While the ocean seems like an unfathomably big and very wild place, with plenty of room to absorb human influence, a new study from the journal Current Biology says otherwise: only 13 percent of the oceans are still considered wild places, with little evidence of human influence or interference, or “mostly free of human disturbance,” according to the study.
What does this mean?
Basically that about 87 percent of the planet’s oceans don’t function as they should, or normally would, because of the impact of human activity from things like shipping, fertilizer getting into the seas, overfishing, sea floor mining, the list goes on and on.
This means poorly functioning oceanic ecosystems, with potentially devastasting consequences for sea life as we know it, including the fish that feeds billions of people, and reef formation, which not only provides surf, but protect coastlines. But there are many more negative impacts.
Unsurprisingly, the polar regions, the Arctic and Antarctic, are among the most intact ocean ecosystems, though as bits of those zones unthaw and allow for more shipping traffic, that’s probably not going to last long.
Lots of this impact too comes in the form of increased carbon dioxide. Something like a quarter of all the carbon we pump into the air ends up absorbed by the ocean, which in turn messes with shelled organisms and reef formation.
Shockingly, this study apparently didn’t take into account plastic pollution, which considering nearly ten tons per year of plastic finds its way to the sea, means that 13 percent number could actually be much lower.
“Nowhere is safe," James Watson of the University of Queensland, an author on the study, said in a video about the report.
"If you've got a low-grade fever and a knife wound on your arm and a broken leg, and you start adding these things up, each one is pretty bad, but together you're in really bad shape,” Ben Halpern of UC Santa Barbara, and an author of the study, told the Washington Post. “You need to hurry to the doctor. And that’s the same as idea as what we're talking about going on in the ocean."
Not exactly good news for ocean lovers, or people who appreciate the careful balance that keeps life on this planet functioning, but the ocean is a big, adaptive place, and scientists are clear we can do much to turn these numbers around.
We just need to want to.