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Human activities affect marine life and marine habitats through overfishing, habitat loss, the introduction of invasive species, ocean pollution, ocean acidification and ocean warming. These impact marine ecosystems and food webs and may result in consequences as yet unrecognised for the biodiversity and continuation of marine life forms.

It has been estimated only 13% of the ocean area remains as wilderness, mostly in open ocean areas rather than along the coast.

Overfishing is occurring in one third of world fish stocks, according to a 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In addition, industry observers believe illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing occurs in most fisheries, and accounts for up to 30% of total catches in some important fisheries. In a phenomenon called fishing down the foodweb, the mean trophic level of world fisheries has declined because of overfishing high trophic level fish.

– Daniel Pauly, pioneer on human impacts on global fisheries,

Coastal ecosystems are being particularly damaged by humans. Habitat loss is occurring in seagrass meadows, mangrove forests, coral reefs and kelp forests, all of which are in global decline due to human disturbances.

Seagrass meadows have lost 30,000 km2 (12,000 sq mi) during recent decades. Seagrass ecosystem services, currently worth about $US1.9 trillion per year, include nutrient cycling, the provision of food and habitats for many marine animals, including the endangered dugongs, manatee and green turtles, and major facilitations for coral reef fish.

One fifth of the world’s mangrove forests have been lost since 1980, and another fifth of coral reefs have been lost. The most pressing threat to kelp forests may be the overfishing of coastal ecosystems, which by removing higher trophic levels facilitates their shift to depauperate urchin barrens.

An invasive species is a species not native to a particular location which can spread to a degree that causes damage to the environment, human economy or human health. In 2008, Molnar et al. documented the pathways of hundreds of marine invasive species and found shipping was the dominant mechanism for the transfer of invasive species in the ocean. The two main maritime mechanisms of transporting marine organisms to other ocean environments are via hull fouling and the transfer of ballast water.

Ballast water taken up at sea and released in port is a major source of unwanted exotic marine life. The invasive freshwater zebra mussels, native to the Black, Caspian, and Azov seas, were probably transported to the Great Lakes via ballast water from a transoceanic vessel. Meinesz believes that one of the worst cases of a single invasive species causing harm to an ecosystem can be attributed to a seemingly harmless jellyfish. Mnemiopsis leidyi, a species of comb jellyfish that spread so it now inhabits estuaries in many parts of the world, was first introduced in 1982, and thought to have been transported to the Black Sea in a ship’s ballast water. The population of the jellyfish grew exponentially and, by 1988, it was wreaking havoc upon the local fishing industry. “The anchovy catch fell from 204,000 tons in 1984 to 200 tons in 1993; sprat from 24,600 tons in 1984 to 12,000 tons in 1993; horse mackerel from 4,000 tons in 1984 to zero in 1993.” Now that the jellyfish have exhausted the zooplankton, including fish larvae, their numbers have fallen dramatically, yet they continue to maintain a stranglehold on the ecosystem.

Invasive species can take over once occupied areas, facilitate the spread of new diseases, introduce new genetic material, alter underwater seascapes, and jeopardize the ability of native species to obtain food. Invasive species are responsible for about $138 billion annually in lost revenue and management costs in the US alone.

Marine pollution results from the entry into the ocean of industrial, agricultural, and residential wastes. Pathways for this pollution include agricultural runoff into rivers and wind-blown debris and dust. The Asian brown cloud, a layer of air pollution that covers much of South Asia and the Indian Ocean for several months every year, also hangs over the Bay of Bengal. Because of this cloud, satellites attempting to track ocean acidification and other ocean health indicators in the Bay have difficulty obtaining accurate measurements.

Nutrient pollution is a primary cause of eutrophication of surface waters, in which excess nutrients, usually nitrates or phosphates, stimulate algae growth.

Toxic chemicals can adhere to tiny particles which are then taken up by plankton and benthic animals, most of which are either deposit feeders or filter feeders. In this way, toxins are concentrated upward within ocean food chains. Many particles combine chemically in a manner which depletes oxygen, causing estuaries to become anoxic. Pesticides and toxic metals are similarly incorporated into marine food webs, harming the biological health of marine life. Many animal feeds have a high fish meal or fish hydrolysate content. In this way, marine toxins are transferred back to farmed land animals, and then to humans.

Phytoplankton concentrations have increased over the last century in coastal waters, and more recently have declined in the open ocean. Increases in nutrient runoff from land may explain the increases in coastal phytoplankton, while warming surface temperatures in the open ocean may have strengthened stratification in the water column, reducing the flow of nutrients from the deep that open ocean phytoplankton find useful.

Estimates suggest something like 9 million tonnes of plastic is added to the ocean every year. This plastic may need 450 years or more to biograde. Once in the ocean, plastics are shredded by marine amphipods into microplastics. There are now beaches where 15 percent of the sand are grains of microplastic. In the oceans themselves, microplastics float in surface waters amongst the plankton where they are ingested by plankton eaters.

Microplastics among sand and glass spheres in sediment from the Rhine. The white bar represents 1 mm.

Vast plastic garbage patches have accumulated at the centre of ocean gyres.

Model results for the count density of small planktonic plastic particles. Red: more dense           Green: less dense

Underwater noise pollution due to human activities is also prevalent in the sea. Cargo ships generate high levels of noise due to propellers and diesel engines. This noise pollution significantly raises the low-frequency ambient noise levels above those caused by wind. Animals such as whales that depend on sound for communication can be affected adversely. Even marine invertebrates, such as crabs (Carcinus maenas), have been shown to be negatively affected by ship noise.

Ocean acidification is the increasing acidification of the oceans, caused mainly by the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels leads to more carbon dioxide dissolving in the ocean. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water it forms hydrogen and carbonate ions. This in turn increases the acidity of the ocean and makes survival increasingly harder for microorganisms, shellfish and other marine organisms that depend on calcium carbonate to form their shells.

Increasing acidity also has potential for other harm to marine organisms, such as depressing metabolic rates and immune responses in some organisms, and causing coral bleaching. Ocean acidification has increased 26% since the beginning of the industrial era. It has been compared to anthropogenic climate change and called the “evil twin of global warming” and “the other CO2 problem”.

Aragonite is a form of calcium carbonate many marine animals use to build carbonate skeletons and shells. The lower the aragonite saturation level, the more difficult it is for the organisms to build and maintain their skeletons and shells. The map below shows changes in the aragonite saturation level of ocean surface waters between 1880 and 2012.

To pick one example, pteropods are a group of widely distributed swimming sea snails. For pteropods to create shells they require aragonite which is produced through carbonate ions and dissolved calcium. Pteropods are severely affected because increasing acidification levels have steadily decreased the amount of water supersaturated with carbonate which is needed for the aragonite creation.

When the shell of a pteropod was immersed in water with a pH level the ocean is projected to reach by the year 2100, the shell almost completely dissolved within six weeks. Likewise corals, coralline algae, coccolithophores, foraminifera, as well as shellfish generally, all experience reduced calcification or enhanced dissolution as an effect of ocean acidification.

Shells of pteropods dissolve in increasingly acidic conditions caused by increased amounts of atmospheric CO2

Pteropods and brittle stars together form the base of the Arctic food webs and both are seriously damaged by acidification. Pteropods shells dissolve with increasing acidification and brittle stars lose muscle mass when re-growing appendages. Additionally the brittle star’s eggs die within a few days when exposed to expected conditions resulting from Arctic acidification. Acidification threatens to destroy Arctic food webs from the base up. Arctic waters are changing rapidly and are advanced in the process of becoming undersaturated with aragonite. Arctic food webs are considered simple, meaning there are few steps in the food chain from small organisms to larger predators. For example, pteropods are “a key prey item of a number of higher predators – larger plankton, fish, seabirds, whales”.

The rise in agriculture of the past 400 years has increased the exposure rocks and soils, which has resulted in increased rates of silicate weathering. In turn, the leaching of amorphous silica stocks from soils has also increased, delivering higher concentrations of dissolved silica in rivers. Conversely, increased damming has led to a reduction in silica supply to the ocean due to uptake by freshwater diatoms behind dams. The dominance of non-siliceous phytoplankton due to anthropogenic nitrogen and phosphorus loading and enhanced silica dissolution in warmer waters has the potential to limit silicon ocean sediment export in the future.

In 2019 a group of scientists suggested acidification is reducing diatom silica production in the Southern Ocean.

Concentration of silicic acid in the upper pelagic zone, showing high levels in the Southern Ocean

Generalized marine silica cycle, adapted from Treguer et al., 1995

Most heat energy from global warming goes into the ocean, and not into the atmosphere or warming up the land. Scientists realized over 30 years ago the ocean was a key fingerprint of human impact on climate change and “the best opportunity for major improvement in our understanding of climate sensitivity is probably monitoring of internal ocean temperature”.

Marine organisms are moving to cooler parts of the ocean as global warming proceeds. For example, a group of 105 marine fish and invertebrate species were monitored along the US Northeast coast and in the eastern Bering Sea. During the period from 1982 to 2015, the average center of biomass for the group shifted northward about 10 miles as well moving about 20 feet deeper.

There is evidence increasing ocean temperatures are taking a toll on marine ecosystem. For example, a study on phytoplankton changes in the Indian Ocean indicates a decline of up to 20% in marine phytoplankton during the past six decades. During summer, the western Indian Ocean is home to one of the largest concentrations of marine phytoplankton blooms in the world. Increased warming in the Indian Ocean enhances ocean stratification, which prevents nutrient mixing in the euphotic zone where ample light is available for photosynthesis. Thus, primary production is constrained and the region’s entire food web is disrupted. If rapid warming continues, the Indian Ocean could transform into an ecological desert and cease being productive.

Ocean warming is changing the distribution of the keystone species Antarctic krill

In the Antarctic, limited-range shallow-water species, like this emerald rockcod, are under threat.

The Antarctic oscillation (also called the Southern Annular Mode) is a belt of westerly winds or low pressure surrounding Antarctica which moves north or south according to which phase it is in. In its positive phase, the westerly wind belt that drives the Antarctic Circumpolar Current intensifies and contracts towards Antarctica, while its negative phase the belt moves towards the Equator. Winds associated with the Antarctic oscillation cause oceanic upwelling of warm circumpolar deep water along the Antarctic continental shelf. This has been linked to ice shelf basal melt, representing a possible wind-driven mechanism that could destabilize large portions of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The Antarctic oscillation is currently in the most extreme positive phase that has occurred for over a thousand years. Recently this positive phase has been further intensifying, and this has been attributed to increasing greenhouse gas levels and later stratospheric ozone depletion. These large-scale alterations in the physical environment are “driving change through all levels of Antarctic marine food webs”. Ocean warming is also changing the distribution of Antarctic krill. Antarctic krill is the keystone species of the Antarctic ecosystem beyond the coastal shelf, and is an important food source for marine mammals and birds.

Coastal ecosystems are facing further changes because of rising sea levels. Some ecosystems can move inland with the high-water mark, but others are prevented from migrating due to natural or artificial barriers. This coastal narrowing, called coastal squeeze if human-made barriers are involved, can result in the loss of habitats such as mudflats and marshes. Mangroves and tidal marshes adjust to rising sea levels by building vertically using accumulated sediment and organic matter. If sea level rise is too rapid, they will not be able to keep up and will instead be submerged. Coral, important for bird and fish life, also needs to grow vertically to remain close to the sea surface in order to get enough energy from sunlight. So far it has been able to keep up, but might not be able to do so in the future. These ecosystems protect against storm surges, waves and tsunamis. Losing them makes the effects of sea level rise worse. Human activities, such as dam building, can prevent natural adaptation processes by restricting sediment supplies to wetlands, resulting in the loss of tidal marshes. When seawater moves inland, the coastal flooding can cause problems with existing terrestrial ecosystems, such as contaminating their soils. The Bramble Cay melomys is the first known land mammal to go extinct as a result of sea level rise.

Ocean salinity is a measure of how much dissolved salt is in the ocean. The salts come from erosion and transport of dissolved salts from the land. The surface salinity of the ocean is a key variable in the climate system when studying the global water cycle, ocean-atmosphere exchanges and ocean circulation, all vital components transporting heat, momentum, carbon and nutrients around the world. Cold water is more dense than warm water and salty water is more dense than freshwater. This means the density of ocean water changes as its temperature and salinity changes. These changes in density are the main source of the power that drives the ocean circulation.

Surface ocean salinity measurements taken since the 1950s indicate an intensification of the global water cycle with high saline areas becoming more saline and low saline areas becoming more less saline.

Ocean deoxygenation is an additional stressor on marine life. Ocean deoxygenation is the expansion of oxygen minimum zones in the oceans as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. The change has been fairly rapid and poses a threat to fish and other types of marine life, as well as to people who depend on marine life for nutrition or livelihood. Ocean deoxygenation poses implications for ocean productivity, nutrient cycling, carbon cycling, and marine habitats.

Ocean warming exacerbates ocean deoxygenation and further stresses marine organisms, limiting nutrient availability by increasing ocean stratification through density and solubility effects while at the same time increasing metabolic demand.

If more than one stressor is present the effects can be amplified. For example, the combination of ocean acidification and an elevation of ocean temperature can have a compounded effect on marine life far exceeding the individual harmful impact of either.

The direction and magnitude of the effects of ocean acidification, warming and deoxygenation on the ocean has been quantified by meta-analyses, and has been further tested by mesocosm studies. The mesocosm studies simulated the interaction of these stressors and found a catastrophic effect on the marine food web, namely, that the increases in consumption from thermal stress more than negates any primary producer to herbivore increase from more available carbon dioxide.

In marine environments, microbial primary production contributes substantially to CO2 sequestration. Marine microorganisms also recycle nutrients for use in the marine food web and in the process release CO2 to the atmosphere. Microbial biomass and other organic matter (remnants of plants and animals) are converted to fossil fuels over millions of years. By contrast, burning of fossil fuels liberates greenhouse gases in a small fraction of that time. As a result, the carbon cycle is out of balance, and atmospheric CO2 levels will continue to rise as long as fossil fuels continue to be burnt.

Changes in marine ecosystem dynamics are influenced by socioeconomic activities (for example, fishing, pollution) and human-induced biophysical change (for example, temperature, ocean acidification) and can interact and severely impact marine ecosystem dynamics and the ecosystem services they generate to society. Understanding these direct—or proximate—interactions is an important step towards sustainable use of marine ecosystems. However, proximate interactions are embedded in a much broader socioeconomic context where, for example, economy through trade and finance, human migration and technological advances, operate and interact at a global scale, influencing proximate relationships.

Shifting baselines arise in research on marine ecosystems because changes must be measured against some previous reference point (baseline), which in turn may represent significant changes from an even earlier state of the ecosystem. For example, radically depleted fisheries have been evaluated by researchers who used the state of the fishery at the start of their careers as the baseline, rather than the fishery in its unexploited or untouched state. Areas that swarmed with a particular species hundreds of years ago may have experienced long term decline, but it is the level a few decades previously that is used as the reference point for current populations. In this way large declines in ecosystems or species over long periods of time were, and are, masked. There is a loss of perception of change that occurs when each generation redefines what is natural or untouched.