It can however be massed into small areas and collected for recycling. If we can act soon we can realistically clean up the pollution from improper waste disposal and help sustain our rapidly declining marine life as well as reduce the harmful chemicals that would be introduced into our food chain through bioaccumulation and biomagnification in fish. If we dont act soon the plastic will break down into micro-plastics and will be very difficult and expensive to clean up.
In the developed world water is polluted with chemicals such as lawn fertilizer, birth control, sunscreen, petroleum, and pesticides. Beyond the synthetic pollutants you have biological waste, human sewage, animal excrement, and rain water runoff. All of these pollutants are entering our rivers and streams and make their way into our oceans. Pollution that has entered into the ocean has created coastal zones that are void of oxygen which makes those areas uninhabitable for aquatic species. Most any toxicant and chemical we pour down our drains will make its way into our oceans killing off aquatic life, as well as make its way into our drinking water which we already invest a great deal of money into in the form of waste water treatment plants which make our water safe to drink. Most waste water treatment is inadequate for removing trace amount of chemicals, or any chemicals at all. Advancements in science has allowed for the detection of contaminates in water in much smaller quantities, but our current technology isnt always sufficient for removing or detecting all pollutants from the chemical cocktail we call water. The situation is far worse in developing countries that lack environmental regulations. In places such as China or India 70% of industrial waste is dumped; untreated into water contaminating water sources and marine habitat.
For the first time in the history of the earth a species actions may be causing such rapid change with such drastic consequences that we may be pushing past a tipping point where equilibrium will no longer be achievable, and species wont have enough time to adapt to the situations they may soon face.
First of all what is a dead zone? A dead zone is an area of marine habitat that has reached a level hypoxia in with marine life can no longer live, or if it can manage to survive, does so under great stress. Hypoxic in terms of marine habitat is a term used to refer to a lack of oxygen in an area. When a marine habitat becomes hypoxic it lacks enough oxygen to support life and marine species either relocate or die off. Throughout the world several areas in particular are experiencing dead zones such as areas along the Pacific coast of the United States or areas of the Northeast coast of Australia. Dead zone can occur naturally and are a result of seasonal upwelling and downwelling which occurs when northerly or southerly winds push oxygen rich waters down and away from the coasts and nutrient rich waters up from below. This upwelling supports both the growth of phytoplankton by supplying nutrient rich water which in turn supplies the food web and as a result such areas like the Pacific Northwest are some of the most productive fisheries in the world. These periods of upwelling are normally interrupted by southerly winds which push oxygen low waters away from the coast and keep these areas in a seasonal balance. In recent years however these hypoxic events of low oxygen water surrounding the coast have lasted longer and longer and in 2006 the waters near the coast were completely stripped of all their oxygen. Some believe this is happening due to climate change brought on by human activity. They believe that climate change has had such a strong impact on weather patterns that we have significantly impacted surface waters oxygen content and shifted wind patterns, and that for years we have been priming areas such as these to have extended hypoxic events and that we should expect to continue to see them yearly.
Although dead zones can occur naturally it has become far more common to see them appear as an effect of a red tide, or eutrophication. Red tide has nothing to do with tide but is rather a toxic algae that when in abundance changes waters appearance to that of a brown or red color. Eutrophication in the over fertilization of water with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus which causes algae to grow in excess which can cause shading out of other marine plant species such as sea grass by not allowing light to penetrate through as well as using large amounts of nutrients and oxygen. When this algae dies it produces large amounts of nutrients but in the process of decomposition uses up most of the oxygen resources. This dead matter then sits on the seafloor and develops into a sort of muck which can be toxic as well as impede the growth of sea plants. This is how an area becomes a dead zone. Algae itself isnt an issue when kept in check and serves as a food source for many marine species such as manatees. Algae however harbors bacteria known as cyanobacteria which are toxic to those exposed to it. Recently Florida has been struggling with extended red tides which cause health issues and even death for marine species and humans alike. In recent years scientists have identified around 415 dead zones around the world, many of which are caused by eutrophication. In 1960 there were only 10 identified dead zones worldwide. Many ecologists are trying to figure out why this number has spiked so rapidly in recent years. Some believe the spike to be caused by human activities such as agriculture which creates runoff of fertilizers rich in nitrogen and phosphorus into water sources which lead to the coasts. People have suggested the ban of fertilizers for yard use during rainy seasons to help combat this run off, but since yard fertilization is a multi-million dollar a year business you can imagine there is opposition to this idea. The counter argument is that without fertilization that grass will be weaker and in dry seasons the grass wont be able to hold the nutrients as well and run off will be just as bad if not worse.
Another argument is that human waste runoff is the culprit. The argument suggests that septic systems when not properly working can leech nutrients into the soil which makes it into our coastal waters. In the same argument it was brought up that in a Florida town a sewer failure led to the town pumping thousands of gallons of partially treated waste water into city owned ponds which were connected by ditches to the coast. The counter point to this argument is that its far more likely that wild animal species such as manatees, raccoons, and feral pigs introduce more nutrients to the system than humans do. It has also been suggested in certain areas, by those who advocate against boating speed regulation that manatees are in such abundance in some areas for extended periods of time due to thermal pollution which is the result of industries pumping cool water into their systems to lower temperatures and then pumping out warm water which allows the manatees to stay in the area longer and delays migration. The claim is that manatees are over grazing the area and introducing nutrients to the marine system which is leading to eutrophication and hypoxic conditions. The counter point to this argument is that manatees have a relatively low impact in terms of adding nutrients to the system especially in comparison to humans, and that stopping thermal pollution will likely have no effect on migration patterns and in turn the drastic drop in temperatures will cause death in manatees, fish, and turtle populations. It was also suggested that drift algae could be a culprit since it can harbor harmful bacteria and toxins in times of eutrophication to which drift algae contributes. The marine species such as manatees will turn to drift algae as a food source when sea grass becomes sparse and it is believed that the bacteria could be killing them since many dead manatees have been found with the algae in their guts and the bacteria was found to kill animal cells in labs. The counterpoint to this is that it is still unknown which toxins or bacteria are causing deaths.
Another suggestion as to why dead zones are becoming so common is Muck theory. Muck theory suggests that decades of muck build up that resembles black mayonnaise that is the product of mostly run off from agriculture, residential areas, and industry has built up on the sea floor in layers as thick as 10 feet. This muck has impeded the growth of sea grass which is vital for the survival of many marine species and has contributed to bacterial decay with uses up oxygen to create hypoxic environments which has led to fish death. Muck is also believe to contribute to cancers and marine health issues and may be the cause of the recent spike in tumors and growths seen in turtles and dolphins exposed to it. Groups have applied for government research money to study the effects of muck, as well as to dredge sea floors and clean the muck out of marine habitats. Dredging however is quite expensive and there is no way to be sure the muck doesnt make its way back into the water cycle. Its clear that dead zones are becoming a big problem for our marine habitats, and it is also clear that no one is really sure as to what is causing the major spike in recent years, but it is also clear that something has to be done. Safer practices need to be used and more research needs to be done so that we can protect our coasts. It has been shown that protective and restorative action can help reclaim dead zones but there are only 13 coastal systems worldwide that are in recovery compared to 415 dead zones and 233 areas of concern.