The UN proclaimed March 3rd as World Wildlife Day and this year the emphasis is on “Life below water: for people and planet”. Marine and freshwater ecosystems across the world are undergoing rapid and drastic changes from a multitude of human activities. Pollution and accelerated climate change are threatening the collapse of these habitats and driving their flora and fauna to the brink of extinction. The onus is on all of us to avert this catastrophe for our own sake because our survival is inextricably linked to theirs.
Climate change impacts aquatic ecosystems in multiple ways by changing their physical and chemical characteristics (increasing temperatures, acidification, decreasing oxygen levels, increased evaporation, changes in salinity, alteration of currents, etc.). These in turn have a profound effect on the aquatic flora and fauna by (i) changing the availability & location of food, (ii) disrupting their reproductive abilities, transforming their breeding grounds, and (iii) altering phenological events such as migration. In February, a rare hoodwinker sunfish washed up on a beach in Santa Barbara, California far away from its home in the temperate waters of the southern hemisphere off the coast of Chile or New Zealand (1). About the same time, a young humpback whale, a species generally seen by the coast of northern Brazil between July and November, was found washed up there, when it should have moved on to Antarctica between December and June to reproduce (2).
Overfishing, use of seismic airguns in deep ocean for oil and gas exploration, blast fishing with dynamite or other explosives, (il)legal trafficking of aquatic species (e.g. the discovery last Sunday of over 1500 exotic turtles and tortoises, some wrapped in duct tape, in a passenger’s luggage at Manila airport (3)), etc. add to the woes of marine life.
Loss of coastal farmland due to rising sea levels is another consequence of climate change. “Of climate change’s many plagues – drought, insects, fires, floods – saltwater intrusion in particular sounds almost like a biblical curse. Rising seas, sinking earth and extreme weather are conspiring to cause salt from the ocean to contaminate aquifers and turn formerly fertile fields barren.”(5)
Freshwater ecosystems like rivers and lakes are facing their own perils in the form of accidental or deliberate discharges from industrial facilities, power plants, sewage treatment plants, run-off, etc. On my recent trip to the Amazon in northeastern Peru, I saw buoyant garbage bags (some tossed from the ferries plying the River between Ecuador and Brazil) and disposable beverage and food containers and cutlery among the flotsam. Some of this trash is driven deep into the rainforest during the high water season while the remainder winds its way into the Atlantic Ocean. Species that live in water (e.g. dolphins) and those that depend on water for their food sources (e.g. kingfishers) are directly at risk of dying from such pollution.
Then there is the pollution from cultural traditions (e.g. setting balloons aloft in celebrations or memorials which I personally witnessed on the Potomac River) or from religious practices (bathing, performing rituals, etc. in the rivers in India). It is time to revisit all traditions and practices and let go of their polluting components. We rely on the products and services of the freshwater ecosystems for our survival and yet we wantonly pollute them. This short cartoon animation https://youtu.be/WfGMYdalClU captures some of the human activities that harass, maim, or kill other species and destroy the environment.
We are all individually and collectively responsible for the current dire state of our environment and it is imperative that we take immediate corrective action. The first step in doing that is to reduce our consumption and waste generation. I for one do not use any single-use plastics, have reduced the trash I generate, compost all my organic waste, adopted a vegetarian diet, and make a conscious effort to reduce the amount of water, electricity, and other resources that I use daily. I am always mindful of how my daily activities affect other species that I share this planet with. What are you doing to clean up the environment and help other species survive? Tell us of your activities and engage others! Apply for a grant from the Society for Biodiversity Preservation to extend your activities and leave a positive footprint on the environment!
- Hoodwinker sunfish: Rare fish washes up on California beach. 02/03/2019, British Broadcasting Corporation.
- Humpback whale found dead in Amazon jungle baffles scientists. 02/25/2019, News Corp Australia Network.
- Kennedy, 03/4/2019. Filipino Authorities Find More Than 1,500 Smuggled Turtles And Tortoises. National Public Radio.
- Kaplan, 03/01/2019. Ruined crops, salty soil: How rising seas are poisoning North Carolina’s farmland. The Washington Post.