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The Ocean is Broken: can we fix it?

Seventy per cent of the planet’s surface is water and yet we understand so little about it.  The 18th Byron Bay Writers’ Festival brought together Tim Flannery, Lisa-ann Gershwin and Ian Hoskins to discuss the state of the oceans. Gershwin’s book Stung! On Jellyfish blooms and the Future of the Oceans highlights the continuing irreversible change that are happening under the sea.

Gershwin warns that jellyfish blooms are now a part of the ocean seascape and this can only happen when the ecosystems we know are threatened by a range of human activities.

Tim Flannery – well known author of The Future Eaters – notes that the oceans are 500 times larger than the atmosphere and holds more dissolved gases. Disturbingly disregarded, the oceans are suffering from multiple problems.

Acidification means shell fish shells are getting eaten away; toxic dumping results in dead zones on the bottom of the ocean, and global warming threatens the existence of the Great Barrier Reef – an international treasure.

Flannery warns that the immensity of the oceanic systems means that once change begins it becomes irreversible.

Flannery stressed that a problem with researching oceans and understanding the full impact of change occurring within them is limited by the lack of knowledge on how they work.

The dead zones – caused by degradations wrought by human activity – is where the jellyfish blooms are most likely to occur, although not always. Jellyfish blooms are occurring in many places throughout the world but not always where they are expected.

A massive jellyfish bloom in 2012 saw the oceans from Broome to Exmouth in WA Australia covered with jellyfish for 13 months. Nobody knows why the jellyfish were there.

Gershwin’s ability to maintain her light mood with such heavy knowledge made the information more palatable. She emphasised that the jellyfish are not the problem. They are taking advantage of the drastic change in environmental factors.

Overfishing, toxic dumps and chemical run off cause loss of habitat and population of local species. International ships are also a concern; Gershwin referred to ships as mobile zoos, transporting jellyfish worldwide.

“We are in a war with the jellyfish for the oceans; and they have the home advantage,” she quipped.

While none of these illustrious authors could give a definitive answer on whether the ocean is broken, Flannery voiced his opinion. He believes that there is not enough research to provide a conclusive answer; however there were certainly enough warning signs to suggest that it was broken.

The West Antarctic ice sheet is destined to collapse; temperatures have already increased 0.9 degrees and there are no signs of that increase abating in the near future. A change of 1.5 degrees would see the end of the Great Barrier Reef.

Tim Flannery (left) and Ian Hoskins discussed the health of the oceans

Tim Flannery (left) and Ian Hoskins discussed the health of the oceans

Flannery went on to express his disdain for contemporary leaders for failing to take the initiative. In fact they are doing the opposite. The Carmichael Coal venture was recently approved which means that the Great Barrier Reef faces even more stressful impacts than hitherto.

It was an audience hushed by gravity when Flannery spoke: “We had better do something about these problems this decade. I don’t think we will have the option in the next.”

Australian historian and author, Ian Hoskins added that there was hope. He mentioned that Byron Bay has been foremost in the ongoing fight for the health of the oceans.

He remarks that the change in public opinion on whaling altered within one generation in this area. That shows that once the global community decides to address these problems, implementation could, indeed must, be swift.

RP Stoval is a student in Creative Writing at Southern Cross University. @RPStoval



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