Something Fishy About Ocean Catastrophe Narratives
A team of scientists, in a groundbreaking analysis of data from hundreds of sources, has concluded that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and the animals living in them. [NY Times source]
The world’s oceans cover seventy percent of the Earth. Those looking for problems along coastlines and out on the Great Big Sea are likely to them. But doom and gloom stories claiming general decline across ocean ecosystems are overstated according to a December 31, 2014 study, “Reconsidering Ocean Calamities, “published in the Oxford journal BioScience,
The proliferation of a number of pressures affecting the ocean is leading to a growing concern that the state of the ocean is compromised, which is driving society into pessimism. Ocean calamities are disruptive changes to ocean ecosystems that have profound impacts and that are widespread or global in scope. However, scrutiny of ocean calamities to ensure that they can be confidently attributed to human drivers, operate at widespread or global scales, and cause severe disruptions of marine social-ecosystems shows that some of the problems fail to meet these requirements or that the evidence is equivocal.
However, an analysis of some of the calamities reported in doom and gloom media accounts (e.g., table 1) shows some—at times, severe—disconnect with actual observations. For instance, there is no evidence that ocean acidification has killed jellyfish predators, nor that jellyfish are taking over the ocean, and predictions that the killer algae, Caulerpa taxifolia, was going to devastate the Mediterranean ecosystem have not been realized, despite claims to the contrary from the media (table 1). It may be, therefore, that some of the calamities composing the syndrome of collapse of coastal ecosystems may not be as severe as is portrayed in some accounts.
The authors argue that good science requires skeptical analysis of claims that ocean ecosystems are being harmed by human activity:
Therefore, skeptical scrutiny of ocean calamities must involve an analysis to ensure that the following elements be met: their attribution to pressures associated with human drivers, their global or widespread nature, and their disruption of linked social-ecological systems. We illustrate this process of skeptical scrutiny by providing, for each of these components, succinct examples of cases supported by strong, equivocal, or weak evidence. We then discuss the processes that may lead to perpetuating the perception of ocean calamities even in cases in which the evidence may be equivocal or weak.