Blog #8 Aquatic Biodiversity & Food, Soil & Pest Management

Sustaining Aquatic Biodiversity

What Are the Major Threats to Aquatic Biodiversity?

Our earth is mainly made of water, however we know very little about it. For instance, we have only explored about 5% of the earth’s oceans and it is estimated by Chris Bowler, a marine biologist, that only 1% of the aquatic life forms have been identified. Similarly, we have limited knowledge of freshwater biodiversity.  That being said, scientist have discovered three overarching patterns related to marine biodiversity: 1. the greatest marine biodiversity occurs in coral reefs, estuaries, and on the deep-ocean floor. 2. biodiversity is higher near the coasts than in the open sea because of the greater variety of producers and habitats in coastal areas. 3. biodiversity is generally higher in the bottom region of the ocean than in the surface region because of the greater variety of habitats and food sources on the ocean bottom.

Estuary: Partially enclosed coastal area at the mouth of a river where its freshwater, carrying fertile silt and runoff from the land, mixes with salty seawater

Perhaps it is obvious that the deep part of the ocean is the planet’s least explored environment – that is beginning to change. By the use of remotely operated deep-sea vehicles scientists are exploring the deepest regions of the sea and identifying new species. These scientists are adding a few thousand new species each year. Researching these poorly understood aquatic systems is referred to as a research frontier that could lead to both ecological and economic benefits.


As we have learned that the acronym ‘HIPPCO’ can be remembered in regards to the threat of biodiversity in terrestrial system, similarly the world’s marine and freshwater ecosystems can use the same HIPPCO acronym. The ‘H’ refers to habitat loss and degradation.  Human activities are placing severe pressure on coral reefs, in coastal wetlands and marshes, in mangrove forests, or in rivers – where approximately 90% of ocean living fish spawn. Shockingly, scientists reported in 2006 that these vital coastal habitats are disappearing at rates 2-10 times higher than the rate of the loss of tropical forests. Additionally, the rate of coastal wetland destruction is highest industrial countries. The many hundred of marine species are threatened by shore development, pollution, and ocean acidifacation resulting from the increased levels of carbon dioxide emitted by human activities.

Similarly, to the significant habitats that coral reefs provide, coastal sea-grass beds are another important habitat undergoing pressure from human activities. These coastal sea-grass beds provide nurseries for many species of fish and shellfish. However, a 2009 study reported that 58% of these habitats have been degraded or destroyed, mostly by dredging and coastal development. Our text reports the estimate made by William Dennison that every 30 minutes the world loses an area of sea grass the size of a soccer field!

Seagrass beds off the south tip of South Water Caye, Belize

Like the pressure human activities are placing on coral reefs and sea-grass, sea-bottom habitats are threatened by dredging operations and trawler fishing boats. These trawler fishing boats drag huge nets with heavy chains and steel plates over ocean bottoms to harvest a bottom fish and shellfish, acting much like a bulldozer to bottom of the sea. The trawlers damage areas of ocean floor many times larger than the total global area of forests clear-cut annually (class blog question). Similar to the damage produced by trawler fishing boats, dam building and excessive water withdrawal from rivers for irrigation and urban water supplies are the main causes of damage done to freshwater aquatic zones.

The ‘I’ in the HIPPCO acronym referring to the degradation of aquatic biodiversity refers to the deliberate or accidental introduction of harmful invasive species. Two-thirds of fish extinction in the United States is due to bioinvaders, which cost the country an average amount of $16 million per hour. Ballast water, the water that is stored in tanks of large cargo ships, house these invaders across the seas, dumping the invaders from one harbor into another. An example of this type of invasion contributed by ballast water is the brown seaweed called Undaria, that has invaded the coast of California. The seaweed may have gotten stuck on the bottom on a ship’s hull and traveled across the oceans from Asia to California where it forms thick forests inhabiting the native kelp forests (a habitat for sea otters). Another way invasive species are introduced is from consumers, sometimes unknowingly. The text provides an example of Asian swamp eel invading the waterways of south Florida most likely dumped from home pet aquariums. Due to this eel’s rapid reproduction and survival traits it could easily take over much of the waterways of the southeastern US.

In my restoration ecology course at University of Washington, I learned about examples of humans introducing invasive species without knowing or meaning – such as when a hiker tracks in seeds from their boots from one forest/location to another forest location. This aided the spread of the Himalayan blackberry that has played a huge role in the degradation of biodiversity in Washington.

Another threat to biodiversity is population growth and pollution. The first P in HIPPCO associated with threats to biodiversity is the harm created from the coastal population growth. Coastal population growth destroys aquatic habitat and increases pollution to the coastal areas. With more boats, off-shore construction, recreation and oil and gas exploration and drill wells, oceans become more crowded and the oceans become noisier, both causing serious problems for whales and other marine mammals. The second P in HIPPCO referring to threats to biodiversity is pollutions caused by land-based coastal activities. With an increase in pollution, nitrogen in the ocean increases causing more algal blooms, fish die-offs and degradation of ecosystem services. Additionally, an increased population of humans that manufacture plastic, causes more pollution of plastic, plastic of all different types. It is estimated that 1 million seabirds and 100,000 mammals and sea turtles die each year due to plastic items dumped into the sea. Furthermore, this plastic pollution is often consumed by birds and other wildlife which often lead to their deaths.

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A shocking example briefly mentioned that is associated with the death of birds to to plastic is the work created by Chris Jordan. His photographs illustrate the harm created by human’s mass production of plastic.

The C in HIPPCO, or climate change, continues the threat upon aquatic biodiversity due to the effects of the rise in sea level. Since the sea levels continue to rise due to climate change, more coral reefs, mangroves and swamps are destroyed. Likewise, the O in HIPPCO refers to overfishing and it’s harmful impact on aquatic biodiversity. The hunt for fish has dramatic increased throughout the years all over the global. The text states an astonishing figure – modern industrial fishing has caused 80% of the depletion of some wild fish species in only 10-15 years. Insane! This practice is extremely unsustainable. A recent study showed that including every nation– overfishing of the world’s global oceans is taking 57% more than the sustainable yield.

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So what can we do? The text explores a few options of how we can sustain aquatic biodiversity and combat all of these devastating factors at play (HIPPCO). We can use laws/regulations, promote economic incentives that protect aquatic species, create marine reserves aiding in the protection of ecosystems and use community-based integrated coastal management.

Of all the options presented by the text, above all else I would instill laws and regulations to protect endangered and threatened marine species. I understand the advantages to promoting economic incentives, but those incentives are mute to people/industries stuck in their overfishing habits due to the easy habitual factor or cultural reasons. Internal laws and treaties would be the most beneficial regulation to set to fight overfishing.  I understand that it is difficult for all nations to comply with efforts to stop overfishing, especially nations that highly rely on the fishing industries for economic growth.  A way to get other nations to involve in the treaties and placing international law is starting an organization like that involves people all over the world standing up for a cause and putting pressure on their goverment to change laws and regulations. Additionally, we should consider ways to protect and sustain wetlands and freshwater ways. Both wetlands and freshwater ways are highly impacted by human activities. Again, I think the best way to protect these areas is through regulation.

As a vegan, I would prefer to do away with fisheries altogether…nevertheless, consumer demand is too high for such dreams. Thus, we need to consider ways that we can manage and sustain marine fisheries. In doing so we much improve monitoring of fish and shellfish populations, cooperative fisheries management nationally, reduce fish subsides and direct consumer choices in regards to seafood choices. Although education is key in solving any problem, I think in the case of overfishing, we need to promote our government to stop encouraging overfishing and stop government subsidies for fishers.

Food, Soil & Pest Management

The text defines food security as people’s daily access to enough nutritious food to live active and healthy lives. Although we currently produce a food surplus that is enough to feed every person on the earth, sadly only one of every six person in less-developed nations are not getting enough to eat because of unequal access to available food sources. This lack of access to food is therefore labeled- food insecurity. Persons living in food insecurity live with chronic hunger and poor nutrition and the main cause of their food insecurity is poverty. Poverty prevents poorer people to grow or buy enough food to sustain their daily lives. To obtain food security for all people in all nations we must greatly reduce the harmful environmental and health effects of industrialized agriculture.

People suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition, do not get enough vitamins and minerals and people have problems with eating too much. I’m sure I have seen individuals suffering from hunger, malnutrition or lacking enough vitamins and minerals–but above all else I have seen people with the problem of overnutrition, in other words, their food intakes exceeds energy used and causes excess body fat. All of these above issue end in the same way — lower life expectancy, greater susceptibility to disease and illness, and lower productivity and life quality.

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During this semester I have been working on a project for my African Americans Studies courses that is researching access to healthy food in Harlem and what it means for that community. So far my research has found many residents in Harlem eat fast food for convenience, price and comfortability. My research is honing in on answers I have received from individuals claiming McDonalds to be a comfortable space for them — what that means for their food insecurity.

The methods for our production of food has dramatically changed throughout the years as the world becomes more and more industrialized. We have created this shift from traditional farming methods to industrialized agriculture. Our shift to this industrialized methodology drives from our increase need for food.  There are three systems that supply food for people all over the world: Croplands; rangelands, pastures, feedlots (meat producers); and fisheries and aquaculture (fish farming). Surprisingly, plants and animal species are a small percentage of those three systems. Their main crop is the major grains (rice, wheat, and corn), which provide 48% of the calories consumed by people directly. Since we do not depend on a variety of food sources, by our own choice, we violate the biodiversity principle of sustainability.  Although this modern industrialized agriculture produces large amounts of food quickly and at reasonable prices it is not sustainable. It relies too heavily on nonrenewable resources, does not promote biodiversity and neglects the conservation and recycling of nutrients in topsoil.

There are so many hidden costs to the way the we currently produce food. It difficult to education and truly change the way people consider and think about the way their food is produced. I think a huge way we could combat this is adding in the hidden costs to the price of our food. For example, the more fossil fuels used and greenhouse gases produced, the more the price of the food is. Versus food grown sustainably and locally that would have a lower cost, because the ‘hidden cost’/the production impact is more lower than industrial farming.

Now that our agriculture has shifted from traditional methods to industrialized food production a rise in environmental problems occurs. The environmental impacts due to our current agriculture we see are degradation, desertification, water and air pollution, climate change (from greenhouse gas emissions), soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. Industrialized agriculture’s impact on biodiversity causes loss and degradation of grasslands, forests and wetlands in cultivated areas; fish are harmed and killed from pesticide runoff; farmers kill wild predators to protect their livestock; and the loss of genetic diversity of wild crop strains replace by monoculture stains has a severe impact on biodiversity.

The production of meat (and animal products, like eggs and milk) has increased more than four folds, since the average meat consumption per person had doubled since 1961. An astonishing, 56 billion animals are raised and slaughtered for human consumption.  It is estimated that by 2050 the global meat production is likely to double. This meat is produced either in unfenced rangelands or industrialized factory farm systems (CAFOs). These CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are crowded feedlots, that produce a large number of animals fatten animals quickly by feeding them a variety of grain, fishmeal, and fish oil–their food normally contains high amounts of growth hormones and antibiotics. These livestock animals are raised and spend their entire lives in these overcrowded cages causing a large amount of animal waste that creates a serious environmental impact

I became a vegetarian over 3 years ago (now a vegan as of this year) to stand against the harmful environmental impacts caused by meat and fish production in America and other developed countries. I came to this life altering decision when I decided meat consumption is platform for health issues of Americas and after becoming aware that meat production is the leading cause of global warming because of the high amounts of greenhouse gases that it produces. Therefore, I decided to vote with by dollar by no longer contributing to this cruel and dirty industry. Since turning to vegetarianism then to veganism, I’m discovering that I am more healthy because of it–probably due to the harmful ways that meat is produced in our country, using such high amounts of antibiotics and hormones. Additionally, I’m glad to no longer contribute to such an inhumane industry, treating animals as if they were not living creatures, but merely pieces in a factory line. I think this shift in diet has helped me as an environmentalist, and grow into who I am today.

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So how can we improve food security and produce food more sustainably?

A vegan diet and eating locally. I think a big way to promote sustainable food and improve food security is to empower low income neighborhoods. I think one way we could do this is promote rooftop gardens in low income neighborhood in large cities like NYC. I think organic farming does help with sustainability and human (and animal) health, but I think eating locally needs to be in the forefront of the efforts to eat and produce food more sustainably. Especially since the USDA organic label, is exactly that–a label, one that the meaning behind can be changed and altered as regulations change. In other words, just because the label says that it is USDA organic, it does not necessarily mean that it has been grown without any pesticides or harmful chemicals. Additionally, with eating locally, as I have stated above–the way to food security and food sustainability is to EAT LESS MEAT! If only Americans (and people in other developed nations) lowered their meat consumption, we would probably be healthier and definitely be more sustainable!

Two Class Blog Questions:

  1. Does the higher amount of biodiversity on the lower/bottom region of the ocean have anything to do with human activities occurring so close to upper portion of the ocean?

  2. Now that we know the degradation to the bottom of the ocean floor is larger than the total global area of forest clear cut annually – why is it that it seems like more organizations/people/activist are more concern with clear cutting than the damage done by trawlers?

Go Further: CAFOs,  Animal Liberation & ‘Fork Over Knives’ documentary


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