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by Larry

May, 2007

Sea Life in Transition

Big changes are occurring in the world's deeps. Since the single-celled organisms of at least half a billion years ago, a long-term trend of life on earth has been to successfully mutate and transform from the simple to the complex. We like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of this development, though arguably any number of specialized creatures might vie for complex supremacy with our own species, i.e. dolphins or bats, with acoustic abilities far beyond our own; dogs or wolves with far better hearing and perhaps 1000 times our senses of smell, plus the brains to interpret the data in ways comparable to human views of subtle landscape variations; squid and cuttlefish, with eyes at least as complicated as our own and the ability to instantly vary their colorations to suit mood or environment; butterflies, with amazing wing patterns; hummingbirds, with nearly incredible flying capacities; sharks, so perfectly adapted as to have survived for hundreds of millions of year; migratory birds, whose fantastic memories allow them to almost exactly repeat migratory journeys of thousands of miles after one prior trip; or funguses that can take over the central nervous systems of wasps or ants and cause them to move where they want them to go. We are, then, one of a huge number of fairly complex creatures. And, from far back in prehistoric times, the seas have certainly reflected the huge diversity and complexity of life on earth.

Albeit at a first stage, we are now in the midst of only the sixth mass extinction in the ages of the sun's third planet. If the recent record of ocean life is indicative, this present time of extinction may disproportionately effect the more advanced types of beings. And in the wake of higher creatures' demise, scientists are noticing significant increases among the lesser or simpler kinds of life. The trend for ocean organisms is heading in the other direction from what we had come to expect, away from complexity and back in favor of greater simplicity.

Over the span of life's existence on the planet, there may have been several ebbs and flows, a kind of yin and yang interaction or balance between the relatively simple vs. complex. But now it seems the latter life forms are once again on the wane. If so, four main factors are thought responsible for the shift: pollution; over fishing; wetland destruction; and global warming.

Whatever the catalysts, as natural niches become vacant, nature tends to fill in the resulting voids. Those plants, animals, fungi, or other life examples that can adapt most quickly to the new conditions will, at least in the short-term, fare the best. Typically, it is the lower or simpler forms that dominate in such a competition. They have among the very oldest of DNA lines and so have within their chromosomes the greatest number of potential variations with which to adapt to new environmental circumstances. Also, they normally have much shorter life cycles than complex organisms and so in a very short time can satiate and accomodate still further a newly available environment, long before higher life forms have an opportunity to do so. Earlier, in healthy seas, a host of creatures would eat the simpler and often nuisance organisms, so that they would not become problematic. Now there may be little or nothing to limit their spread.

What sea creatures are we likely to notice taking over in areas that previously had healthy coral reefs, marine mammals, kelp forests, sea turtles, millions upon millions of edible fish, shellfish, or the abundant krill that other animals have depended upon for food? In fact, the transformation has already begun, and the answers are not favorable to ocean life as our kind has known and loved it for hundreds of thousands of years. In "The Rise of Slime," Kenneth R. Weiss points out that the oceans are being radically altered and that much of the sea life we might consider "good," closer to us in nature's great family tree, is being replaced by "bad" forms of algae, bacteria, and jellyfish.

Noxious examples abound:

  • Red tide blooms of harmful algae each year spoil swimming or fishing areas, or kill large numbers of marine mammals and other traditional sea life, in the Gulf of Mexico.

  • More often now, seaside tourist locations and ocean beaches are also needing to be closed due the presence in swimming areas and on the sand of numerous, painful jellyfish.

  • Cyanobacteria, similar to forms that have existed since nearly 3 billion years ago, can spread seafloor mats over a space as big as a stadium playing area in an hour and are having dramatically negative effects in diverse parts of the world, from the coastal areas of Australia to those of Sweden, exposing populations near the ocean to burning welts, choking fumes, temporary blindness, and so on.

  • Areas that used to be quite productive for fishing, shrimping, etc., now provide nets full of jellyfish that sting fishermen's eyes and reek like ammonia.

What can be done to correct the situation and restore the natural network that has sustained higher sea life? As with the multiple changes that apparently are occurring under the overall label of "global warming," there is no quick fix. Degradations to oceanic environments went unrecognized for long enough that many of their effects are now irreversible.

At best, the widespread adoption of much more environmentally favorable practices may forestall awhile the full extent of the transition. We are quickly returning to the type seas prevalent before the first creatures crawled out onto higher land, or before there were even vertebrates. Like the oil sector, the commercial ocean fishing industry may in the next few decades be on its last legs, unless before long we acquire a better taste than today for bacterial soups, algae noodles, or jellyfish sushi.

Source: The Rise of Slime. Kenneth R. Weiss in New Internationalist, Issue 397; January 2007.

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